Niall Topping On May - 9 - 2010

CITIES XL is the next generation modern realistic city builder game developped by Monte Cristo.”

Well, thats what the website says at least. And yes, they did spell developed with two p’s. Cities XL is French game developer Monte Cristo’s take on the city building genre, up there with titles such as the Sim City franchise. Since the release of Sim City 4 back in 2003, the city building genre has been lacking in a defining title, which it appears Cities XL is attempting to be. With this review I’ll try to avoid making comparisons to the Sim City franchise with as much effort as I can, but in a genre dominated by the title then this may prove hard.

The main feature of any city building game is of course, the city building. Cities XL manages this superbly, coupled with breathtaking 3D graphics and a dynamic, fluid approach to the entire process. Long gone are the days of the grid system found in Sim City, being replaced by a road and zone laying system that allows you almost unlimited freedom. With the introduction of curved roads to your repertoire, roundabouts, long flowing highways and curving country lanes are a joy to lay down. The only real limiting factor in road laying is your budget and the terrain you build on. Even then, Cities XL allows you to build impressive bridges and tunnel your way through mountains, much like in real life. Of course you still have the option of laying down straight roads, and there’s even a function for creating a grid system, if you don’t want to spend hours meticulously planning out the road network in your city.

Once you have your roads laid out your going to need to begin zoning out areas for residential, commercial and industrial areas, similar to what you’d find in Sim City titles. Cities XL lets you deal with this similarly to the road laying, allowing you a lot more freedom than zoning out a grid. You have the option of placing lots individually, creating a zone to a shape of your desire, or being able to lay down grids much like Sim Cities. Also found is the density function, allowing you to zone low, medium and high density areas, unlocking them as your city grows. After experimenting for a while it’s apparent that the best method for mass city building is the grid method used in Sim City. These may be ugly but they are by far the most efficient method you can use for expanding a city. On the other hand the ability to lay down individual lots is a real bonus for those of us who like to spend hours fussing over the smallest details in our cities, as when used in conjunction with the flexible road system this allows for the creation of cul-de-sacs, avenues and the likes. Furthermore there is the option to not only choose where your individual lots can go, but you can also choose which building exactly can go there. So for example I can create a cul-de-sac of upmarket bungalows in one area of my city, then zone out a mass grid of apartments in another area. As your city grows, even more buildings and road types are unlocked, allowing you to truly create your dream utopia.

Now this may sound all great,, but Cities XL is far from perfect. In fact, the game could be compared to a vase of flowers. For example you can choose the vase, you can even choose the type of flowers you put in it, but it doesn’t really achieve much, it’s just something pretty to look at. What I mean is yes, you can spend hours working away creating a beautiful city, but once you have it, all you really have is something to look at. A major flaw in the game is the sheer lack of control you have over your city services and finances. Sure you can raise and lower your taxes, but that’s about as it for finances. Want to increase spending on your hospitals? Tough, you can’t. Want to introduce a citywide scheme to combat pollution or traffic? Not possible. The game tries to be a hardcore city builder, aimed at hardcore city building players, but without the ability to control any of the infrastructures then it is even a breeze for even a complete newcomer to the genre to excel at.

This is not necessarily bad, but what Monte Cristo have failed to achieve is any real sense of the challenge of building a city either. It’s just too easy to just zone out a few houses then the appropriate number of workplaces to satisfy your citizens, and then you may as well turn the game off and go do something more productive. The population won’t grow without new houses being built, as if the citizens have never even heard of childbirth. Furthermore the entire city building process feels like you zone out some new houses, citizens arrive, zone out more jobs for citizens, and repeat. The introduction of public services (hospitals, police) doesn’t occur until you’ve invested enough time to grow your city to a considerable size, which is unrealistic and tedious at the same time. I found it hard to concentrate on the game for much more than an hour at a time.

Another poor feature on Monte Cristo’s part is that your city never really feels alive. For example you can have a bustling metropolis, full to bursting with high-rises and a sprawling road network, absolutely beautiful to look at from a distance, but zoom into street level and there are never more than 10 or so cars on the same street, and the pavements are all but abandoned. Also, when you do see a citizen of your city on the pavement, they’re some abstract cartoony inbred looking types with severely distorted features and a walk like something I’ve never seen before. Why this is even in the game is beyond me. For a game that emphasises on realistic buildings and realistic city building it makes no sense that the citizens look like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

So to round things off, Cities XL is a beautiful looking game. But that’s it really. Yes, you can create breathtaking cities, but no, it is by no means a defining title in the city-building genre. With next to no level of control over how my city functioned or any real resemblance of citizens in a real city I have to say I was less than impressed by Cities XL.

Categories: Feature, PC Reviews

3 Responses

  1. Alan Baxter says:

    Fantastic stuff mate. You forgot to feature it though so I did it for ya.

  2. Graphically it pisses all over Sim City!

  3. Cheers for that Alan.

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