Home improvements: CitiesXL 2012 [Review]

31 Oct 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Imagine a house. Just a simple, ordinary house. It’s functional and cosy, even well-designed when viewed from certain angles; but the extremities of the building have some ugly flaws. The gutters were attached at a wonky angle, and someone left a few Christmas decorations stuck up on the roof, which now look sad and slightly creepy when it rains.

Luckily, the builders of the house are coming back. They’re going to add an extension and fill it with pretty objects. Best of all, there’s the promise that they’ll leave their tools behind so that you can correct any other blemishes that might crop up when they’ve gone.

CitiesXL 2012 is that extension, and its user interface is the sloppy DIY job done on the bookshelves. Here’s a picture of it (click for larger).

Yikes.

An ugly typeface that doesn’t even fit in its own tables (Services/Environment is oozing out of that box like too much grout in a botched tiling procedure), horrible 3D character portraits (mercifully these only appear during the tutorials) and a layout with a hint of ‘intern’s first design project’ about it. As a perfect accompaniment to this interface, there’s a delayed texture pop-in effect that affects constructed building, no matter how high you crank the graphics settings.

Happily, this is where the presentational issues end. As first impressions go though, it’s a bit like being shown around a property with dodgy plumbing. No matter how delightful the furnishings, you can’t help being distracted by the ripe pong.

Oh god, his eyes burrow into my soul.

Err, yes, anyway. CitiesXL 2012 isn’t so much a brand new game as an update to CitiesXL 2011 (indeed, if you owned that one, this release can be picked up for $15 USD, rather than $40 USD). It adds a bunch of shiny new buildings (largely a cosmetic addition, but budding city designers may take cosmetics seriously), and increases the map count by 15. Prior to release, the developers made noises about the inclusion of modding tools too, but these have turned out to be less thrilling than they might have been.

Rather than the Software Development Kit (SDK) hoped for by many modders, which would’ve allowed them to burrow into the guts of the game, the mod tools appear to just be a program for converting buildings from 3D Studio Max 2008 to the CitiesXL 2012 file format. You actually don’t even need to buy the expansion to get this, because it’s hosted on the game’s official website. Unfortunately I can’t tell you whether it works with other versions of 3D Studio Max, because I don’t own any of them.

So unless you’re desperate for a desert-based oasis map, or some new ski-chalet buildings (some of which don’t work; I can’t get anyone to stay in my lovely snowy hotels at all), CitiesXL 2012 is not even close to being an essential upgrade.

But if you don’t own any previous CitiesXL titles, and if you’re in search of a contemporary city building game, CitiesXL 2012 may well be your best bet. Sim City 4 is several years old now, and (as far as I know) nobody else has released a title in this vein for quite some time.

Construction of your metropolitan dream is undertaken in much the same way as in Sim City. You place down various ‘zones’ (commerce, industrial and so on) and, if conditions are right, the buildings and companies will move in accordingly. Certain stand-alone buildings like schools, fire stations or landmarks are placed pre-built. There are different tiers of zone (such as unskilled, skilled and executive workers) and industry can be zoned at varying ‘densities’ (from low to high). If you fancy some skyscrapers, you’ll have to work your way up to high density zoning.

It’s possible to zoom right down to street level and see people wandering around, driving to work and dancing about in hot dog outfits (really). This level of detail gives a real sense of scale and it can be neat to zip around your creation at street height for a while. Oddly though, people never seem to materialise inside parks or engage in other recreational activities.

Progression in the game is also a little unusual. New buildings and structures ‘unlock’ at set population points, which means no police service until 5,000 citizens. Buildings don’t stay unlocked between maps, so if you move to a new terrain you have to start again with unlocking everything. There is a menu option to just have every single building unlocked from the start, but this feels a bit like cheating. Unfortunately no middle ground is possible, so you’re either left with the restrictive mode that won’t let you set up bus travel until 50,000 inhabitants, or an overwhelming collection of choices you haven’t ‘earned’. You’re either drip-fed the dessert or you gorge on it.

Building more than one city is recommended, because there’s a trading system in place that seems to be a hangover from CitiesXL’s ill-fated MMO days. Your cities will produce ‘tokens’ in a relation to the sorts of goods they produce (and also suffer ‘token’ shortages), which can be traded with other cities. However, as the title is now a single player experience, you’ll only be trading with the AI stockpile (at rubbish prices) or, with, well, yourself (in the form of your other cities). It’s a strange system that still feels like it’s trying to be part of a multiplayer experience that no longer exists.

Away from the trading and the building unlocks, CitiesXL 2012 is pure sandbox. There aren’t really any imposed goals, aside from population milestones and other ‘internal’ achievements like having a certain amount of a type of worker (many of these are quite optional too). None of the maps have stand-alone scenarios; all objectives are self-imposed. You might want to, say, hop on to the Cayman Islands map and recreate an offshore tax haven that’s based entirely around an office economy, but the only drive to do so will have to come from your own imagination.
It’s rather liberating to only ever be really restricted by terrain and resource distribution, but others may find that this lack of guidance gives the game a bit of an aimless feel.

Be prepared to deal with some bugs too. Some buildings never seem able to connect to a road, offending your eyes with a warning icon until you do something about it. In residential zones it’s easy enough (if annoying) to bulldoze the offending property and let a new one take its place, but the pre-defined buildings remain roadless forever. Performance seemed fairly sluggish no matter what graphics settings were selected (and my PC isn’t that bad). The game also took it upon itself to crash whenever I quit from the main menu.

Given the quirks, the dubious user interface and the leftover whiff of a failed MMO, you’d be forgiving for thinking CitiesXL 2012 should just be overlooked. In fact, I find myself in the slightly odd position of cautiously recommending it. Not for the people who already own CitiesXL 2011 (as an update, it really doesn’t seem all that worthwhile), but for anyone still on the lookout for a straightforward city management sim. If you fancy a building title with more style or flair, I’d be the first to direct you to something like Anno 1404 or Tropico 4, but those games are more scenario-guided and exist in their own little worlds.

For a contemporary take on the Sim City formula, CitiesXL 2012 is probably the best option around. Just be aware that it holds this title by virtue of being pretty much the only option around.

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