IGN Review of Cities XL 2011
Developer Monte Cristo made an ambitious move in 2009 by taking its city building game, Cities XL, online. Hampered by interface issues and low server population, the online portion, which gave players the opportunity to trade with and tour other players' cities, ultimately failed. The result is Focus Home Interactive's follow-up Cities XL 2011, a game which eliminates the multiplayer element entirely, in favor of a more refined single player game. Unfortunately, aside from some additional structures, maps and transport options, the game plays much like its predecessor, minus the multiplayer.
Before talking about the game's issues, let's talk about the things Cities XL 2011 gets right. The main barrier to city building games is that they can be tough to learn. In light of that, Cities XL 2011 offers an extensive chapter-by-chapter tutorial that gives you as much or as little guidance as you need. Good thing too, because if you're new to the genre, you're going to need a lot of guidance. The game's extensive range of button icons across the left, side and top of the screen, not to mention the many hidden sub-menus can be off-putting at first.
Thankfully, tutorial chapters can be revisited at any time— if you can stand to revisit the tutorial's goofy storyline that is. In it, you're cast as an intern in a fictional city's mayoral office. Right away you realize the mayor's something of a lazy, incompetent boob and it's up to you and the mayor's much savvier assistant to fix his mistakes. It's pretty hokey, but once you've learned the basics of road building, zoning and trading, you get to leave it behind and check out the map listing and the empty globe that's just waiting to be covered with successful, sparkling cities.
Whatever skill level you are, you'll soon realize that a successful city is dependent not only on industry and natural resources, but on the happiness of its citizens. Fortunately, you'll find the many tools for building the necessary amenities to be intuitive in much the same vein as Cities XL. Another holdover from the previous title is the way most buildings are locked until you reach a certain population level. The city building whiz kids out there won't like that, but they can still unlock all the buildings in Expert mode; for those of you just learning the ropes, it's probably best to keep things simple by leaving them locked. Beyond the extensive tool set and building constraints, the most useful thing about the interface is the way it uses at-a-glance color coding to communicate the happiness of your citizens.
When clicking icons for things like security, fire services or job vacancies, you can assess the health of homes and businesses by their color (green for good, red for bad and yellow for so-so) and act to improve them. If you're still unsure what to do, the game gives you clear (toggleable) hints like "build more residences" or "unemployment has struck skilled workers". For Cities XL veterans, all of this will be extremely familiar, as will the way the menus and trading window function (although without multiplayer, now you can only trade with your own cities or the money-grubbing Omnicorp).
Also familiar are the picture-perfect 3D graphics and the not-so-perfect music, which in its easy listening somnambulence, might lull you right to sleep. In fact, after an hour of it, you're likely to turn it off completely and turn on your iTunes. Whatever; watching your cities rise to the Inception soundtrack is much more dramatic anyway.
These things we've seen before. What's new about Cities XL 2011 boils down to additional buildings and transport options. You can access "packs" that allow you to spice up your cities with themed structures like medieval cottages, Asian architecture, seaside buildings and landmarks like the Empire State building. You can also build in well-known locations and take on the challenge of building a city right under Krakatoa or rebuild famous cities like Los Angeles or Paris. Transportation has had some upgrades and so if you've caused horrible gridlock by mismanaging your city's road network, you can fix it by building bus and metro lines. These additions definitely add interest, but they struggle to hold their own against the game's negative legacy issues.
Irritations in Cities XL 2011 include menu delays, amongst others. For one thing, status colors take too long to update. When trying to see whether adding a structure or service will make your citizens happier, you have to hover the would-be structure or service over its proposed construction site and wait five to ten seconds for the map's status colors to change. Maybe that doesn't sound like a lot, but it adds up when you're managing hundreds of structures in a large, highly populated city. For another, delayed achievement messages don't feel like much of an achievement. You'll be congratulated on reaching a cash flow of 1,000 when you've been at 20,000 for ages. And repetitive achievement messages are a nuisance. They seem to pop up every couple of minutes or so, obscuring the entire top third of your screen and it's worse if you play with the speed cranked up. Lastly, the trade delay—seemingly this is by design, emulating the passage of time, but waiting for the effects of your trades becomes tiresome.
Aside from that, there's a useless (aside from taking nighttime screen shots) day/night cycle you'll probably never use because it makes things too dark to see what you're doing. Then there's the lack of multiplayer trading; without other players to interact with, trade becomes an afterthought and you may never do it. The biggest problem Cities XL 2011 has to face though is not one of mechanics but of feel. No matter how big or beautiful your cities become, they feel stagnant and dead. Yeah, it's cool you can zoom right down to street level but when you get there, there's not much to see. A few cars whizzing by, a handful of people taking a stroll down the street, and maybe one or two folks sunning themselves by a pool or hanging out on a basketball court.
Because of this, for all their visual realism, the cities feel empty and artificial. You can't even count on a rain storm or a nifty natural disaster to mix things up; in Cities XL 2011 it's always clear and ultimately uneventful. The end result of this calm consistency is a game that doesn't feel so much like a game as it does a learning tool. Without doubt, it's educational. You can learn a lot about the problems city planners and politicians face when trying to balance a budget and keep people happy. The problem is the dry, lifeless presentation makes you feel less like you're having fun and more like you're doing homework.
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