Urban Empire starts out sounding a lot like a city building game. And, yes, I suppose if you were to hold me down and point a blunderbuss at my face, I'd admit that it is a city-building game (presumably through tears and begging for my life). But it's both more and less than that as well.
So here you are, in Swarelia, a fictitious outlying state in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the start of the nineteenth century, and you're the head of a soon-to-be mayoral dynasty that will rule over a new town for the next two hundred years. All you have is a pocket full of money and a road next to which you've been mandated with building a town. And here the fun starts.
So yes. You do map out districts with what should be a very simple (but isn't) dragging tool to mark out the boundaries, into which roads and the usual residential, commercial and industrial blocks are dropped. Should your initial district be large and therefore expensive, or small and well-formed? Actually, either way it's going to be expensive, and you'll be losing money hand-over-fist at first.
There is a lot of information floating around. Much of it dense and hard to really understand. There are a lot of moving parts, and pretty much everything costs you money. Civic buildings are incredibly expensive to build and run, and once it's up and running you have little in the way of direct control over the success of the district.
When I say 'little in the way of direct control', that's because you're the mayor, not God. Everything you want to do, from installing better street lighting to outlawing child labour to arranging a nice pay rise for yourself, has to go through your council. Trying to wrangle the required votes for these proposals represents a major part of the game, as you plead, demand and threaten your political friends and foes alike to try to squeeze a few more votes out of the system. Every time you threaten an opponent you lose a little political goodwill, and balancing your cajoling against the need for that new rail station or increased funding for the local clinic is basically your agency in the game.
The campaign game follows the passage of two centuries, and as time passes your avatar will age and die, to be replaced by a child who represents one of the aspects of the spirit of the day. These characters have nuanced descriptions that cleverly give you an insight into the type of world they're born, and perhaps the best way to play the game. Occasionally, and inexplicably, this eye to historical accuracy is shattered by a shipload of llamas from Tropico's Penultimo, for some reason. Aside from this, the game is played straight for the most part.
Transitioning between epochs leads to a sudden and dramatic shift in priorities for the citizens of your town, and overall happiness can collapse in a day. Which would be a great way of introducing new challenges if it weren't so tricky to get anything balanced in the first place. As mentioned, there's a lot of information floating around, however everything costs a great deal of money and a lot of time, as well as political goodwill, so often this resource paucity will result in paralysis. Districts too large? You will lose so much money that you can't afford any new buildings. Need to shift your districts' priorities around a bit? Some political party or other will no doubt try to put the brakes on things, meaning you either spend a load of goodwill to push it through (as well as selecting your approach to your political opponents using a sort of choose-your-own-adventure option system with little in the way of clues as to which method will work best) or forget it altogether. Much of my time with Urban Empire was spent letting time pass, and wondering where I went wrong.
"Oh Squee," you'll no doubt be thinking, "that's because you're horrible at videogames!" and yes, you'd not be too far from the truth. But I managed my way through two Tropico games and Omerta without really running into too much trouble. I just couldn't balance the books in Urban Empire despite trying a number of different strategies. Although there's a wealth of information, none of it is really presented in a form that makes it easy to understand what your problem is or how you can go about fixing it. For example, how will upgrading the roads in that district over there affect business? Sure, it increases speed but how is this going to help me cover the costs of upgrading the system? Games are all about experimentation and problem-solving, but Urban Empires just feels a little like arbitrary trial-and-error sometimes.
So much for the campaign. Let's leave this mire of facts, figures and bankruptcy behind for a minute and venture where Urban Empires really shines: Scenarios. These are, in some ways, simplified versions of the game: you start with a functioning town, usually running a surplus, and have a very specific problem to solve. Whether this is flying through a custom tech tree or generating a certain amount of cash or goods, these shortened missions require more time schmoozing the politicians than agonising over the city planning stuff. This is the way that Urban Empire plays best anyway. Personally, I would have much rather that the whole game was a series of these little missions - sort of like how Tropico did things - instead of one town and all the head-scratching that accompanies it.
The stronger Scenarios can't rescue Urban Empire from being disappointingly average however. A few quality of life tweaks here and there could have achieved a great deal in making Urban Empire a more engaging experience. With little noticeable cause and effect you're stuck prodding buttons until you hopefully stumble on solution, which sadly flies in the face of strategy as we know it.