Cities XL 2012 Review
Reviewed on PC
City building games appeal to a certain type of player, those people who favour ‘god-sims’ where their every decision effects the life and well-being of the virtual world they control. Some of these players can still be found whiling away a Sunday afternoon playing Sim City 4 wanting nothing better than to build and control their very own little metropolis only to destroy it later with meteor strike or alien invasion. So with the release of Cities XL 2012 they have a chance to see how the genre has moved on since 2003.
Cities XL 2012 isn’t really a new game in its own right, it is, as the publishers freely admit, more like a major expansion of the Cities XL 2011 title. In recognition of this the game can be bought as a standalone purchase or as a downloadable patch, for owners of the previous game, at a significantly reduced price. The major additions to the 2012 version included 300 new buildings, 15 new maps and a completely new modding toolset (which includes a drafting-software-to-game file conversion).
As with any game of this complexity Cities XL 2012 comes with a suite of tutorials covering all the major aspects of the game. A virtual city takes careful planning and jumping right in, even with previous city building experience, is not way to build a thriving utopia, so playing at least some of the tutorial is recommended.
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The first tutorial starts by introducing you to John, the Major of the tutorial city, who to be honest looked pretty shabby and was not the type of character you would want running your town. It’s OK though because you are quickly passed to Kevin ‘the assistant’, who is the real brains behind the operation. Throughout the ten tutorials there is an on-going ‘humorous’ exchange between the hapless Mayor and the long suffering Kevin, but to be honest after the first tutorial this becomes rather annoying and a simple ‘no frills’ tutorial would have been preferable.
In all the tutorials were pretty informative and certainly provided enough information to get you started on creating your first cities regardless of whether you were an ‘old hand’ or new to the genre, but in completing them some of the major positive and negative aspects of the game were starting to become apparent. One of the first good features of the game you encounter are the zoning tools; for those people who haven’t played these type of games before you create ‘zones’ within your city with designated functions, such as housing, industry, commercial, etc. and providing these areas have the required amenities people and businesses will move in and begin erecting buildings, establishing businesses, etc. Anyway, these zoning tools allow you to lay out your zones in a variety of different ways, including the classic (and Sim City like) rectangular block intersected with roads; linear zones that consist of a road with building lots positioned along its length; and even the free-form zone which allows you to encompass an area with an outer road and then the game simply fits as many building plots as possible within this. It was quite easy to layout interesting shaped zones with these tools, which is a nice deviation from the very grid like layout of many of the older city-building games. It is, however, also very easy to waste a lot of space by creating areas where building lots didn’t fit, but then again these empty areas were quickly filled with greenery and your city residents are going to love that, right?
Moving on from the zoning tools we get into the basics of city management, which is something Cities XL 2012 does well. All of the monitoring tools and status indicators a very good job of telling you when the residents are unhappy and why, although there is some lag between fixing these issues and the population reacting to them; then again the citizens have to find the new additions and have time to let all their little friends know. Unfortunately the coloured overlays accessible through the analysis tools do not appear to dynamically update which can leave you thinking your citizens are happy or there are traffic problems when this is no longer the case. A quick ‘turn off and on again’ of the overlay resolves this but it is something that could be improved.
Some of the other features such as how to drill for oil, and identifying fertile land for farming are also quite a nice addition to those of previous city management games. The requirement for hotels near office zones so that visiting businessmen can attend important meeting was also a nice touch.
As far as bad points, when you zoom in to the street level was a disappointment. The initial impression was that the graphics were sharp and detailed, however after a few seconds this shine got a little bit tarnished as viewing from certain directions appeared to make some of the walls of a nearby building disappear. Also an oddly short looking man walking down the street appeared to be walking ankle deep inside the pavement, and on the road cars faded into existence apparently from nowhere directly in front of existing vehicles already on the road.
One of the worst features, however, has to be bridge building. Back in the Sim City days you simply extended your road across a river or canyon and it built a bridge, adjusting the cost of the road or railway as necessary, not so in Cities XL. In order to build a bridge you have to stop your road and use the bridge building tool that allows you to choose the style of bridge, adjust the height, etc but it just seems to make it really hard to actually build a bridge. The difficulties arise when trying to create valid start and end points for the bridge at the right height to connect to nearby roads, with an acceptable junction angle, and that are not too steep for cars to get across. This can be very frustrating and after a lot of trial, error and reloading the best solutions seems to be creating the roads that will connect to both ends of the bridge and then creating a bridge segment from one of them into the middle of the river or gap and then stopping a building the rest of the bridge from the other direction and joining them together in the middle.
As with most city building games pre-planning is a must but in Cities XL this is not limited to what you build within your city but also which of the maps around the world you choose to build it on, as this has an impact of the resources available to that city including oil, fertile farm land, water and holiday destinations.
Another facet of the game that players may either find enjoyable or frustrating is interaction between cities. Cities XL is designed so that any excess resources your city has can be traded with neighbouring cities or the ever-present, but ruthless, OmniCorp and any resources you are lacking can be bought in. However, to encourage this it appears that none of the maps in the game have all the resources you need to establish an independent city, so any player that just wants to create a single shining utopian city of tomorrow will find themselves forced to build some supporting cities or paying ‘over the odds’ to buy resources from OmniCorp.
The inter-city trading aside, managing the finances of your cities does seem a little more balanced and forgiving than the older city building games thus making it much easier to avoid the catastrophic budget failures that lead to your cities being abandoned wholescale. That having been said, a sudden vast investment in expensive to maintain landmark buildings is a very successful way of bankrupting your city so the onus is very much still on the player to develop their city in an economically viable way.
One final aspect of the game that can be a little frustrating at times is that different building types can only be used once your city has reached certain achievements and this does mean that most of your cities start off very similar as you build up residential, industrial and commercial areas in order to complete the achievements that allow you to build the other buildings. Also depending upon the order in which you achieve certain goals you can find yourself building a nice shiny landmark building to improve your oil production only to find you can’t build any elite worker housing and so cannot attract any workers to utilise it.
All in all Cities XL 2012 is a good solid city building game, it has enough building and monitoring tools to allow the player to build and manage and extensive network of interconnected cities and to watch their populations thrive. There are a few issues, as mentioned, but for players with the attention to detail and patience to really enjoy a city building game these can be avoided or at least dealt with. If you are a fan of the city building genre or even just ‘god-sims’ then it is worth a look. The only thing that is really lacking is the ability to rain disasters such as meteor strikes, volcanoes and alien attacks upon your wonderfully created and nurtured cities, because if there is only one thing better than having the power to create then it's having the power to destroy.