Monte Cristo takes the city-building genre to the next level in their new title Cities XL. Having previous experience in this space with City Life, Monte Cristo has expanded on their previous title and created a city-building sim with a more complex economy aspect and the addition of a massively-multiplayer mode where players can build thousands of cities on multiple planets, conversing and trading between them.

Office With a View

It’s been several years since the last major city building sim, and Cities XL has greatly improved the graphics from prior games. Cities really come to life with the varied building types and there is an option to turn on a day / night cycle which while not adding anything to simulation itself, gives your city a feeling of life as the sun sets and the glow of lights from buildings turns on. You will need a new system in order to turn the graphics up to their highest setting, but even lower settings have enough detail to enjoy the graphical upgrade.

It’s Good to Be the Mayor!

There are two game options available – Solo and Planet mode. There is also a tutorial mode, which does a good job of introducing the operations of the game. Solo mode has twenty-five different map options for the regular version of the game and five extra maps for the Limited Edition. Map selection is very detailed and makes selecting the map for the type of city you want to build easier to locate.

For me, the ‘brass ring’ of a city-building sim has always been agriculture. In all of the Sim City titles, agriculture was possible on the outlying area of your city until demand for services caused you to increase population, which required an increase of housing and jobs. This in turn caused increased traffic and pollution, which would cause the game to convert that farmland to more industrial buildings. Thankfully, Cities XL allows you the freedom to construct a city based on the constraints you wish. I concentrated on creating an all-agriculture city and not only was successful, but the game encourages it with buildings only unlocked once you have a certain amount of farmland or silos.

This brings up the topic of a feature in the game which I think is very nice for everyone no matter your skill level with sim games. Monte Cristo has built in requirements for unlocking more advanced building and zone types based on population or amount of zones already created. I liked having this in place as it helped to keep track of what I should build next in my city. Thankfully, an option is built into the game to turn this off, so if you don’t want the restrictions, you can build any building you want as soon as you want it.

What Do You Mean I Need a Building Permit?

The interface and design of road and zone placement is very important in games like this, and Cities XL has a system which allows both the newcomer and veteran to have the control they need. Roads and zones are constructed from creating a starting point and dragging the mouse to increase the size and angles. Double left-clicking completes the construction. Once roads, a town hall, and a utility center are in place, you can commence with placing residential, commercial, and industrial zones. Gone is the management of power and pipelines. These are assumed, and I did not mind the removal of this at all.

All zone construction has low, medium, and high densities, but the addition of three different configurations for these zones is a welcome feature for further customization of your city. In addition to setting whole blocks of zones, you can choose a free-form or single-square zone placement. The free-form zone works where you are creating the outer border of the zone, and the game will fill in the zoning and road networks inside it. Using this method, you can have a residential zone in a semi-circle, an office block in an octagon, or any other shape you can come up with.

Housing has four different options based on the types of workers used in commercial and industrial buildings. These are Unqualified, Qualified, Executive, and Elite. Some buildings will require multiple worker types. For example, farms need unqualified workers, but the city hall requires qualified workers. Silos to enhance production of farms requires both unqualified and qualified. This is the type of balancing act needed in Cities XL, where you have to keep up with the different worker types on top of the demands each type of worker wants in the city.

Fortunately, all of this is easily managed in the population pane, where you can quickly see percentages showing unemployment, available jobs, immigration rate, home filling rate, and a citizen breakdown by type. You can also see satisfaction rates, cost/job satisfaction, and quality of life satisfaction. This made it simple for micromanagement of worker population and job availability, allowing me to keep my city running smoothly.

Let’s Make a Deal!

Where Cities XL starts to pull away from its Sim City origins is with the trade system. Production of goods in your city creates tokens, which can be bought and sold on the market. This means you can have that all-agriculture city without turning into a bustling metropolis which creates enough pollution to shut those farms down. You can create surpluses of food in your city, sell them, then purchase the electricity, workers, or water needed to keep pollution down and maintain a healthy agriculture area.

Cities XL goes one step further and introduces the Planet mode, where for $12 a month you get to build a city on a planet with thousands of other players. Choosing a plot of land is similar to single player, with the different map types. You get a chat window to talk to other people on the planet you’re on, and this is where the trade system really shines. In single player, you’re only trading with Don Madalf, the NPC mayor of Omnicorp. In Planet mode, you are building direct trade links with other players, swapping your surpluses for their surpluses, making deals and undercutting competition with contracts. This whole system has a very MMO auction house feel, and I really liked the way it augmented the city building experience. It gave what you’re doing with your city more purpose, rather than just attempting to get the biggest population you can without issues.

There is also a feature planned where players will randomly receive a blueprint for building a famous monument or other wonder, like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. If you decide to build it in your city, you’ll need to work with others to get the resources needed to build it. At the time of this review, Monte Cristo was still working on implementation of this feature.

Back to the Planning Board….

While there is a very complex and robust city building sim here, it is definitely not without its share of issues. First, there are some minor issues. There are no key maps. I wanted to use the WASD keys for moving the view around, but was forced to use the arrow keys on the other side of the keyboard. Customization like this should be standard in any game coming out now, and it was simply omitted.

The graphic options are limited to check boxes next to Very Low, Low, Medium, and High. With my aging system, I had to run the game on Low quality, which only renders vehicles as little grey blocks moving on the road unless zoomed in all the way. If there were options to toggle shadows or select car and people rendering separately, I could have had other building graphics rendered with more detail while zoomed out further and have a smoother game operation.

The big problem I ran into was the online trade system. The trade servers are struggling under the usage they are receiving from all of the online players, and it’s causing the trade to go up and down without warning. It is understandable that a game like this will have similar launch pains to other MMO titles, but in this case your city is directly affected by it. If the trade system goes down while you’re playing, any active trades will not affect your city, and if you were relying in imports of food, water, or electricity, your city will no longer have those. This causes services in your city to shut down and you will start losing population. The only way to prevent this is to stop playing the affected city, as when you’re not playing, game play is frozen. Monte Cristo really needs to work on this issue because it affects everyone playing at once causing them to lose progress. This is further compounded by the monthly fee of $12. While people are not paying for it yet, Monte Cristo needs to get this fixed before players are required to spend extra money for this mode.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Cities XL is a great successor to Sim City 4. Improvements in zone placement, city management, and the economy come together making an immersive, satisfying city simulation. Once Monte Cristo addresses the trade server issue, Planet mode will be an enjoyable game option where you can swap tales with other city mayors and haggle with goods produced and needed. Anyone looking for the next generation of city building simulations will find what they’re looking for with Cities XL.

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