A new couple have just moved-in a few doors down from me. The bloke is some big wheel in the city. He wears handmade suits and drives an Aston Martin Vantage. The woman manages an art gallery, and spends her spare time meditating and taking photographs of picturesque beggars. Tonight, me and few of my working-class mates are going to go round to their house and welcome them to the neighbourhood in the traditional manner, i.e. batter them with baseball bats then set fire to their dog...
Does this incident sound at all familiar? If it does then I'm guessing you are either an evil thug who should never be allowed to breed, or you've played a bit of this absorbing class-obsessed urban management sim. In City Life everybody is pigeonholed into one of six sociocultural groups. Some of these groups can coexist quite happily, others end-up scrapping like stray dogs at a sausage lorry accident if you mix them together. Part of your job as a town planner is creating nice neat homogonous ghettos by luring particular groups to particular areas with appropriate clusters of buildings.
Sounds easy doesn't it? Well, actually it is fairly easy. Hitting the population and monetary targets necessary to win scenarios can be tough, but keeping communities compartmentalised and calm is often disappointingly simple. There you are, you've built your fancy SWAT team HQs, police barracks, and mega-fire-stations in readiness for a huge Rodney King Riot (big disturbances are possible according to the manual) and all you tend to get is the odd bit of harassment and the occasional brawl. The game is crying-out for a mod or patch that either reduces inter-class tolerance levels or makes creating monocultural districts harder.
It's probably worth pointing-out that this game doesn't - explicitly at least - model racial friction. When you spot a TV chopper hovering next to the Intercultural Conflict icon and zoom in to get a better look, the fight or protest you see is never between different races, it's between 'Have Nots' and 'Suits' or 'Blue Collars' and 'Fringe': different socio-economic classes. The careful choice of words is understandable, but does remove some of the resonance and believability. Watching the only Suit inhabitant of a down-at-heel area getting abused or beaten-up by Have Nots will always be faintly improbable. If that Suit were of a different ethnic background to the community around him then sadly the nastiness would be more credible.
So City Life pulls its punches a bit by setting high tolerance levels and glossing over the role of racism in urban unrest. Apart from these small complaints and a few minor quibbles about tutorial thoroughness, interface design, and building variety, I think Monte Cristo has every reason to be proud of itself. The game might not have quite the scope or the level of detail that genre poster-child SimCity 4 boasts, but it does have comparable magnetism and a much prettier face.
Fruits of the forest
The magic you get from the best tycoon games - that thrill of watching tiny acorns grow into huge gnarled oak trees - is here in abundance. A couple of times I foolishly thought I could squeeze in fifteen-minute play sessions between other activities and found myself still clicking away hours later. Load a savegame with the intention of doing something small like building a new stretch of winding coastal highway or weeding-out failing businesses, and invariably you see something else that needs attention:
Hmmm, while I'm over here widening these congested roads, I might as well help my cashflow by whacking in another one of those big profitable factories. Great, that's that done. Oh hang on, though, there probably won't be enough manpower to run it unless I enlarge this nearby Blue Collar suburb. A couple of blocks of houses, a shop, a bar, a doctor's surgery and a primary school should attract sufficient drones. There we go, now I'll save and go to bed... immediately after I've built a university and an adult learning centre over in my Fringe quarter. Can't have my Fringes lazing around being Fringey for the rest of their lives. If I want to win this scenario, a fair few of them are going to have to shin up the social ladder and become Radical Chic.
Gold medal meddling
City Life doesn't have the financial complexity, the handcrafted utility grids or multi-city networks of its Maxis rival, but there's still plenty to do and lots of interesting stuff to think about. In the 22 scenarios, you've got numerous mission-specific goals to consider. Arranged in three stages - bronze, silver, and gold - these goals consist of combinations of increasingly tough statistical targets. In one mission you might have to reach a certain population threshold and profit margin to unlock the silver targets. In another, the requirement might be building X number of oilrigs and ensuring X per cent of your citizens are Suits. Although, there are no selectable difficulty settings in the game, each scenario has its own inherent challenge level. Gaining the gold award on one of the flatter temperate maps tends to be an easier proposition than gaining it on one of the mountainous, swampy or polluted ones.
Whatever land canvas you choose for your intricate urban creation, you can be sure the finished artwork will be big and beautiful thanks to Monte Cristo's spiffy 3D engine. At maximum altitude you get a handy top-down view that shows the city colour-coded according to class concentrations. Roll the mousewheel and the view descends step-by-breathtaking-step until you find yourself down on the street with your citizens. Using cursors you can then stroll around admiring close-up the results of all your sweaty labours. While the quality of the models and the textures wouldn't wash in a top FPS, they are impressive in this context. Graphically, SimCity 5 will have to pull out all the stops to compete.
Yes, Maxis could do a lot worse than ponder the example of City Life. The relative simplicity, the choice of structured or freeform play, the ability to mingle with your populace... it's all very successful. If Monte Cristo could just turn the volume up a fraction on the interesting social conflict dimension, and add a few extra building models to make skylines a bit more varied, their game would be angling for one of those strange upside-down sixes that occasionally appear at the bottom of these reviews.