Cities XL is not an MMO game in the traditional sense of the term - but then, it's not traditional. Its ambitious aim is to exist simultaneously as an ordinary, offline, single-player city-building simulator, and online as a massively multiplayer version of the same thing, maintaining a completely player-dependent global economy and a community big and dedicated enough to make it work.
It's a complicated business strategy; developer MonteCristo expects the vast majority of Cities XL's money will be made from paid subscribers, but rather than crippling the out-of-the-box product in order to force players to take the game online, the idea is to provide a different enough experience to justify a monthly charge of 5 Euros. Offline players will be tantalised with updates and information about new content and important global events on the game's title screen, which shows the entire globe before zooming into your own city, but apart from that, no internet connection will be needed to enjoy the full scope of Cities XL's impressively comprehensive city-building and management tools.
Those tools really are impressive. Buildings, bridges and roads all materialise in real-time as you click and drag, adapting to the terrain. It's not based on a grid system, so there's more flexibility and less finicky positioning than we're used to from games of this type. Out of the box, there will be about 500 different building types to play with, and several different types of terrain which affect which resources are available to your city.
The customisation options are, naturally, absolutely vast. Cities XL's beta-testing community is evidently very vocal about exactly what they want, and the developer has obliged by incorporating a phenomenal amount of detail and flexibility into the city-building. You can zoom right in to street level anywhere in your city - or in anyone else's city, online - and even customise exactly how much traffic you'll see tearing down the highway at particular times of day. We didn't get the chance to go hands-on with the customisation tools, but even in the short time we had with the game we saw a good variance in architectural styles. There's definitely enough content to satisfy the demands of dedicated city-tinkerers, and the developer plans to support the game after launch with regular new buildings and other content.
In addition to the regular city-building, you can undertake special missions - 'gems', as the game refers to them - which challenge you with particular objectives; the one we were shown involved building a profitable ski resort, either by making it popular and accessible, or geared towards moneyed ski connoisseurs. Starting from scratch, you have to build up the resources and pick a location before building up the resort, building the slopes and labelling them according to difficulty. A special tab on the game interface keeps track of your progress, and naturally the rest of the city continues to exist without your attention.
It reminded us a lot of Rollercoaster Tycoon, right down to the impish impulse to trap people on a hellish slope by labelling it as Easy and then 'accidentally' deleting the exit. Happy memories. The gems certainly provide a change of pace, and will be available to select and download for free - to non-subscribers as well as subscribers, if we understood correctly.
What subscribers get for their money is, essentially, a completely different city-building game. You're allowed five cities with each account, but you can't simply import your offline city into the online world - that would be cheating. Instead, you choose a location on the in-game world, which again affects the resources available to your city according to terrain and which trading partners are nearby, and try to make your mark on the player-dependent economy.
All of the resources that you import will be bought from other actual players - if you make a wine-producing city, for instance, you'll make your money by selling that resource to affluent cities who need it to keep their inhabitants happy. This is a hugely intriguing idea, and in principle we can see it working, but we've concerns about how exactly it's going to be possible to moderate this economy - won't everybody be rushing for cities with a nearby oil resource in order to become obscenely rich? However, MonteCristo assures us that there is enough terrain and enough resource possibilities to go around, with space for thousands of cities on each in-game planet (there will be around five of them at launch, each acting as a different server). It will be fascinating to see how this in-game economy develops.
Interaction between players will be largely trade-focussed, although you can visit other players' cities just to have a look around or to get inspiration for your own's design. Taking the form of your own, fully-customisable avatar, you can walk around anyone's cities at street level, or organise virtual meetings with other players. Trading can all be done with a menu screen - you submit your offer, the seller agrees, done - but you can be a little more creative than that. You can, for instance, invite four or five different sellers to a meeting in some impressive boardroom in your city and play them off against each other to get the best deal.
Cities XL's world is necessarily persistent. When you're not online, your city and the online economy are going on without you. Consequently you might want to check what's going on when you're away from your home computer, and MonteCristo will host a website for your city on the Cities XL community page, so that you can do just that. This really is an inspired idea - you can log in when you have ten spare minutes, as if you were checking your online email, and check up on how your city's doing, approve a few resource deals and send a few messages to people on your friends list.
There's also in-game photo sharing and space for a blog, if you're just that proud of your new shopping district. This will do wonders for the game community - it means that you never have to be away from the game for that long, even when you're on holiday, or at work, or doing any of the other productive things that city-sim players do in their non-leisure hours. It also means you can easily keep up with friends in different time zones.
Cities XL is essentially three games in one: a meticulously detailed city-simulator when you're playing offline, a mission-based management game when you're playing the gems, and a massively multiplayer online global economy simulator when you're paying the subscription fee. It's ambitiously complicated - to the extent that it took us about twenty minutes of questions before we fully understood the scope of the game during our demonstration - and there's a small danger that players are going to feel overwhelmed.
The interface needs a little work at the moment; although the city-building tools were relatively clear, we found it a bit difficult to determine what was online, what was offline and what was a gem mission. But we get the impression than players aren't going to go online immediately; they'll probably spend a week or few playing offline before being tempted by the massive potential of an online, global city-management game, and all the new content that subscribers are going to have priority over.
It's also clear that a good percentage of Cities XL's players are going to have to take the game online in order to maintain a player-dependant economy. The community is going to have to be big, and MonteCristo is going to have to provide enough incentive for them to keep playing. At this stage, though, it really looks like it could work. It's a city-sim fan's dream, and there should certainly be enough of those around to support a game of this scope.