Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cities in Motion Review

Cities in Motion, developed by Colossal Order and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Impressively detailed citizen itineraries and traffic data, robust feedback, freeform routes and layouts using a variety of transit types, challenging, numerous optional scenario objectives, map editor, generally accessible interface, $20
The Not So Good: Only four cities included, some waiting for profits or objectives, tedious multi-step route creation and vehicle assignment, can't manually control vehicle spacing
What say you? A meticulously thorough transit simulation: 7/8

SimCity is one of my favorite games, successfully combining my nerdy interest in computer with my nerdy interest in roads. There have only been the occasional feeble attempt at a remake, so the hole in my soul has yet to be filled. Along comes Cities in Motion: while it doesn’t allow you to place residential zones and power grids, you do have complete control of each town’s mass transit system, shuttling passengers to their destinations in an efficient and (hopefully) profitable manner. The game takes place across some major cities in Europe, partially because the United States shuns any notion of mass transit. Does this management simulation provide entertaining transit planning?

Cities in Motion features some nice graphics. While it doesn’t strive for total realism (there is a slight cartoon slant here), the result is a fine assortment of crisp, detailed elements. The high level of city detail permeates throughout the presentation, from the varied buildings to the selection of cars and tiny people who inhabit your town. Of course, the buildings don’t change much visually from 1920 to 2010, but that might be the case in the older European cities. Also, the cities are more caricatures of their real selves than super-detailed satellite replicas, so a lot of the towns look entirely too square. The shadow effects are done well, and the animations are noticeable without being overstated. There are no time-of-day or weather effects, as Europe is permanently bathed in perpetual sunshine, but this is a small omission in an otherwise solid graphical presentation. As for the sound, there are a lot of ambient sounds and traffic effects that are done nicely, as long as you are zoomed in far enough. The music is the usual assortment of inoffensive tycoon-style tunes that are neither memorable nor annoying. Overall, I was pleased with what Cities in Motion brought to the table.

Cities in Motion places you in charge of mass transit in four of Europe’s major cities, tasked with making an efficient and profitable system that will be talked about by nerds for years to come. You’ll start in the tutorial, which does a decent job teaching the basics of the game’s interface. The campaign mode presents twelve missions covering one hundred years of mass transit; once you are successful in each five-or-so year period, the scenario will be available for isolated play (with the same objectives). Cities in Motion also comes with a sandbox mode, free of structured play (very reminiscent of SimCity). The campaign missions contain plenty of specific optional objectives to complete, which usually involve linking a particular building to your mass transit system. Completing these doesn’t impact your success in the overall scenario; rather, they reward cash and raise approval ratings. Each scenario comes with three difficulty settings: these control starting funds, loan flexibility, and refunds for demolishing things (easy difficulty also adds funding from the city), and I found “normal” to be quite enough challenge. Sadly, Cities in Motion only ships with four cities (Amsterdam, Berlin, Helsinki, and Vienna); while this is technically enough, I always crave more, more, more. Luckily, there is an extensive map editor included with the game that lets you plan out the city of your dreams (or nightmares). Why spend months carefully crafting another setting when the user community will do it for you?! Joking aside, the features of Cities in Motion eclipse the very modest $20 asking price.

One of the most important aspects of any simulation game is the interface, and Cities in Motion does a great (and almost fantastic) job presenting lots of information in a consistent and accessible manner. Your main tasks will be laying track, placing stops, designing lines, and assigning vehicles. This process can get a bit tedious and repetitive: since each process is independent of each other (meaning placing stops will not automatically make a new line or assign a new vehicle to those stops), you’ll have to retrace your steps multiple times to get a new route up and running. The game uses a different highlighted color for each transit type (blue for buses, red for trams, and so on), making routes easy to identify on the map. Hovering your mouse over a stop will also display the average satisfaction level of your customers for each line serviced at that particular place. More detailed information is also available: usage, profit, wait times, and happiness can all be sorted in the handy stop and vehicle roster spreadsheet. Cities in Motion also gives you lots of graphs and numbers covering your budget, loans, energy usage, wages, advertising, route coverage, popularity, monthly profit, reputation, debt, company value, economic growth, electricity price, fuel price, population, unemployment rate, and individual customer data. There is no shortage of information here, but the data isn’t so detailed that the game is trivially easy. In addition, while setting the rates for each transport type, colors are used to indicate low, medium, and high fares, making it easy to determine at a glance if you are charging too much. A news ticker reports important events, and the mini-map and mini-camera are useful to looking far away and close up (though the game needs to zoom out more in the main display). There are a number of color-coded map modes available, displaying the location of homes, workplaces, shopping, leisure, government buildings, and traffic for each citizen group. The game removes the colored map display when layout down stops; this requires you to either memorize where heavily used buildings are or back out and activate the colored maps again and again. In general, though, the interface is excellent and makes accessing a ton of information easy.

