First Impressions | Gameplay Highlights | The City Simulator | Roads | Terra-forming | Complexity | Graphics
Transport Options | GEMs | The Online Planet Offer | Online Trading | Blueprint Proposals | The Avatar | Custom Content | Overall Impressions | Discuss CitiesXL
CitiesXL First Impressions [Top]
CitiesXL is Monte Cristo's attempt to evolve the city-building genre to the next level. If you have been following Monte Cristo's developer blogs, you will already have a pretty good idea of where they want to take CitiesXL. Monte Cristo graciously invited me to Paris to meet the development team in person and to play a build of the game for myself. Here, I'll share my impressions.
First, I think it's worth mentioning since I am speaking to mainly an audience of SimCity devotees here, that it's fair to say we all have a collective expectation of what a city-building game should be. It is a genre that was established – and has since been largely defined – by SimCity. While I feel it would be unproductive to always cling to these preconceived notions of what a city-building game should be, it will be too irresistible to draw comparisons between SimCity 4 and CitiesXL.
Having said that, my initial impression of playing CitiesXL was that I was playing something very new, and yet, something that was actually very familiar. Speaking as a devotee of the genre; this is a good thing.
Now, to say that CitiesXL is just an improved version of SimCity would be doing a huge disservice to Monte Cristo, and the implication is not only unfair, but I think misses the bigger picture.
CitiesXL really is a strikingly different game, but founded on some well-established principles of city-building. To be fair, these principles are really universal for any type of economic simulation: managing supply, demand and growth. These are intuitive concepts, and are easily familiar to anyone. Monte Cristo has taken advantage of that, instead of creating a new set of complex rules which would need to be explained, rationalized and then learned by the willing player.
So, starting with a familiar foundation, CitiesXL seems to take us in some new directions. Some of these are options that we have always wanted in a city-building game; like freeform roads, a true 3d engine, complex transport options, and yes, even online play (I'll get to that later). As well, CitiesXL brings some pretty ambitious new ideas to the table.
Gameplay Highlights [Top]
Let's get right down to what it's like starting a new city. You're given a sizeable swatch of land, about 10 x 10 kilometers. As far as I know, this is the only size available at the moment. I will say that 10km x 10km seems like a pretty sufficient area to play.
The first thing I did was check out the new road tool. As you might have seen from some of the movies Monte Cristo has released, the ability to draw roads at any angle, curved or straight, is indeed liberating and fun. I drew a rather impractical road layout, and connected it to the highway nearby.
Then, it was time to zone. We have Residential, Industrial, Commercial and Leisure. Each zone type has three density options. I created some low density Residential and Industrial zones, and almost immediately, houses started to grow.
Then it was on to creating jobs and starting up the city economy, and balancing the need for growth against budgetary and other concerns. The fundamental concepts should be instantly familiar to city-building players, and traditional SimCity players will find a nice comfort zone.
As Mayor, you set the conditions for your Private Sector to grow and thrive (which include businesses and residents). You are directly responsible for planning and deploying infrastructure, and public support services, such as schools, police stations and hospitals. Each support service has an area of effect, which take into account the speed and efficiency of your transportation networks, instead of simply calculating distance. So, as long as your service is well served by your road networks, you'll enjoy optimal performance, even if it isn't necessarily located in the centre of your city.
If your city doesn't have a power plant, then the simulation will assume that you will import it, and as a result your citizens will pay a higher rate. If you do decide to power your own city, your citizens will be happier by paying much less, although you will have to deal with pollution. The same concept applies to water and waste treatment.
