Cities XL
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First one to spot a pedestrian gets a free hot dog

Ever wanted to be mayor of your own metropolis? Ever wanted to deal with millions of self-important whiners on a daily basis, with each decision closely scrutinised and every tiny mistake resulting in the kind of outrage usually reserved for seal-clubbers? If so, then rejoice! With Cities XL you can experience taking charge of an ever-expanding city in a massive virtual world, and with none of the usual aggro (or, sadly, the hefty pay packet).

Cities XL is the latest city creation simulator from developers Monte Cristo, previously responsible for similar sim title City Life. The XL of the title refers to the MMO aspects of the game, available to players for a small monthly fee, although Monte Cristo have also included a solo mode for anyone too tight-fisted to pay extra. Both modes have almost identical gameplay, so we’ll cover the solo mode first then delve into the online mode.

When you start an offline game, you’re presented with a number of possible terrains and locations to base your city. Some such as the mountain ranges and valleys provide a greater challenge than the flatter, resource-rich landscapes, so be sure to choose carefully. Once you’ve made your decision, you’re presented with your block of land and left to build up your city. An advisor will occasionally chip in with a helpful/bleeding obvious statement, but at this point it’s all common sense anyway. Build a road so your new inhabitants can actually reach the place, then create homes for them to live in and basic utilities so they’re not swimming around in their own filth. Jobs come in the form of various industries. Environmentally-friendly players can construct farms on fertile land, while tree-haters can shove huge factories all over the place and blight the land with smog and noise pollution.

As your population grows, new buildings and services gradually become available to further expand your city. Skilled workers and executives will move in and help to run your offices and high-tech production lines. Your city will need the latest leisure facilities to keep bored punters happy, as well as full education, health and emergency services. Soon you’ll be trading with other cities and developing a complex transport infrastructure, including ports and airports. The learning curve is particularly impressive - these mechanics are all introduced at a manageable rate, to prevent players becoming too bogged down and trying to develop their cities at an unrealistic rate.

Combined with the excellent interface, Cities XL is definitely a good sim for beginners. Navigating your city is quick and simple, and essential information on individual residences or companies is brought up with just a single click. Construction is similarly easy - just select what you want to build, and you have the option to lay down individual units or customisable blocks. Economical matters are managed via a window which displays your current income and expenses, and even breaks down your most expensive services and allows you to raise taxes to fill any deficits.

Careful with those tax hikes though, because the citizens of Cities XL are just as gripe-worthy as their real-life counterparts. A separate rating for each sector of the population shows how satisfied they are with life in general, and this can be broken down further into positive and negative feedback. For example, your working-class bods may be happy with the job situation but angry at how expensive fuel is. Satisfying all of the people all of the time is incredibly challenging when your city blossoms into a true metropolis, and eventually you’ll want to set fire to the whole bloody lot and watch as your miniature moaners flail around, engulfed in flames. Sadly that isn’t an option.

While there’s a decent amount of depth and freedom to Cities XL, its long-term appeal is seriously questionable. Hardcore sim fans will probably enjoy building the biggest city possible, even though they might be put off by the gradual build-up initially. However, once you’ve succeeded in creating your masterpiece, there’s very little reason to return to it. A lack of unexpected events such as natural disasters or riots means that life pretty much goes on and nothing really happens to disturb the natural balance. Some players might even find their eyes glazing over at the repetitive gameplay long before their city is complete. The graphics do little to jazz up the experience - if you zoom right in, you’re only likely to spot one or two old grannies weaving along the pavements. Huge park areas are often eerily deserted, and while roads are usually filled with traffic, the cars and trucks are actually bizarre mirages that appear and disappear with no warning. The result is that your city never truly feels alive.

The online ‘planet’ mode gives players the chance to stake a claim on a block of land on a massive virtual world and interact with fellow city builders. Your choice of area will once again be determined by terrain type and difficulty, and the way you actually create your city is almost identical to the solo mode. The main difference, beyond a simple chat window, is that all trade is conducted with other real-life cities. If you want to sell or buy a service, you have to make an offer and wait for someone to accept it. This can prove frustrating if no one picks up your offers, and even more annoying if a player suddenly cancels a contract for no apparent reason, although apparently Monte Cristo are working on updates to smooth over the trading experience.

Updates will apparently be regular, with ‘themed building sets, real world maps, new roads, and more’ becoming available in the coming months. There’s also the promise of various competitions and online events to spice things up a little. Aside from that, the only other incentive to sign up for planet mode is that you can visit any other city and wander around, presumably in awe of how creepily desolate they are. Your little avatar can perform a number of pointless actions, such as dancing or even dropping down dead, but these just feel like a tacked-on gimmick. If people actually wanted to stand around a dull virtual world and do the chicken dance with a bunch of their mates, then surely Playstation Home would have been a lot more successful?

Cities XL is still very new at the time of writing, so the online components are still underdeveloped and as such tough to recommend. However, there’s still plenty in the solo mode to interest hardcore sim fans and maybe even tempt in beginners, even if the game’s longevity is questionable. Budding builders ideally need a dual core processor and 2GB RAM in order to run Cities XL smoothly, especially once your city stretches across the map – after all, that’s a lot of disappearing cars and at least five pedestrians that need to be rendered.

Death to greenery!