The terms 'action' and 'storyline' are unheard of in the city planning genre. In fact, there are a lot of gamers who struggle to understand the appeal. One comment we heard was: “I would rather play a game which involves paint drying”. Regardless, there are gamers out there who lap up the challenge of running a complex economy and get their thrills seeing their cities grow and expand.
City building games are at their heart, a strategy game - but ones which invariably reward a lot of up front planning and vision on how you want your city to look in the future. Cities XL 2012 is a follow-on from the 2011 version and an earlier (unsuccessful) online version. If this is your sort of game this pretty much what is currently on offer in the genre.
The game follows the standard formula of players being presented with one of 62 terrain maps as a canvas for you to design and layout your city. There is an adage that goes: “Build it and they will come”, and this applies here. Lay your first road into the map and layout a zone dedicated to unskilled workers and your virtual ratepayers will start building houses.
They - of course - need work, so you then set aside space for industry with a linking road. A commercial area for them to spend their cash and you're well on your way to having a town.
Sounds easy and straightforward, but then you need think about skilled workers who need a better, up-market zone to build in, and higher paying jobs in a commercial office zone. Then there is power, water and waste buildings to be built. Schools, police stations, hotels, manufacturing, and leisure areas also need to be considered.
Where Cities XL 2012 becomes more complex is in how you manage the budget for all of this, through to how you tax the various zones, the cost of the utilities you provide and the general well being of your ungrateful citizens.
“We are bored”
“Not enough jobs”
whine whine whine! [Sounds like the evening news - Ed.]
As your city expands, your early planning (or failure to plan) starts to kick in. Roads become clogged, areas become too polluted to live in, and residents' level of happiness tends to reduce. If you have not left space, you will be faced with destroying some of your city to make room for highways or other mass transit systems, or having to take out a city block for a new park or leisure area. Seriously, who the hell wants to be a mayor in real life?
So as far as city builders are concerned, this game has a lot of depth. A lot of this is not obvious until your city starts to expand and you're faced with making some hard and long term decisions on how you layout your zoning grid. It's a very challenging game to play.
The graphics have a high level of definition with the ability zoom right down to City Street level and even sit in one of the cars driving your roads so you experience your creation first hand. It's perhaps here that you'll notice one of the issues of the game. The place is simply too clean and perfect. Although there are over 1,000 different buildings in the game it always looks new and fresh. There is no obvious decay, drug dealers at street corners or the occasional road accident.
It just has no soul.
Where it also falls down is in how your actions don't seem to sync up with the commentary. Put down a police station and 10 minutes later you get an achievement announcement for building your first security building. This is how you earn points that unlock new buildings and zones, so this delay can be frustrating.
On the upside, there is an active modding community. In fact, the game developers have made this aspect part of their core philosophy. Their forums encourage people to create new building types and transit units. Some of the concepts should have been part of the initial release, however the appeal for players is that their game palette is always expanding through the ideas and efforts of the community.
It is not an easy game to play; don't expect to pick it up and build a metropolis in a few minutes. The game's tutorial – all ten chapters' worth - will take you over an hour to walk you through the basics. Just as well, as to be successful you need to be able to understand all the nuances and strategies.
If city planning is something that spins your wheels or you just like screwing with a lot of virtual people, then this game is the game for you. It's the only recent player in the genre and, while not bringing any monumental innovation to the genre, its high definition graphics certainly give it a bunch of new clothes.