The City Simulator [Top]
As I played, the game offered as much information as I cared to see. There are overlays to examine things like pollution and traffic to help plan city expansion. There are advisors who will give tips when invoked, but were otherwise non-intrusive. The Population Stats screen tells me how many citizens I have for each citizen class (Workers, Qualified Workers, Executives and Elites), how many homes are being filled, immigration rates, available jobs and unemployment. If there are lots of jobs available for Qualified Workers, that usually means I don't have enough Qualified Workers, so I would work on bringing more to the city, for example. I can check on my Residential, Commercial, Industrial and Leisure zones to see the demands for each. The Budget screen shows my expenses and lets me set taxation levels. All the tools seem to be there for the fiscally responsible mayor, but Monte Cristo has abstracted the actual values into percentages.
As my city grew, more options opened up for me which kept things constantly interesting. I didn't see any notifications, so I had to go in and check my menus to see what new options became available, for example a bigger school or hospital or higher zoning densities. I expanded my city, not always intelligently, drawing absurd road networks and wasting money on bridges to nowhere. Admittedly, it was just fun to do. I did not see any candy-cane lanes.
Let me take a moment to say that drawing roads and bridges and tunnels was pretty satisfying and easy. Drag the road tool over a hill and if you have the funds it'll create a tunnel or draw over the surface and bridge any gaps. Use the SHIFT key and you can make bridges manually anywhere. I imagine, theoretically you can have a raised road system traveling over your city, with the only limitation being that you have sufficient space beneath for the supports.
The build I played had a terra-forming menu option, but was not functional. Monte Cristo has yet to determine the extent of terra-forming options for the player. My sense is that there will be basic terra-forming options while in the game such as leveling terrain, but the ability to do map-level terra-forming is unclear.
So, back to the game. As time went by, I always felt like there was something to do, some issue to resolve or new expansions to plan. In the time I played, nothing became so pressing that it dominated my game play. I felt like I could pursue my own goals, if I accepted the repercussions. The simulator had its own mind, but I never felt forced to go down any one direction. In this way, I think CitiesXL might become a much more flexible city-builder, allowing you to really specialize your city as you see fit.
So, after a couple of hours my city grew to just over 10,000 citizens. While there was no chance of it being mistaken for a great city, or even a good one, I have to say there was a certain gratifying sensation about the whole experience. I felt that the city seemed to be exactly the product of my own handiwork, as poor as it was.
That is to say, I felt that the simulator gave me the kind of result that I deserved. It didn't insist that I win, and it didn't seem punishing, either, though I had been given plenty of challenges to occupy myself. (I didn't notice any difficulty options, so I'm not sure if there will be any when the game ships.)
Of course I can't be too conclusive after only a single session of play, but it felt like the simulator was doing a pretty good job overall. Being a staunch SimCity devotee, I felt relieved to see that the level of complexity we expect from a city-building simulator seemed to be intact, and had not been sacrificed in an effort to appeal to a wider more "casual" audience. I am not implying that more complex games are more "fun", but it is fair to say that a certain pedigree of city-building gamer expect a certain level of sophistication from a city simulator.
Visually, the game looks pretty good, but I would expect to see more polish when the title ships. With a truly 3d city, you can now go right down to street level and walk around and see everything from a citizen's perspective. You can click and follow any car around, too. There is a postcard mode for the camera allowing you to take glamour shots of your city. I would expect that there would be other options to customize your city, such as naming your streets or putting up signs to name your districts.
I was told that there will be different building styles for European, North American and Asian type cities, with the potential to refine even further; for example, you might have Chinese, Japanese or Middle-east styles.
I think I could have easily played for the rest of the day, and it was a surprise when Philippe mentioned how much time had passed.
Transport Options [Top]
So we ended the game session, and debriefed a bit, and then I got a sneak preview of some new network options that were being developed. Specifically, the bus system, and the way it works is pretty straightforward. First, you plop down a bus terminal which will designate where you bus line starts, then you plop down an end terminal. Along the way, you plop down bus stops. It's worth noting that a bus stop will occupy the road and sidewalk tile so you don't need to destroy any buildings. The system seems very precise and knowing exactly how your bus routes are set up is going to be immensely useful in planning your transportation network. The same deployment system would apply to trains, subways and other types of rail.
