It's lovely when something comes along that's completely fresh, original and completely engrossing. More and more this seems to be the realm of the indie developer, gaming pioneers who are not afraid of novelty and have no big publishing house holding the purse strings.
Cities XL is completely not one of these games. It's not fresh, it's not original. I'll tell you what it is, though. It's completely engrossing.
But of course it's engrossing! They cheated! They took another game, a game I'm determined to get all the way through this review without mentioning by name, and just re-did it. This other game was like crack to many people, impossible to put down and with no natural break points for you to stop to do basic things like feed yourself, go to work or sleep.
The world of Cities XL is a big globe with a number of locations in which to try your hand at building a new city from the ground up. Some of these sites are scenic, others have natural resources such as oil, and others have abundant ground water. Once you've selected a suitable spot, you connect a highway with the outside world to bring in settlers, trade and materials, and at the other end of the road... you build whatever you want. High-density industrial zones riddled with pollution and crime, perhaps? Or a utopian township with plenty of parkland and luxury holiday hotels. Even houses on stilts, out in the water. There are no rules as to what makes a city ‘right' or ‘wrong'.
That said, as a new player you're going to want to keep a close eye on your influx of settlers and your cashflow. If you concentrate on a certain industry, say holiday hotels and homes, you can ‘export' some of this commodity to the outside world - maybe another city you've built yourself - in exchange for something you need yourself, or just a fat wad of Benjamins.
Cities XL 2011 takes its time, though, and forces you to do the same. You can't just build a single road leading to a dirty great skyscraper straight off the bat, as most buildings have a minimum population requirement for your city. Thus, every game will start with a handful of low-density residential and commercial zones, a couple of industrial areas, and so on. Roads are used to...
I'm sorry, but the roads. Oh, the roads. They make me weep. Now I'm not saying there's an easy solution, but anything's got to be better than the system they use. Of course, if all you had were right-angles, I'd be the first one to moan about how we should be beyond this by now, but just trying to lay right-angled roads around a block can be infuriating. The road design tool will tell you if you've got a right-angle, but sometimes a slight move of the mouse suggests that there are more than one ‘right-angle' options, fractionally different from one another. If you're building a long road and you get it wrong, you're in big trouble, because you can end up with a gap between two roads that's marginally too narrow for you to zone anything. There is a special tool for just plonking a chunk of zones down without having to worry about micromanaging each and every inch of the road, but the default road used by this tool is one of the narrowest in the game, and traffic congestion will soon become an issue. And once you've used a narrow road between two zones, there's no way you're going to widen it without flattening the buildings on one side.
That's my gripe. The road system can be a headache. But there's none of the power-line-adding fiddling familiar to fans of... that other game. Roads are the only concern for mapping out your city. And, to be honest, if you don't get some kind of special buzz from micromanagement, Cities XL probably isn't your kettle of fish.
There's something really fascinating about watching a city develop, from the first cluster of houses up to the smog-belching, crime-ridden metropolis. There are plenty of achievements available (as there are in all games these days), varying from keeping a certain demographic happy to building a certain number of public buildings and even having a huge negative cashflow, so you really can set your own goals - indeed, you kind of have to. The slow unlocking of new buildings can take a long time, but it's always intriguing to see what awaits you at the next milestone. The maps are large enough for you to set up a couple of little villages or small towns, then watch them grow together into one mass of humanity, and there are some nice graphics packs so you can build, for example, a medieval-style community then put the Empire State Building right in the middle of it, just for laughs.
After the sad multiplayer fiasco that was the first Cities XL, I think the choice to move to a wholly single-player mode was probably not such a terrible idea. It's definitely the kind of game that lends itself to one careful player, unfettered by the fast pace characteristic of most multiplayer games. In about 20 hours of play I feel like I've only just scratched the surface of what is available. It's not unlike the feeling I had all those years ago when I first discovered Sim City.
Agh! Drat. So close.