With the last proper Sim City title having seen the light of day more than six years ago, there’s been something of a gap in the market for a full-fat city building game for some time. And with 2007’s Sim City Societies being largely derided as a lazy, watered-down spin-off of the full game proper, it seems Maxis once glorious franchise has taken a bit of a tumble. With Will Wright and his crew off working on projects like Spore and The Sims 3, the way is wide open for an entirely new IP to make a name for itself and plug the gaping hole where Sim City once stood.
Enter Monte Cristo Games and their epic city building behemoth, Cities XL. Formerly known as Cities Unlimited, the newly appointed XL tag is no exaggeration – this is city building on a planetary scale. What’s unique about the game is its ambition in giving players the first ever online city builder with a view to fostering a lively community who’ll be given access to a whole host of exciting features, more on which later. On a basic level, Cities XL can be played purely as a single-player experience should you wish. You can do as much or as little social interaction as you like and although the sheer depth of online features enriches the experience greatly, the game is still remarkably engrossing when played solo offline, as you watch a once barren patch of land rapidly transform into a vast urban sprawl before your very eyes.
Zooming out can give you a real sense of how expansive your city is. Relatively speaking, this is quite small.
The level of detail that’s been lavished upon the game is astonishing.
Commencing with an Earth-like planet that you can freely rotate in any direction in your search for the ideal spot to begin, you’re presented with land masses populated by numerous dots, each of which indicate a potential city or an existing one. If you’re online, a green dot denotes an existing city currently online while a red dot represents an offline city. White dots are what you’ll initially be looking out for, as these are empty plots where you can pitch up and establish your own concrete jungle. Each region is made up of 100 square kilometres offering an array of differing attributes. Some sections will be verdant, arable land that will favour farming and crops whereas others may be snowy, inhospitable tundra bringing with it a variety of added challenges to overcome.
Upon settling on a patch of land to start construction, you’re presented with a basic toolset, which quickly expands into an extensive toy chest of businesses, facilities, settlements and industries. First, you’ll need to lay roads and connect your city to the rest of the world via any of the green boxes highlighted on the aerial map. Doing so will help fuel the lifeblood for your growing economy in the form of imports and exports, giving your funds a nice early boost. From hereon, developing your metropolis is completely freeform, allowing for bridges, tunnels, railways and curved roads of varying width and design that you’ll have to monitor for traffic flow lest your city and it’s population become asphyxiated by dense clouds of pollution.
Every conceivable facet of your burgeoning city must be managed and you’ll soon learn that whatever problem or issue you may encounter, there’s always a logical solution. So, if pollution threatens to choke your settlement, then you can always plant trees or build more parks for instance. It’s all about getting the balance right, which is why it’s a relief to see that although Cities XL is immensely intricate and complex, its information is presented in such a way as to ensure that you’re never confused or overwhelmed. The entire interface is clear and well presented, free of any unnecessary obfuscations or meaningless statistics. This clutter-free approach also extends into the online component of the game, which manages to pack in an unfathomable breadth of innovative features without appearing completely incomprehensible or difficult to digest. Accessible via a concise menu, live feeds update you on your status as well as news and developments in your social interactions for example. Anyone can join you in your city at any time and you can interact and chat in the same way you would in an MMO.
This is the first of the GEMs (Gameplay Extension Modules) – the Ski Resort.
Spot The Gherkin. Cities XL allows you to construct a variety of national landmarks.
Online is where Cities XL really comes to life in fact, with what will no doubt bloom into a bustling community due to the seamless integration between the main game and the website Monte Cristo have built to allow players to keep tabs on certain aspects of their cities when they’re not playing the game. Individuals will have their own profile page with a picture of their in-game avatar. From here you can trade accumulated tokens (earned during the development of your city) to benefit your city, or you can collaborate on building megastructures on the basis that you have the required blueprint and tokens to do so. Megastructures are your city’s landmarks and take a great deal of time to complete, requiring a large number of tokens representing assets such as manpower, resources and so on. Each megastructure is based upon a real world landmark, so perhaps your own national pride (depending on where you come from of course) will spur you on to construct your very own Big Ben, Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building. Or perhaps you’ll simply set about building a monument to simply increase your city’s wealth and tourism trade.
Whatever you decide, the Cities XL website will offer an open forum for players to trade, negotiate contracts for tokens or resolve any problems with building a megastructure. It’s all about creating a co-operative, social network where players can look after the needs of their city while mutually benefiting the needs of another player’s city. Eventually, (if you so wish) you’ll forge mutually beneficial relationships that will see your settlements flourish into a state of enormous prosperity, providing you can successfully manage your own economy, transport, environment, waste and so forth. The persistent world makes Cities XL something more akin to an MMO than a straightforward city builder, representing the next step beyond what Maxis established with the Sim City series. No city is completely autonomous, even during solo play where a fictional government provides your city with fuel and other resources at a price. Yet, it’s through online play that you’ll really uncover the wealth of opportunities at your fingertips, although Monte Cristo are keen to emphasise that there’s still a deeply engaging single-player mode at the heart of Cities XL.
The cartoony characters that populate your city have routines of their own, making time to play basketball or skateboard.
There’s a full day to night cycle, which you can pause or fast-forward during solo play if you want.
During our hands-on time at Monte Cristo’s Paris offices, we got to sample the solo game for ourselves and immediately opted for a patch of rich, fertile greenery to build upon. Starting right from the satellite view of one of the many Earth-like planets, the game goes on to load your chosen expanse, which you can easily manipulate using a combination of the mouse-wheel and the mouse direction itself. Using a powerful proprietary engine that allows you to seamlessly sweep back and forth from a high aerial view above your city all the way down to street level, where you can see people and cars going about their daily business, Cities XL is nothing short of spectacular. At present a busy conurbation like the one we ended up making during our two and a half hour stint causes a bit of slowdown, but not enough to cripple the game entirely. There are still certain features that are locked and the odd bug here and there, but the French developer is working hard to ensure they iron out these niggles before release later this year. Considering the sheer amount of incidental detail on show, it’s a astounding achievement that it runs as well as it does at this stage in development.
Given what we’ve seen of Cities XL thus far, it could well be the most comprehensive city building title we’ve seen yet and we’ve only just scratched the surface. There’s still the matter of the game’s expansions (or GEMs), which will offer their own set of unique challenges for players to get to grips with as well as the scope for possible mod support and additional items and objects to be added at a later date. Cities XL is a game bursting with potential and should effortlessly satisfy anyone who’s been longing to sink their teeth into an incredibly appealing and deeply captivating city builder since the Sim City well dried up.