Traffic, as you might have read, is simulated on a per lane basis, and further control of allowing you to control direction and add special lanes should please network enthusiasts. There will be plenty of modes of transportation, which include many options for local transportation as well as intra-city transport.
Additional gameplay mechanics will be available with the introduction of GEMs or Game Enhancement Modules. If you haven't read about GEMs, the basic concept is this: You have your city, and GEMs are modules that you add to your city which gives you more micro-management options. For example, the Ski Resort GEM will let you plop a ski resort, and then you would actually be able to go into the resort and manage it like a "Tycoon" style game. While you're playing your GEM, your city is not developing, and if you are successful with your ski resort, you'll enjoy a bonus to your city. GEMs are self-contained, you can buy the ones that interest you, and you do not need to be online to play them.
Expand this concept further and GEMs could add all kinds of complex details, and continue to expand CitiesXL. One of the scenarios we discussed was a traffic enhancement module, where you would be able to get right down and really fine tune your transportation network, micromanaging lanes, traffic lights, and so on. The possibilities here seem pretty expansive, just take a look at how many "tycoon" style games are out there (Monte Cristo have been responsible for a lot, themselves) and imagine that kind of game now integrated into your city. Think airports, seaports, casinos, zoos, prisons -- I'm just imagining here, but the possibilities seem pretty vast.
These are just some of the meaningful innovations CitiesXL is bringing to the genre, and it's shaping up to be a heavy-duty and detail-rich city simulator. But so far, we've talked only about the single player offline version. So let's talk about the online component – I know, I can already hear the scraping of eyeballs rolling in their skulls, but stay with me for a bit, you might even be surprised.
Before we get too far along, let's reiterate something that Monte Cristo has taken great pains to establish, and as they have found it important enough to emphasize to me, I'll repeat it here: CitiesXL is designed to be a solid, single-player city building simulation game first. The online component gives you a new horizon to explore and new ways to interact, although it will cost you a few bucks a month. So here's what they have in store.
The Online Planet Offer [Top]
Monte Cristo will host several "planets" – persistent online worlds on dedicated servers – capable of hosting thousands of cities. Once you choose your planet, your first task will be to select a site for your city. You'll be able to toggle overlays on the planet to select the type of terrain you prefer, such as mountains, grasslands, coastal and so on. You'll see coloured dots where a potential city site could exist, showing which sites have been claimed, which sites belong to your friends, and which ones are still available.
The online component ties heavily into the CitiesXL website, which seems intended to become not only a social platform, but a portal into your city when you're not directly in front of the game. You'll be able to access your cities' trade agreements, "Blueprint Proposals", as well as your stats and the activities of your friends.
As a socializing tool, you'll have your own Mayor profile, and a dedicated section to create your own City Journal. The CitiesXL website becomes an accessible way to check on your city from anywhere (say, from work, or school).
Building a city online is more or less fundamentally identical to playing offline, as all the same rules and principles apply. However, now that you are playing in a populated world with other real people, you get some interesting gameplay additions. The most obvious is trade. If you're situated within reasonable transportation distance to another player, you can offer up a "contract proposal", or trade deal.
Online Trading [Top]
These deals are mainly comprised of city resources, such as water, power, waste management, jobs, workers and even vacation spots. "Tokens" are the currency for your resources, and you sell and swap them as you please. The game engine does not impose any inherit value on them, so their value is entirely subjective. For example, you might have an excess of power, but you are short on Qualified Workers. You open a contract proposal with a nearby city, offering your surplus power tokens, in exchange for Qualified Worker tokens (or whatever else you might need). If the other player accepts, then you have a deal. The deal will be set for a certain number of days, and you would each be responsible for holding up your ends of the bargain. So, for the duration of the contract, you are obligated to provide a certain number of power tokens, and you would expect to receive your Qualified Workers.
