City-building games are, for some reason, always welcome chez Rossignol. I'm not sure quite what it is about them, but the idea of constructing a vast, smelly metropolis somehow grips me, every time. So approaching Cities XL was definitely done with some enthusiasm: a fancy-looking city-builder with some new ideas, it fills a lot left vacant for some time now.
The concept is neat, too: the merger of the traditional city-builder - founded and developed by the SimCity games and expanded elsewhere - with the internet. Cities XL does provide an offline city-building game, but it also offers the player an option of going online and take their city-management escapades into "planet mode", where you populate worlds alongside other players, and take your work into a global economy. Ambitious stuff.
But let's start off with the fundamentals: the game as city-builder. The mechanical processes of putting a city together are solid - the maps are just about large enough, and the terrain can look fairly beautiful on a high-end PC. The construction is straightforward too: roads are placed with an elegant three-click system, although bridges are ludicrously fiddly to erect. Almost everything else is simply placed down with the same three clicks, and once you've selected the road formation from the menu, you zone your real estate. You can use this to create American-style strip blocks or rather more spidery formations as you see fit.
What's interesting at this stage is that there's a range of industries available, including agriculture. You can give over huge tracts of fertile land to farming, and therefore create a kind of farm-scape that is only partially urbanised. There are, of course, more recognisably urban industries too, with "heavy industry" and offices popping first, and manufacturing and hi-tech down the line.
As you play with these options you begin to notice some of the problems with the Cities XL model. Firstly, some businesses that should generate capital actually end up costing you money. Entertainment, for example a Ferris wheel, is a business and doesn't tend to eat into a city's budget in the real world, although it does here. Even more bizarrely, things like oilfields cost huge amounts of money to maintain.
This causes some genuine bafflement on your initial forays in the game, as it seems to defy logic: strike oil and you're rich, right? Wrong. Unless your city is ready for the extra burden of setting up an oilfield, you might find yourself bankrupt. And I suppose you could argue that the infrastructure required to set up the oil industry really is expensive, but it doesn't seem like it should have be such a monetary disaster for your city. You find yourself battling with the game logic, which does not seem to adhere to expectations.
The other thing that feels fundamentally at odds with smooth city-building is that everything has to be bounded by roads. You can forget about spraying parkland around that executive enclave you've just placed on the hillside, because everything needs to be bounded by your tarmac transport network. I mean, clearly everything needs to have road access, but the idea that parks and markets need to have roads on every side seems unhealthy and illogical.
Speaking of executives, I should mention that your increasing population unlocks various levels of citizen. Initially these are just qualified and unqualified workers, but the selection moves into executives and "elites", who are required to run the more high-end businesses and facilities. This creates a longer game for you to play with. It's easy to fill up a city with a vast sprawl of low-level citizens, but to push to the higher tiers of city-building ambition you need to get creative. Additionally, the kind of zoning you create for these citizen types increases in density as you go, so that you start getting apartment compounds by default in the higher-density areas, dwarfing the standard houses in the lower-density zones. Needless to say, these place a demand on retail, health, policing, and environmental management. All of which costs money.
What the utilities in Cities XL seem to lack is any capacity for you to control how much money they spend. A small hospital, for example, tops out at a cost of 5000 a month, and it will just do that when the population it serves is at the right level. Nothing you can do about it. Other games have employed spend sliders and such, allowing you to moderate your expenditure a little more subtly. As it stands in Cities XL, you find yourself deleting very expensive constructs because they end up costing too much. That doesn't make for smooth play.
What's odd, too, is that there's no real facility for infrastructure outside of road-building and zoning. Although you do have to provide fuel, water and electricity later on, these are simply facilities that you can build anywhere in a city. As long as they're on the road grid, everything works. I find myself pining for the water-flow grids of SimCity 2000, or the need to connect up the power. Nevertheless, if you can ignore the logical and infrastructural quirks of Cities XL, this is a competent and occasionally spectacular city-building sandbox. You can evolve some incredible cityscapes in it - and that's something few of us outside of Dubai's oil barons will ever get to play with.
Then there's the matter of the online game. When you get to the planet mode - which is an additional expense to play, after the first free week - you can select from a number of planets and then find a spot to build your business. There's a consideration here that is missing from most city games, which is the resources you have in your slice of the world. This might be water, fuel, fertile land, or holiday locales, or a combination of these. Any resource type can end up being something you'll use to gain traction in the multiplayer game, which is a trading, player-driven economy.
Find yourself with a shortfall in electricity, or office space? Well, you can simply buy what's on the market. You can even enter into specific contracts with your fellow players, so that if he's producing lots of X, and needs your surplus of Y, you can help each other out over the long term. I tried that with a friend, but it took us a long time to even set up contracts, let alone make any difference to each others' cities.
None of this is helped by the laggy, clunky and buggy trade interface. This kind of unfinished edge ultimately feels representative of the game as a whole. Online conceits - like being able to visit each other's cities with your mayoral avatar - really don't seem to add anything to the game, despite being able to dance like a chicken in the middle of the street. Right now that economic game isn't interesting, complex, or coherent enough to be anything other than an eccentric sideline to the (fairly demanding) business of keeping your city afloat.
Cities XL is, quite explicitly, a work in progress. Developer Monte Cristo promises much more to play with in future, including a train network and other vital elements of urban modernity that do not currently appear in the game. It's also talking about mini-expansions that will create extra management-game layers within your game-world - a ski resort, for example. This is a game with big plans.
But these plans don't really influence what we currently play, which is an engaging, challenging, but fundamentally wonky city-building game that you can, should you wish, take into the theatre of other people. Having that MMO chat-box in the corner of the screen is fun and useful - you get questions quickly answered by the helpful little community that is always online - but right now the further consequences of going online don't seem vital, even to a wizened old internet junkie like me.
I've enjoyed myself here, but Cities XL does not live up to its ambitions. The solo city-builder is a well-paced project for those who like to plot boulevards, but the appeal of the larger game remains unresolved. This is one game we'll be returning to in due course where - all being well - a re-review should cast things in a slightly different light.
6 / 10