There are five forms of mass transit you can utilize across your cities in motion. Buses are cheap but are subject to traffic, while trams are more expensive (plus restricted to tracks laid down in the streets or medians) but carry more passengers. The subway (including elevated rail) is probably the best method: high capacity and accessible anywhere, but very costly. More exotic means include ferries and helicopters (helicopters? really?). Each transportation class has a variety of vehicles to choose from that vary according to capacity, attractiveness, fuel consumption, repair frequency, speed, and (of course) cost. While you can add the vehicles of your choice to each line, you actually have no control of where they appear in the route: you just have to luck out and hope the buses are evenly spaced. The stops can be upgraded to offer covered or luxury queue areas, handy for high-wait areas. While not a comprehensive selection of mass transit methods, the public transport options are many and cover all strategic and planning situations.

The quality of your system determines the company’s reputation. There seems to be a pretty obvious relationship between wait times and customer satisfaction, so the key of Cities in Motion seems to be to create efficient lines that service a wide number of individuals. There are seven customer classes, each with different needs: blue collar, white collar, business people, students, tourists, retirees, and dropouts. Each individual in the game has a specific home and destination (they will actually drive if it's a better option); this level of detail is quite appreciated (and a bit impressive) and makes the congestion encountered in Cities in Motion not seem arbitrary or pre-scripted. The residents of each city seem eager to hop on a bus or train: I never had to wait long for my stops to become very overcrowded, and as long as you place routes in areas of heavy use, then most months you’ll be able to turn a profit. While it is fairly easy to make money, it is quite difficult to make everyone happy: long waits are very common when starting out, and simply adding more buses doesn’t work if the surface traffic is jammed. When buses only carry eight people and there are 112 people waiting at a stop, you have a problem. Thus, good planning is required to maximize both the efficiency and profitability of your mass transit system. Cities in Motion involves some waiting for funds to accumulate or the next objective to appear, but time can be accelerated. Overall, Cities in Motion has a great combination of design flexibility, detailed customer attributes, data presentation, and challenging difficulty.

Cities in Motion is a very good traffic and transit planning simulation. It starts with design freedom: despite not being able to change anything about the roads or buildings (other than bulldozing them), you can create routes for buses, subways, trams, boats, and even helicopters where you wish, giving the user complete control over their transit dynasty. The varied vehicle types all have their plusses and minuses, typically exchanging efficiency and capacity for cost. The mostly user-friendly interface provides a ton of information, organized into sortable charts (like satisfaction and average wait times at each station) and graphs. Cities in Motion also features very detailed stats on your citizens: each resident has a specific itinerary, and chooses their form of transit based on what you have provided nearby. The game is challenging if you don’t design efficient routes and keep track of your finances: planning bus routes to utilize your busiest roads might not be the best idea. The twelve-mission-long campaign offers a lot of optional side missions that reward players who bother connecting outlying portions of the town with additional cash and approval. The sandbox mode is also available for those who like a less structured experience. The most disappointing aspect of Cities in Motion is the small roster of cities: there are only four, but the developers have included a map editor, so get crackin’! Finally, your cities in motion look nice while they are in motion. Overall, fans of transit simulations will be quite pleased with Cities in Motion, and for only $20, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.