Thursday, February 11, 2010

Virtual City Review

Virtual City, developed and published by G5 Entertainment.
The Good: Robust resource chains, must balance income with pollution and resident happiness, unambiguous and varied scenario conditions, generally fantastic interface, clear objectives, sandbox mode, your advisor is pretty hot
The Not So Good: I don't care for the music, repetitive after a while
What say you? Don't let the $10 price tag fool you: this is a comprehensive economic city builder and resource transportation game: 7/8

City builders seem to come in two flavors: resident-focused games like SimCity and Cities XL and resource-focused games like Grand Ages: Rome. In the former, you concentrate on building houses and services for those houses (employment, police, schools, et cetera). In the latter, you attend to producing goods at certain businesses and consuming them at others, earning you fat stacks of cash in the process. Virtual City is a combination of both of those city builder types with a pinch of click management for good measure. If we can’t rely on traditional big-budget publishers to crank out quality city builders, then we must turn to the casual market with their low, low prices. How does Virtual City and its $10 price tag stack up against more expensive entries in the genre?

Virtual City resorts to an isometric 2-D perspective for its visuals, and it works well. This is due to a great level of detail that permeates throughout the game: all of the buildings, vehicles, and scenery look great. Items are also animated nicely, producing a great (albeit not realistic) setting for the game. Virtual City is low resolution, but running it in a window is just fine and dandy. The sound design is worse off: the effects are fine, but I immediately turned off the overly chipper music. Yeah, that’s personal taste, but since this is my review, you’re stuck with it! Ha! Overall, Virtual City certainly delivers $10 worth of value in terms of graphics.

Virtual City puts you in charge of communities across the nation, making money by transporting goods and residents. The campaign is very linear, unlocking new cities in a set order. The game uses real U.S. cities scattered across five states in such exotic locations as Michigan, although the in-game representations hold no similarities to their real-life counterparts other than name (in fact, the game recycles some maps for multiple towns). There are ten or so missions per state, producing a somewhat lengthy campaign. One of the best features of Virtual City is the clear, explicit, and varied goals: not only does the game explain exactly what needs to be done in order to progress on to the next town, but the actual objectives never become repetitive (although the core gameplay might). Instead of more open-ended gameplay like you would see in a city builder like SimCity, the specific objectives of Virtual City add a lot to the appeal of the game. Attaining an expert rating, accomplished by completing the objectives within a set time limit, is balanced well: I usually had less than a minute (and usually seconds) left. Unfortunately, Virtual City lacks randomized maps, but it does contain five large maps for open-ended sandbox play, one for each state, that are unlocked as you complete the campaign. While the longevity of Virtual City isn’t infinite due to the lack of random maps, the campaign is entertaining and diverse enough to keep you interested for a while.

One of the things that makes or breaks a city builder is the interface, and Virtual City thankfully has an excellent one with only a couple of missteps. The game tries its best to make the somewhat complex resource chains visible to the player: when you select a truck for a new route, icons above each business indicate whether their goods are currently being transported with a green check. Once an origin is selected, an appropriate destination is automatically highlighted; this makes creating efficient routes a breeze. In addition, all of your vehicles are shown in the bottom of the interface at all times, so you can see exactly what they are doing without having to scour the map. What Virtual City needs is a list of all of the buildings with all of their checkmarks in one spot, like the ledger in Europa Universalis. This would make resource transportation fool-proof; I know I always forget to transport one good that holds up production at all of my other facilities. Virtual City also has on-screen indicators for missing road connections, disease, fire, and garbage, making it easy to remedy those sticky situations. Two other minor complains: Virtual City lacks a mini-map (but maps are small enough to keep tabs on things) and placing buildings does not auto-bulldoze trees. Otherwise, though, I really liked the interface that Virtual City offers.

Most of your money in Virtual City will be made by transporting goods between businesses. The game features seven product chains, from pies to furniture to the horseless carriage. In order for the end product to be successfully produced, you need to transport all of the intermediate pieces. Example: magazines sold at the shopping mall come from a printing factory, which gets paper from a paper factory (which gets wood from a sawmill and salvage from a recycling plant) and paint from a paint factory (which gets oil from an oil derrick). Got it? While there are only seven finished products in the game, the chains are complex and the maps are small so it’s enough. An industry can be used in more than one chain, adding to the confusion, and you can transport goods to and from neighboring cities. Houses can be built for your residents; businesses actually don’t require population, but you can make money by transporting people to places of interest by bus like shopping malls and stadiums. The environment can be improved by placing fountains and plazas, and fires and disease can be countered with fire stations and hospitals, respectively (interestingly, there is no crime in Virtual City). An alternative for fires and disease is to click on them; this is the small click management part of Virtual City, and it’s kind of annoying, but it gives you something to do during the small instances of waiting for resources to accumulate. Buildings can be upgraded to increase production and (strangely) decrease pollution. There are three vehicles to choose from: trucks, dumpsters, and buses. A truck can only transport a single good between two businesses, so most of your fleet will consist of trucks. It is important to make sure that your trucks are upgraded to the same level as the businesses they service in order to maximize efficiency and profits. Dumspters must be used to transport garbage from every building to the recycling plant, and buses are used to transport residents to entertainment facilities.

In addition to satisfying the objectives and simply making money, you must also pay attention to the environmental and happiness ratings. Happiness is increased by transporting people by bus to entertainment locations (this is like the third time I’ve said this…pay attention!) and the environmental rating is increased by upgrading existing industrial buildings and building pretty things like trees and fountains. There is a huge cheat in the game for happiness: if you have a plaza and enough money, you can queue up fireworks (or hot dogs thrown from a balloon…seriously) one right after another, driving your happiness up to insanely high levels. This is a way to bypass actually making a good city and simply use all of your cash; I don’t like it, but it did help me beat a number of scenarios. Virtual City is well paced, as there is usually very little waiting, maybe a minute or two at the end of the game, which can be tense as the expert timer counts down. After each scenario, you can spend points earned by reaching a high score on new buildings and environmental assets. Unfortunately, you have no idea which ones you’ll actually need in the next level: it made me kind of mad to waste points on a better oil derrick when the next scenario didn’t even use one. But this is a minor complaint in what is otherwise quite an entertaining game.

Virtual City takes good aspects from previous city builders and combines them into an effective package. The resource chains are complex enough to keep the game interesting, but simple enough to reduce confusion of newcomers. The interface helps the learning process, clearly displaying what each truck is transporting and areas of the map that need attention. I’d like to have a comprehensive list of all buildings and auto-bulldoze trees when placing new structures, but these are minor complaints overall. The game succeeds because you have to make money while keeping the environmental and entertainment ratings high. This means you have to balance industry and the landscaping of your town so it doesn’t become a polluted craphole. The fifty mission campaign can get repetitive, but the clear objectives are varied enough to keep you interested for most of the game. Fans of economic city builder games will find great value for $10.