But, just like in real life, situations can change. What if you're unable to fulfill your end of the contract? What if, with the help of incoming Qualified Workers, your city has grown to such a point that your power is no longer a surplus? When you are unable to meet your trade obligation, the other player will have the option to cancel the agreement, or renegotiate the terms with you. Maybe you'll offer something else, or come to a new agreement altogether. In theory, I think it sounds like it could be a pretty interesting dynamic, so we'll have to see how it actually plays out.
Blueprint Proposals [Top]
Another reason to check in to the CitiesXL website is to see if you've received any Blueprint Proposals. I've been told these appear randomly every day, and you'll get anywhere from zero to three Blueprint proposals. A Blueprint proposal is a project plan, say, for a special building, or a landmark that you can build in your city (e.g. The Statue of Liberty). Each blueprint project will have a set of objectives that you will need to meet in order to progress. You might require a certain number of tokens for several types of resources in order to complete one phase of the project.
Once you've embarked on a project, it will appear in a kind of "progress track" showing what you have done, and what you need to do in order to accomplish the project. Here, again, is an opportunity for you to interact with other players. You might make trade deals and buy or trade for the necessary tokens you need to complete your project. You can complete the project entirely by yourself but it will take you longer.
Mega structures are extra large and elaborate projects that might require several smaller projects in order to be completed. An example we discussed was the Space Shuttle. Given that such a project is large in scale and complexity; motivated mayors might cooperate to accomplish the project together instead of attempting the whole project alone.
The Avatar [Top]
With all the online interactions, you will need a way to represent yourself, and that's where the Avatar Studio comes in which was demoed a few weeks ago (much to the bemoaning of some players). I think once you get passed the idea that it looks like a "Sims" creator, and think about the online component, the social interactions, the ability to stroll through a friend's city in person, the Avatar concept starts to make sense.
Yes, there will be support for custom content, the question is, to what extent will players be able to customize? At the very least, there will be an official toolkit to create and design new assets, such as buildings. I asked Monte Cristo if the content users create would be limited to only visual or cosmetic enhancements, in other words, will users have the ability to add and modify features to the buildings they create.
The answer is that they do not have a firm answer at this time if they will officially support the actual modification of the building property and game mechanics. They have said that they will wait to see where the community wants to go, and will respond accordingly.
Ideally, they said, they want to work with the community, that if there were modifications being made because the game engine was lacking, or bugged or otherwise deficient, then obviously, they would consider these alterations in an official patch or update.
When it comes to a game where there is an online interactive component, allowing players to freely modify building properties and core engine rules, can be dicey, and would impact the balance of the online world. Monte Cristo has emphasized that they intend to fully support CitiesXL, listen to feedback and provide updates as they become necessary. For me, this was a reasonable answer, and we'll just have to wait and see how custom content will fully play out.
Overall Impressions [Top]
After SimCity 4, there has been a vacuum in the city-building genre. SimCity Societies did not meet the interests of this particular community. I have a very good feeling about CitiesXL, and a very positive impression even with the unfinished build that I played. Monte Cristo has been active in our community across the many sites dedicated to the genre, and they are obviously listening to what fans want. For example, they said that the Network Addon Mod (NAM) has really inspired them, so kudos to the NAM Team.
Talking with Monte Cristo, I really did get the sense that they do know what goes into a good city-building simulator: complexity, sophistication and realism, and it all has to be fun and rewarding.
There is certainly a business motivation to include as many old and new players to the genre as possible, and I did have some concerns that when developers try to appeal to the "casual" player base, they tend to err on the side of simplicity. Spore, is a pretty good example of what is clearly a technically complex game, having very little gameplay sophistication (in my opinion). And Societies is an example of a city-building "theme" game that is far too casual for a long-time player of the genre. CitiesXL is shaping up to fill the gap, and to offer some pretty new innovations.
I hope that gives you a pretty good idea of what CitiesXL is like from the perspective of a traditional city-building game fan, and I think we can expect to see and hear more in the coming weeks. CitiesXL is due out some time this year.