This year seems to be the year of the updated classic.  CDV isn’t deviating from that fact with their recently released building-sim, City Life.  Developer Monte Cristo won’t be sitting on their hands just making a SimCity clone however – they feel that they have brought something new to the table.  Using a true 3D engine, more terrain and building options, a goal-orientated gameplay system, and a social structure layered on top of everything else, this game looks to improve the genre and break out of the shadow of the aforementioned title. 


 

It is appropriate that we start off in the graphics section as it is the first item you’ll notice when you fire the game up.  Gone are the blocky isometric views of other city building games, replaced with crisp and detailed 3D city that lives and breathes thanks to the inclusion of a social structure. 


A good example of this graphical eye candy really comes to light when you have fully established your city.  As it grows you’ll see buildings grow and expand with billboards and building-side murals based on the social structure of that area.  Since this game sports a fully 3D zoom capable camera system, you can also pull very close to your citizens and see what they are doing.  While they are rather blocky and tend to be clones in every way, the street-level details are impressive.  Protestors shake signs demanding equal rights as cars whisk past in the streets.  Business-suited professionals push past them to get to their jobs.  It is also fair to note that this game has a great ground floor draw distance.  You can pull the camera low and look down a street and still see vehicles all the way to the horizon.  Again, this is impressive when you realize that this is a game that was designed to be played at 10,000 feet.  While you can still spot the stereotypical divisions in your subculture’s buildings, even at 10,000 feet, it does make for an interesting city.

Yuck.  Thank God for custom soundtracks.  As a former Jazz percussionist, I can attest to one thing – there are two types of Jazz; fantastic mind-altering great Jazz, and blood curdling horrific cat-strangling Jazz.  The music in this game falls into the second category.  Porno music sounds better.  My suggestion is to find the music bar and bury it.  The only points in this category are for the ability to put in your own music and the ability to turn it off. It is really hard to tack a score on this section.  While the controls are very well executed and feel very natural, the game interface is a different story.  To help you navigate the symbols used in the interface, the game comes with a skimpy manual and a chart.  While it does help to dissipate some of the confusion, I have to admit that I was hoping for a more intuitive interface.  It is a city building sim, not a flight sim!  If that doesn’t make you wince, perhaps the occasional 1-2 paragraph explanations that pop up on your screen will.  Simply put, there is almost an information overload at times.  A good example would be just looking at the occupancy system.  You get a list of different colored people indicators up top, but it doesn’t really help you in that the numbers don’t make sense.  If I have 300 people, why do I only count a total of 45?  The icons that appear over your buildings may say 3/3 but it may mean a lot more than that.  Another example might be some of the icons on the side.  There is one that looks like a person with a three-run ladder next to them. What does that do?!  You do get tool tips, but again, it would have been much simpler to make the interface a bit more intuitive overall.  We’ll talk about what happens when those menus expand in the section below.

City Life is ambitious.  It adds a social structure to a genre that is already considered by some to be complex.  This element is simultaneously the game’s high point and low point.  There are a total of six social types in your city – the “Fringe,” “Have-Nots,” “Blue-Collar,” “Suits,” “Elite,” and “Radical Chic”.  As you can see, these really amount to stereotypes as much as social structures.  As you might expect, you won’t find the Elite and the Blue-Collar having lunch together.  In fact, unchecked and unseparated, your city will begin to tear itself apart as you get social clashes in the streets.  This can elevate from simple protests all the way to full-scale riots and firebombings.  These people sincerely don’t like one another.  Apparently none of these folks ever watched Sesame Street.


As cool as this new element is, I did preempt this by saying that the social system is also a low point.  This becomes apparent when you begin truly segregating your people.  Surprisingly, everyone is ok with this concept and there is almost no consequences at all for the action.  Simply put, once you create six self-sufficient cities that hardly connect, you’ll have a city that essentially runs itself.  If you plan your city accordingly from the beginning, you’ll all but miss the challenge entirely.


As I mentioned before, there is an incredible amount going on when you click on your build menu.  A clear example might be simply building housing.  First you have to chose from single-family, multi-family, or apartment-style buildings.  Each has a monthly cost consisting of maintenance, costs per worker to maintain it, energy requirements, and waste produced.  In fact, there is a wealth of data accompanying almost everything in the game.  Certain types of houses will attract certain types of people.  Again, it is stereotypical, but in City Life, it is also true. 


The data in the game is used to satisfy the eight primary needs for your city denizens.  They need to have work, a place to shop, health services, educational facilities, safety services such as fire and police, and leisure activities.  They are also concerned with their own quality of life and the neighborhood in which they live.  Satisfying these can be as simple as ensuring proper fire coverage, but can certainly become a challenge when you can’t get enough people into one area to create a true community.   Refining your city on the go to maximize their growth is the name of the game.  By the end you’ll find that you’ve probably done several major restructures to get your city inhabitants happy.


As I played, I noted that there was something missing – taxes.  In City Life, you cannot adjust taxes in a blanket sense.  Instead, taxes are regulated with each culture, and you have some areas that are overtaxed, and others that are undertaxed.  You won’t find the flat tax here folks.  I did find that, over time, simply having excess capacity generated enough cash flow to push me through any hard times.  Extra water, extra power, extra buildings, and extra fire and police coverage always seemed to smooth things over.  Too smooth in fact.  As I mentioned before, proper planning all but eliminates the challenge.  It seems that Monte Cristo worked very hard on the social elements of the game, but forgot to tend to the economic concerns as entirely.  It is fun, but the lack of challenge makes it more of a passing fancy.

As readers of the site know, Gaming Trend has introduced a hard and fast rule regarding the Starforce copy protection system.  As it has been an intrusive thorn in the side of my review staff, as well as my readership, we will be taking 10% off the final review score.  This will occur whether or not there are difficulties encountered during review.  If there are difficulties of a severe nature, we will be rendering a score of 0% for the game.  Games are for relaxation and fun – copy protection that impedes that and causes the user to spend time repairing their OS instead of enjoying their purchased product run counter to that. 


City Life has a lot going for it.  There is the fantastic graphic engine that allows more freedom than city building simulators of the last few years, the new social elements injected into the gameplay, the complexity of city management that has been layered on top, and the great graphics system to show it all off.  In addition to that, the $39.99 current price certainly helps.  What doesn’t help is the inclusion of Starforce as a copy protection service.  During my review of City Life I found that my CD burning software had shoved my Plextor burner into the last decade, reducing it to a 1X burn after a few days of play.  I can say that it is Starforce without a doubt as I was able to restore the functionality of Nero after removing City Life and disinfecting my system of the copy protection left behind.  10% will be removed from the game’s overall score.


As a concluding thought for the value section, it is worth noting that City Life does ship with a map editor and building import system.  Given the time and talent, you can create your own little utopia and import buildings of your own design.  I don’t have the skill to model buildings, but for the modders out there, this is a good thing.

Starforce aside, City Life is a fun distraction. It takes the foundation of Sim City and gives it a great facelift. Rather than stopping there, it adds in social elements that haven’t been done in a city simulator to date. Certainly a solid first-effort city builder from Monte Cristo, whom have made RTS strategy titles like War on Terror, party games like Xtreme Party, and a risqué adult title called 7 Sins. Let’s see what happens with City Life 2.

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