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Cities XL (PC)

Cities XL (PC)

Most of us love a good strategy game – the problem however is working out the ones really worth playing and those which need to be filed away to the ‘bargain basement’ option for a later date. Today we are looking at Cities XL – a game by French developer Monte Cristo which is targeting the SimCity 4 audience. Is it worth a look?

The heart of Cities XL is the city building and luckily enough, this is where the game really excels. Monte Cristo have clearly made this game streamlined because when you lay down roads the buildings reorient themselves to them and face the direction of your cursor before your click. This is great because placing a zone on a corner means it will change orientation by merely flicking your mouse instead of a convoluted combination of holding the Shift and Alt keys which is the methodology in SimCity 4.

Laying down a road network in Cities XL is an enjoyable experience because Cities XL has a system which feels and looks much more appealing. You can add curved roads which gives a much more realistic end result. The developers have built in a waypoint system, you click on the starting point of any road and then each click tells the AI to build the road in that direction until you finish it with a double click or end the path to a previously built road. One way circles, Cul-de-sacs and thoroughfares are very straightforward to create and the only real limitation to building them is your budget. You can also change the roads to other types and switch them to one way by simply clicking the road and adjusting the status in a pop up box. You are never forced to destroy roads and rebuild to make adjustments on the fly apart from when you need to make them wider to accommodate a growing population. The only point I will make is that sometimes a boring shaped GRID based network is actually the most efficient!

Initially Cities XL locks out many buildings until you are in a position to use them, skyscrapers for instance don’t become available until later when your population would be able to support the structures. Many newbie SimCity4 players for instance would sometimes bankrupt their economy by building city services too early in the game. Cities XL stops this from happening until you reach a population of 5,000 people.

Monitoring your population is easy enough, you click the category of citizens you wish to analyse on the main display and it then details what they are thinking and whether they are happy or disliking a specific aspect of the city. This is better for new players because some other city building games don’t make your goals clear enough and unless you spend days studying how the micro management works it can be frustrating. If you are a city building guru and hate restrictions then you can toggle the ‘Expert Mode’ in the options screen which immediately unlocks everything – be aware however unless you really know what you are doing this can be a recipe for disaster.

Balancing the economy is key to success in Cities XL and it can be quite tricky until you get used to how the whole thing ties together. For example building a heavy industry is a great way to get jobs to a huge portion of your populace but if people aren’t actually buying the end produce then the companies will move out and other ones will realise this won’t work for them and not offer their services. After all no big company wants to be in an unprofitable environment.

The developers have incorporated an MMO styled auction house configuration and you organise the trade window by setting up the resources you wish to trade and then you can check out who is buying and selling units of that resource and for how much. When the price is agreed the trade will start immediately and you will gain (or lose) the cash, helping your own city and the other city involved. During single player all these contracts are handled by an entity called Omnicorp which loads its contracts to suit themselves.

Cities XL is clearly forcing users to go online because players cannot trade among offline cities – the servers online support 10,000 cities and they allow players to build up to five cities per account. There are however some quite major flaws with this online element. Buying or selling via the token system is easy enough as you just head into the marketplace, search for the resource you are interested in and if the price is agreed by both parties then agree to it. Both players are informed and the transaction takes place.

Trading for other reasons however and unbalanced trading is complex and slightly bugged. Handling a private trade for instance requires the player to find the city of the player you wish to trade with and while this sounds straightforward enough, the implementation is complicated. If both players are online thats fine, you can click his name in a chat window to open the private trade window, but if the player is offline or not speaking you have to exit from your own city to the planet overview then search for his name, then search for the specific city you wish to trade with, then click the city, then click the trade button, just to enter the same screen. A more intuitive user interface would be most welcomed.

Once trading you can select exactly what you want to offer and then what you need in exchange. Resources are common trades so you can offer electricity for water for instance. Trades however can also be unbalanced so you would trade your electricity for something else and ask for cash also as a bonus. The other player gets informed of your demands and then has to ALT-TAB out of the game and log into the Cities XL website, click a link to view contracts and offers, click the specific city then click the section to see the office and click whether he wants to accept or decline it. After this then he can alt tab back into the game to continue playing. At time of writing this for the review this was not fixed but the developers have said this will be adjusted to a less time consuming ordeal in the future.

Playing online is unfortunately tied to a monthly fee of $9.20 in the USA and although you get reductions in the price for paying for more months upfront it seems a little steep. Sure its less than a well known MMO such as WOW but I can’t help but feel that this is a rough deal – all you get is the basic principle of trading resources. I would suggest you take the 7 day trial to make your own mind up, but I wouldn’t pay it myself as I would expect more from an online element than merely resource trading.

Graphically the game is very impressive, if you have a good modern gaming PC with a 4670 or GTS250 or greater. To run the maps at maximum settings you need a decent card and one of my favourite parts of the game is making a city and taking a screenshot to use as a background image for my desktop – they look stunning in scale and when playing you can even zoom right into the street level and watch the people walking around. Unfortunately when you are analysing the game at street level the graphics aren’t quite so impressive because the people and traffic look a little cartoonish which I don’t think works well in a simulation of this nature.

The audio of the game isn’t quite as impressive as while it all works fine within the context of the game design the music is rather bland and fits into the background – perhaps an intentional design decision just to add ambience rather than take over the proceedings – its basically elevator music inside a game. The other ambient effects such as cars and factory noises are all present and accounted for and they work out fine … if again a little bland.

The UI for the most part is intuitive and easy to use because the developers have opted for a colour coded system – if your buildings are doing well, they appear green, if on the other hand they aren’t … they turn red.

The community of Cities XL is quite strong at time of writing and there are more than enough players to trade with and there will be a person online with exactly the resources you need at any given time – the active chat channels are also quite useful for fine tuning your trading requirements. Monte Cristo are clearly trying to expand the audience as retail copies of the game are supplied with a second DVD so your friends can have a play for a free weeks trial.

Cities XL is a success as a city building game, it has a good learning curve for people generally intimidated by micro management and it is apparent that this game could have a larger audience than most if the gaming community embraces the free week trial. We are unsure if SimCity hardcore fans will shift allegiance, however it is definitely worth a look, especially if you are bored and want to get a substantial game to sink your teeth into.


City building is great fun, even if it is a little simple compared to competitor products. Trading interface is rather buggy and the fees seem a little steep.
Very impressive scope and if you have a good PC it will look even better.
Very simple and rather unmemorable, but within the game they work fine.
Should keep strategy fans happy for a long time

Worth a look.

About Author

Stuart Davidson

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