Cities In Motion Review24 Feb 2011  by
Nobody should ever trust me with a public transport system.
Within a few short years I’d managed to leave 1920s Berlin with a half-finished metro line, some extremely irate commuters and a fleet of buses that may as well refurbish themselves as themed restaurants since they never really travelled anywhere. My hapless company was in hock to the tune of several thousand Deutschmarks and I couldn’t even blame it on the Wall Street Crash… because that hadn’t happened yet.
This is Cities In Motion. Well, more accurately, that’s Cities In Motion if you blunder your way around it like a moron.
Setting up integrated transport systems in some of Europe’s busiest cities (and in unfamiliar decades, no less) can be a tricky business. Okay, yes, reading that sentence back I’m aware that this game is going to attract a fairly niche audience, but there are surely plenty of closet planners out there; the kind of people that cling to fond memories of the likes of Transport Tycoon. That game was released more than fifteen years ago, so it’s about time something pop up to take its place.
In Cities In Motion (CIM from now on), buses, trams, metros, waterbuses (oh yes!) and helicopters are your friends. Cars… well, cars are the devil. Automobile owners will haunt your dreams, dancing before you like grim spectres, mocking your high-minded attempts to help groups of people around the city. Traffic is the antithesis of a smoothly running transport network. Luckily, you also have the option of bypassing it entirely by digging metro tunnels beneath the earth. Yeah, take that fiendish motorists.
CIM offers campaign, scenario and sandbox modes to tinker around with. The campaign offers 12 missions across four cities (Berlin, Amsterdam, Helsinki and Vienna) with each mission unlocking in the ‘scenario’ mode as its completed. Each of these missions has a theme; a particularly inventive one being Berlin in the 80s, complete with the solid, concrete problem of the Berlin Wall.
Sandbox mode, as you’d expect, lets you choose your city and starting date before allowing you to just get on with things. There’s also a small tutorial city to teach you the basics of setting up transport routes and introducing you to the various financial and status menus that’ll help you run a successful operation.
The tutorial doesn’t quite cover everything, and in the first Berlin campaign mission I had to figure out that it was only possible to build a metro past the city’s main river by digging it at a level three depth (the deepest). Metros in general can be a little awkward, existing as they do on a level below the rest of the map. Unlike other methods of transport, it’s not necessary to build them in a loop, but each of the double lines is still designated a direction of travel and it can be hard to keep track of which is which when trying to ‘close the line’ (i.e. when stations are linked correctly and the line is ready for business).
Berlin can seem fairly tough as an introduction to the campaign proper. It’s a large, well-populated city but, because it’s the first mission, the game isn’t really expecting you to handle all that many transport links. The tasks assigned to you are relatively small in scale, but this just leads to hundreds of angry people left waiting at bus stops in the rain because you’re not really in a position to do much about it.
My first few attempts at Berlin ended in failure, as I tried to ease the congestion at various stops. The company finances couldn’t cope with the extra vehicles and all this did was drive me into debt. When I did complete Berlin, it was by ignoring the huge backlogs of passengers, even though this seems counter-intuitive (and, indeed, on later missions it would be.)
Oddly, the second mission, set in 1960s Amsterdam, is much simpler. In part this may be due to Amsterdam being a smaller city and that the obvious answer to the ‘problem’ of multiple canals is the use of waterbuses. Compared to 1920s Berlin, Amsterdam feels as though it would have acted as a better transition from the tutorial into the campaign.
Throughout the campaign your main advisor will offer you tasks to complete which may reward you with an injection of cash or popularity. It’s not actually necessary to finish all of these (only the final task of each scenario appears mandatory), but you’ll obviously find it easier to progress if you pay some attention to the kinds of things the city requires of you.
In addition, you’ll also be offered side-tasks by othe city’s citizens. This may be to shut down a bus line so that secret police can catch a spy, aiding a dodgy businessman with his school route or exploiting your authority to provide a special bus schedule for a scout troupe. Just quite who a bunch of scouts got hold of the required one million Deutschmark pay-off is a mystery. Frankly, I suspect a massive money laundering scheme.
Some of these side-tasks seem to either be a bit bugged or not entirely clear in their instructions. During a Vienna mission I was asked to increase student satisfaction in my services to over 20% and told that I should use an advertising campaign to help me achieve that goal. I chose a campaign marked as being appealing to students and my popularity with them decreased. Hmm…
Rethinking my approach, I ensured that fares on the University-centered metro were low, upped the maintenance levels on all my vehicles and generally did everything I could to provide a lovely trip. It seemed to succeed, and the info bars that tell you what each demographic thinks of your service indicated that students found my service ‘fantastic.’ The bar was at about 95% but, the task still didn’t register as complete.
On the same map, I ran into an issue with a ‘transport ‘x’ number of people on a certain route’ task. Students wanted a bus route linking the University and an out of town dorm. I provided one and watched as multiple passengers used the route. Strangely, the task didn’t seem to be counting them properly. I only needed to carry ten, but the count crawled up to six before stalling indefinitely. As mentioned, these tasks tend not to be essential but, it’s still frustrating when a few of them don’t appear to complete properly.
This highlights another slight issue with the game: at times, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what is going wrong. There are several menus and graphs to dig around in but the information provided is objective rather than instructive. For example, you can lay down a bus route that covers a populated area and a few workplaces and then look at specific bus-stop information as to who is using said route. However, if nobody is using the route there’s no clear indication as to why this seemingly sensible route isn’t functioning the way you believe it should.
Cars too (as I mentioned before), are a real problem. I don’t know what the developer’s intentions were here but quite often traffic in trouble-spots seems to be static for days on end; cars facing off against each other across otherwise clear junctions. It’s one thing to encourage people to look at traffic levels and then build bus and tram routes accordingly but, the implementation seems a touch excessive at present. This renders the road-based transport options rather ineffective.
In contrast to these more annoying problems, there’s a particular money exploit that I found quite handy on a couple of occasions. The final task on any given campaign map tends to require you to have a certain amount of money in your account. Rather than waiting for this to build up through hard work, it’s possible to just take out a few massive loans and instantly satisfy the conditions. In fact, CIM’s loans tend to be quite friendly overall and it’s recommended that you make regular use of them when setting up expensive routes (metro routes in particular).
The game’s four main cities will doubtless begin to feel all too familiar after multiple hours of play but developers Colossal Entertainment have provided players with a very old school gizmo to combat this: an in-game map editor. Though it can be clunky to use (reaching specific types of building takes three or four clicks), it’s still relatively easy to slap together a couple of streets and a park. I can’t speak for anything more complex than that but I’m convinced that there’ll be plenty of user-made maps available for the game, given enough time. It certainly helps that Colossal are actively encouraging modders.
CIM’s crisp, clean graphical style make it easy to follow what’s going on in the city and to track track of where vehicle routes have been placed on the streets. There’s a definite satisfaction in setting up a successful transport hub, a satisfaction that I suspect is akin to watching model trains glide along their tracks.
Using different time periods on each city mission – to vary the types of vehicle available and provide thematic challenges – is a masterstroke. It keeps the campaign fresh throughout its entire duration. I’m just a bit worried that all too often the game makes me turn into a Thatcherite-monster that undercuts the quality of services, keeps the staff on pauper-wages and jacks up ticket prices in order to make a quick penny and maintain my company’s value.
But, like I said, nobody should trust me with a public transport system.