Sim City was one of those games that you either worshipped incessantly, or couldn't see the point in. Some gamers could spend weeks or even months constructing an immense metropolis, complete with an efficient power grid and prize-winning transport infrastructure. Others would rather take a hammer to their privates than spend a single minute with the ‘virtual city construction simulator’.
If the above paragraph sounds familiar, that's because it was lifted wholesale from our Spore review. While this recycling of previous work could be viewed as pure laziness, the sentiment definitely applies to Sim City lookalike, Cities XL. This is one of those games that people will either lose themselves in for weeks on end, or find ridiculously frustrating and dull.
Developers Monte Cristo have already had a stab at the city construction genre with City Life, the first such game to come with a 3D engine. That game took Sim City's gameplay mechanics and expanded them with some fresh new ideas. Most notably, the city's population was split into different classes, such as suits and blue-collars, with each class requiring different conditions to happily settle. Cities XL contains the same class split, but the gameplay has been expanded to give you even greater control. The game engine is also impressive – you can zoom right in and see cars chugging along your highways, or pull out for a magnificent view across your entire city. Nothing revolutionary, but there is one huge leap between Cities XL and its predecessor, one that it shares with the aforementioned Spore. That would be the online interaction.
When you start the game, you're presented with a number of language-specific worlds on which to create your city. Each of these worlds contains a diverse landscape capable of housing hundreds of cities. Your choice of location determines how easy setting up your city will be. Pick a flat stretch of land and construction will be straightforward, but choose a mountainous region and you'll have to terraform the area before starting. You can spin the world around to search for a good location, and check out the other cities that online players have constructed at the same time. Even more impressive is the fact you can actually visit these cities and stroll around. It's a great way of picking up ideas for your own layout.
Setting up your city is complex enough to make you feel in total control, without becoming too complicated. New buildings and roads can be constructed using a toolbar on the left of the screen, while monitoring your population, services and economy is handled by various buttons along the top. You'll need to make full use of these to be a success – getting the right balance and satisfying your residents can be fiendishly difficult, especially when your population expands beyond certain milestones. There's always at least one problem to sort out, whether it's building more houses, providing services such as leisure facilities, or fixing your taxes. Just when you think you've cracked it, your loyal citizens will find something else to complain about. The game can feel like hard work at times, but watching your city spread across the land is undeniably satisfying.
Interaction with other players isn't limited to simply visiting their cities. You can also set up trade routes, to export your own produce while importing any necessary resources. Monte Cristo have also provided a chat interface, which lets you swap tips with online players or simply complain about your whining residents. This interaction makes you feel part of a living world, and adds a lot to the familiar city-building gameplay.
Cities XL is definitely worth a look for any Sim fans when it's released in October. The depth of control means your city can truly be shaped the way you want it, while the online aspects are a welcome addition. Let's just hope Monte Cristo's servers aren't constructed from some old toasters and sticky tape, like Demigod's were...