Cities In Motion (Review)

Box art for “Cities in Motion”

Is this game of transit management worth the fare?

The list of things that have been turned into video games is pretty long. Amusement park management was pretty early on this list, followed by general business simulation and its associated trillions of sub-niches, from airport management to oil company management and even running a zoo. However, one of the main streams of this “business simulation” genre has been the transportation management simulator.

One of the latest entries in this genre has been the Paradox Interactive game Cities in Motion. The game, which is just over a year old, pulls the player down from the country or region-scale focus of previous entrants and has the player managing a city-scale transit system. Unlike other games of this sort, in Cities in Motion there isn’t actually any AI company to compete with. Even though you run the system as a fully private enterprise (with very occasional and small subsides from the city), for all intents and purposes you are in charge of a private-sector monopoly, with the only competing transit options being walking and private driving.

An example of a ground-level subway station in-game.

You are given 5 modes of transport to work with. Three of these: busses, streetcars, and heavy rail (subway) will be the bread and butter of most systems, while the latter two, water taxis and helicopters, are expensive and useful in very limited situations. Travelling these vehicles are seven different social groups: several classes of workers, plus students, pensioners, tourists and “drifters.” While the game makes much of these distinctions, and on the individual level these groups do differ in travel patterns, on the aggregate, any system that serves the major areas of the city covers all 5 groups.

This actually alludes to one of the bigger problems with the game; too many aspects of the game mechanics that are supposed to realistically constrain the player  can be ignored with little consequence. Take the economic simulation. While there are real fluctuations in interest rates that affect vehicle cost and bank interest rates, larger changes in the economy are also supposed to affect the tolerance of citizens for fare hikes, with bad economic times leading to lower fare tolerances. In reality, any sufficiently reliable system can charge punishing fares (this writer remembers getting away with charging $16 for a subway fare) and still draw citizens. There are other game mechanics like vehicle attractiveness that are similarly underutilized.

The other problem with this game is that it is not dynamic enough to stay exciting after developing a basic network. While real cities are supposed to expand or contract as time goes by, especially in response to transit connections, Cities in Motion cities expand at predictable intervals in the same places, as scripted by the map. The commuting cycle of the game is also abstracted for simulation reasons; there is no day/night cycle (maps are either permanently day or night), and individual journeys take months, meaning that there is no distinction between, say rush hour and off peak or weekends.

Because of how the time simulation in the game is set up, some of these virtual passengers might have literally been waiting for days.

The transit options I mentioned earlier are generally well done but could use some extra flexibility. Streetcars/light rail can only be built on ground level, as opposed to underground or aboveground, both of which are common in the real world. Similarly, one can’t designate bus lanes on roads on roads. Recurring prompts from citizen groups to create a route between certain points on a map don’t allow for transfers, incentivizing long, otherwise impractical routes. The game simultaneously gives the player too much and too little data—it is impossible to know how profitable an entire line actually is, though player modifications have generally rectified this problem. Similarly, while there is a map that displays where various social groups work and live, there is no clear way of observing traffic flows from one or area building to another. Individually observing specific citizens will have to do in most cases.  These are not insurmountable frustrations, but frustrating they can be.

Final Focus

Graphics: 6.5/10- Graphics are competent, and very good at higher levels, but game gets a lower rating because graphics are rather taxing on the computer system. Various player mods that allow tinkering with camera angles also reveals some flaws not apparent in the regular view.

Gameplay:7/10- The task of the game is pretty simple and well laid out. Watching a transit network work is entertaining, if you’re into that sort of thing. Play is somewhere on the middle of the realism to simplification scale, though some transit experts have pointed out holes in the simulation.

Replay Value:4/10- This is the real Achilles heel of the game. No dynamic city simulation, predictable growth, and a lack of any competing private transport services mean that this game can be dry after that initial burst of construction.

Overall:6/10- I recommend this game if and this is a big if, hence the reverse italic, you already appreciate city simulation games and particularly concentrate on the transit planning aspect of those games, as this writer did. Even those who are familiar with the open source projects in the transit simulation genre, Simutrans and Open TTD, may not appreciate this as much considering the lack of competitive AI. 

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