In which I consider the latest attempt to revive the city building genre.
I’m not much of a gamer, but I occasionally will be peppering this blog with reviews of games I come across. Mostly because this is much easier than complaining about the media all the time. Or transportation.
Last week I picked up the latest iteration of the relatively unknown city building series, Cities XL. The original version of the game was initially met with hope by the city-building community, as it was announced on the heels of Sim City Societies, a game universally panned in the city-building community for a lack of realism and its “too easy” game play. XL was seen as an attempt to create a realistic city construction experience. But then it was rushed to release with a badly constructed Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) aspect and with a lack of crucial features. The community revolted again.
Several years and a further two versions later, the game has finally come to a finished state; the MMO project was aborted, and features like public transit options that were missing from the first version were added. The game has also managed to cultivate a community of custom content creation, further extending its replay value.
I began the game as someone with experience playing several of the Sim City games, most recently Sim City 4. As a result, much of my review will be framed, for better or for worse, in terms of comparing the two games. As I turned on the game, I did appreciate the laying out of the cities on a globe. Doesn’t really affect the game play, but it looks cool.
The first thing you notice when starting up the city is the stark difference in interface. The familiar RCI graph from the Sim City games is gone (more on that later) and there is no minimap to make shifting around the city map easy (which is just as well as the plots in CXL are massive). The graphics are pretty good, certainly a step up from Sim City
Now for the economics of the game. The “residential” zones are divided into four wealth groups; unskilled and skilled workers, executives, and elites, which roughly correspond to Sim City’s three wealth groups of lower, middle, and upper income. This, however, is where the similarity ends. The next zoning group is “industry”, which covers “food industry”, “heavy industry”, “manufacturing”, “high tech”, and “offices”. Several of these then include four zoning density levels and an extra slot for “exceptional” buildings. This here is where the more radical break with the Sim City paradigm comes—the first four “industry” zones do correspond with levels of industrial zoning in the SC games, but the “offices” category is basically the bulk of Sim City’s “commercial” zoning category. The third category, “commerce”, includes “retail”, “hotels”, and “leisure”. I like the fact that “retail” is separated out into a different category and is something residents demand separately, a touch of realism.
To focus more on the economic system of the game, running a successful city is a tighter economic balancing act than in the Sim City games. The concept of resources has been added to the game, so in addition to the city needing water, power, and waste disposal to grow (as in Sim City), Cities XL 2012 adds fuel, food industry, and “leisure” to the mix. In fact, each and every one of the categories of citizens, industry, and commerce, in addition to those basic resources, has to be kept in fine balance with one another for business to grow and for cities to prosper.
The lack of an easily viewed graph of this balance does make this harder to work, but it is managed. The separation of resident wealth levels by zoning, however, I find rather annoying and unrealistic, adding an unnecessary level of complexity that does not reflect the real world. The Sim City games modeled wealth levels of all zones based on “land value”, which in turn was based on other aspects you could control, a more realistic sysyrm. The resident wealth zoning is also what makes dividing the different sections of industrial zoning by wealth unrealistic. Again, what sort of industry is created (in the Sim City) games depended on the education level of the populace and tax incentives. Again, more realistic. As for the third category, commerce, while I do think separating out retail stores (supermarkets, delis) into a new category and zoning that separately is good, one thing I detest about the game’s engine is that citizens demand “leisure” (parks, Ferris wheels, bowling alleys) buildings that the city has to build and maintain. Zoning for private companies makes sense, but not city management. The government providing its citizens such amenities in the real world may smack of the dreaded S-word, but the game was originally developed in France, after all.
I both like and dislike the way transit is done in Cities XL. I dislike the fact that you can’t build roads or civic buildings (overwrite, essentially) over previously zoned private buildings, meaning that instead of dragging a higher capacity road over the current congested one, you first need to demolish the surrounding buildings. In Sim City, this was done as you put the new road or civic building in place. Not a huge problem, but inconvenient. What I do like is how public transport is dealt with. Instead of placing bus stops randomly, Cities XL introduces the concept of bus terminals, from which bus routes must begin and end. Between, the player lays out stops on streets, creating routes. The subway building system is slightly more annoying, as the tracks are auto-constructed as you lay out stations, but this is still more realistic than the treatment in Sim City 4.
However, while the economic system in the game is at once complex, it is also oversimplified. This brings me to another aspect of the game I’m not much of a fan of; what I will call its tendency towards over-abstraction. Let me explain; all of the resources I mentioned earlier, for example, are presented not as any sort of tangible unit (pounds, kilos, ton(ne)s, etc.), but as “tokens”. These “tokens” can be traded between cities, but it’s very vague where they leave and come in. “electricity” and “water” (and “fuel” for that matter) magically get to buildings, with no pipes or wires needing to be laid. Perhaps the most egregious is the treatment of government service buildings and amenities. There are no quantifiable graphs or maps showing educational or health attainment, or of crime levels and fire hazard. Instead, the nebulous metric of satisfaction is used (e.g. education, security, fire rescue satisfaction), overlaid on a map. This, to me, seems like a cop-out from attempting to give the player more realistic data on the effects of these services. However, credit must be given for ditching the arbitrary circle-shaped coverage area of Sim City 4 and replacing it with a road-based coverage reach. That said, even the passage of time in the game is not measured in any actual units of time, but in “ticks” of a tiny circle in the panel. These ticks, of course, create the paradox of representing the endless passage of frozen time.
In sum, Cities XL is a good enough game and custom content does fix some of the problems I pointed out, but it is in some ways lacking. Still, it is a respectable effort to follow in the footsteps of the Sim City series. Of course, with a new iteration of the venerable series set to release early next year, this is the perfect way to pass the time until then.
Graphics: 7/10- pretty good, mostly realistic buildings and vehicles, but all of the citizens in the game seem like they were drawn by one of those caricature artists that dot the tourist sections of Central Park and 5th Avenue like a plague.
Gameplay: 6/10- good efforts to break from the Sim City economic paradigm, but not executed in the best manner
Replay Value: 6.5/10- from having developed several plots already, I can say that the game is predictable enough once you realize how the economic system works. Still, the building and trading is engaging inanof itself.
Overall: 7/10- the problems with the economic system can easily be overlooked, and the game can be enjoyed on its own terms. I did get a chance to play the pre-release beta of the original Cities XL and I can say that the latest version is significantly improved. If you’re a fan of the genre, Cities XL 2012 is worth the buy (unlike the original), but expect to have frequent feelings of longing for aspects of Sim City 4 as you play. Also: no disasters.