Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Cities XL 2012 Review

Cities XL 2012, developed and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: New buildings and maps
The Not So Good: Zero gameplay improvements, 3-D building import utility requires expensive 3ds Max 2008 program
What say you? A modification tool and new maps do not make this edition of the city building series worth it with no major changes
For owners of any Cities XL game: 2/8
For newcomers to the series: 5/8

Cities XL tried to combine the online features of a MMO with a city builder, and it failed miserably. Its simplicity blended with a $10-a-month fee for a chat room spelt early doom, and doom it was. The pieces were picked up by Focus Home Interactive, which bundled a handful of new features in a 2011 version (while removing multiplayer), and the series returns with Cities XL 2012. This newest iteration adds even more buildings and maps with modding tools for the aspiring tinkerer. In addition, owners of Cities XL 2011 won’t feel completely ripped off, as they can get the game at a discounted expansion. New maps and buildings are nice and all (I guess), but has the fundamental gameplay been enhanced enough to make this a notable city builder series?

Cities XL 2012 uses the same engine as previous Cities XL games, which still holds up after two years. The varied maps consist of different environments that look impressive from afar and up close. You can still see significant pop-in (especially with traffic, turning from brown boxes into cars as you zoom in) as you come closer to the ground, but the street-level view is still immersive. The 2012 edition adds 300 new buildings to existing types for an overall total of 1,000, making your city appear more varied as the same building models are recycled less frequently. Performance leaves a lot to be desired: significant pausing when placing newly zoned areas is common. The reason for this is that Cities XL 2012 (like its predecessor) uses only one core, which is insane in an age of multi-core processors. The sound effects and music appear to be identical, if similar, to previous offerings, bringing your city to life in an appropriate manner. While the buildings add more diversity to your town landscape, the rest of the visuals remains the same, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

So, what do you get in Cities XL 2012? First: fifteen new maps, for a total of sixty. While I would like to see randomly generated maps or at least a map editor, sixty large maps should keep you busy for a while. Next: the aforementioned 300 new buildings that make your cities look more diverse. Finally: “mod tools.” Now, when I heard this, I envisioned an in-game (or executable) program that allows you to edit maps and create your own buildings. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that it’s just PDF instructions and an importer tool that allows you to bring in 3-D models from 3ds Max 2008, a $3,500 modeling program. In addition, the mod tool is free, anyway. Seriously, go ahead and download it right now. I'll wait. Crazy, right? Suffice it to say that this tool (plus the maps and buildings) is not worth a $15 expansion upgrade price.

The remainder of Cities XL 2012 is identical to previous iterations of the game, for better and for worse. The subpar (for a subscription-based service) MMO aspect of the game has been removed completely; now, you trade with phantom AI cities instead of human-run towns that will always have every good available to purchase and sell. Other than simply building a massive city, there is no objective in Cities XL 2012, as the game does not give you intermediate goals to shoot for. Cities XL 2012 continues to make it easy to zone large non-square areas for a more European layout, but I’ve been seeing more empty zones than previously. The citizens complain about the lack of houses or jobs when I already have them zoned: is this added complexity or simply a bug? You decide. The interface does a nice job telling you what people of each class need, and helpful color overlays are available to graphically highlight any available data. Cities XL 2012 continues to be a trivially easy game thanks to the uninteresting economy: service buildings have a fixed maximum cost, so you simply wait until you have that amount of cash coming in monthly before placing that hospital or police station. Cities XL 2012 never offers resistance to continual expansion. There is a complex economy buried within the game, where specific goods are required to run different buildings, but it’s mostly hidden from the user and completely automated, and any deficit can be easily traded for.

I think the most telling piece of evidence against Cities XL 2012 is the fact that there isn’t really a true developer for the game: Focus Home Interactive (a publisher) picked up the rights to the game after Monte Cristo folded, but all they have done is added new maps and buildings, leaving the basic gameplay alone. While the new maps and buildings are nice, and the mod support is potentially helpful (although I suspect the “new” tool is just the importer used by the original developer released into the wild), this isn’t a new game, and it barely qualifies as an expansion. This is the reason that owners of Cities XL 2011 can get 2012 for $15, but even that price is steep for what you get. The mod tools are much less comprehensive than I anticipated, only offering the ability to import 3-D buildings made in a third party program by using a free downloaded utility. Certainly this, new buildings, and maps do not qualify for a $15 price tag. Areas of the game that needed improvement (the trivial economy, absence of objectives, lack of multi-core support) are simply untouched. This exact trend happened with City Life, releasing eerily similar mediocre content masquerading as a yearly update. If you have avoided the Cities XL franchise until now, Cities XL 2012 offers OK value for $40, but I would simply suggest getting the original game for a fraction of the cost.