Once, on my way back from a Starfox Armada preview, I was shot at by a frog flying a spaceship. Okay: that isn't entirely true - but I did get lost in London on my way to check out Monte Cristo's new urban planning MMO, Cities XL.
I spent twenty frustrating minutes spent describing accidental circles in the muddle of streets that makes up Chancery and finding myself confronted every 90 seconds with the very same statue of a Griffin, as if involved in some tedious kind of devotional ritual. By the time I arrived at the offices of Monte Cristo's PR agency, I was ready to strip tarmac from the road, right-click towering office buildings into piles of dusty rubble, and control-alt-delete the entire financial district. I didn't want a city builder to play with as much as a city leveller.
Wrong game. If any title gives the lie to the idea that MMOs are a genre as much as an audience model, it's this. XL's landscape looks more like Surrey than Azeroth, the only levelling you're likely to do is when you decide to flatten a badly-placed hospital, and, mousing over the terrain, you're not going to see a single hooded elf, deep-space mining ship or four-colour superhero anywhere.
With all the overcooked fantasy out the window, direct aggression follows it pretty sharpish. As much as you might wish otherwise, you won't be able to stick your freshly-minted metropolis on giant caterpillar treads before trundling over to a rival and lobbing the Flatiron Building through their municipal weak spot. If you want to best your neighbours in this game, you'll have to settle for the quiet satisfaction of knowing that, when the chips are down, you're better at purifying water than they are. The reason for this strange online ceasefire? Monte Cristo asked members of its community what kind of gameplay they'd like to see in a city-building MMO, and they promptly voted for co-operation over in-fighting and destruction.
Barring the obvious question - why can't these people be parachuted into the Liberal Democrat party? - the effect such an unnaturally breezy outlook has on the game is clear to see: XL's cheery landscape bristles with gleaming downtowns and spotless skyscrapers, its cities and players are locked into a symbiotic relationship of resource-trading and friendly weekend visits, and, rather than hellfire and dragon wings, the game's inevitable social networking website is decked out in a calm range of Facebook blues and whites.
But if Cities XL is no ordinary MMO, half the time it isn't actually an MMO at all. Alongside the game's subscription-based online options, Monte Cristo's title boasts a fully-featured offline campaign which players can either use to learn the ropes before heading onto the network, or explore as an end in itself. The agenda is hardly revolutionary by the standards of most city sims. This is a pleasantly familiar mixture of building and balancing: putting up houses, and then ensuring their occupants sleep soundly at night.
You'll begin by choosing a plot of land from the over-world globe. Unlike most sims - where difficulty levels are primarily derived from limiting how much cash you have to start with - XL offers you the same budget each time but gives you increasingly awkward tracts of terrain, the simplest levels offering flat expanses to build on, while the more complex maps feature canyons and mountains you'll have to work around.
After choosing your spot, buildings are dragged and dropped onto the landscape from a tray on the left of the screen. There's a welcome amount of flexibility in how you work: laying out residential zones, for example, you can either stretch out a rectangular grid that auto-formats its roads and plots for you, shape it yourself by drawing your own outline, or even place the individual houses one at a time, a move which allows you to grow your city exactly the way you want it, and reveals, when zoomed out to satellite view, a much more organic sprawl than the boxy grids of most city games. It also means, of course, that you'll be able to construct a range of cities shaped like B-list celebrities.
It's not a given that your population will want to live in a giant municipal Kurt Russell, however. Like Monte Cristo's previous title, City Life, XL divides its population into four types, ranging from Unskilled Workers to the Elite, with each variety attracted by different job opportunities and amenities. It's a move away from the somewhat socially-charged delineations of the older game - which offered Radical Chics, Suits, or Have-Nots - but it still requires the same basic strategy: none of these classes want exactly the same thing from their city, so working out how to balance their needs and create a community that suits them all provides an endless source of refinement and tinkering.
With your city taking shape, it's on to maintenance, a healthy range of menus along the top of the screen providing access to reams of welfare statistics, while more casual players can refer to a selection of advisors down the right-hand side, offering broad-stroke coverage of hot topics such as jobs, security, and health. Clicking each advisor colour-codes each of your neighbourhoods to show how its inhabitants are feeling, and a subsequent click on any of your individual communities will then tell you what you need to do to improve its stats.