Monte Cristo Cities XL review
The last of Maxis's genre-defining SimCity games, SimCity 4, was released in 2003. The city building series was huge in its day, and we whiled away many happy hours perfecting our social experiments and then unleashing natural disasters on them for fun. Given its popularity, we're amazed that we've had to wait so long for a successor, and for this reason alone we were thrilled to receive our copy of Cities XL.
Not surprisingly, Cities XL is a lot prettier than the aging SimCity. Virgin terrain is lush and varied, and the cities you build are detailed and full of life. You can zoom right down in to your city to see people going about their lives. The core gameplay is no different, though. Your primary task is to zone empty areas into residential, commercial and industrial districts. Your citizens then move in and construct the buildings they need. The trick is to keep everyone happy by balancing the ratios of the three types of zone and distributing them so that no citizen's commute is too arduous.
Cities XL further divides the three basic zone types. For example, residential housing has sub-categories for unqualified, qualified and executive housing. Each type is suitable for a particular type of citizen, and a shortage of one type will starve your city of the corresponding people. The only problem is that you have to pull down all the buildings and rezone an area to change its type. This is tedious and we preferred SimCity's more organic system, whereby redevelopment happened automatically as required.
Your other main task is to lay down the road structure. Here Cities XL makes a big step forward, as it allows curved highways, so you can run a road along the edge of a river or have literal ring roads. Unfortunately the buildings are still based on large square blocks, which spoils the organic look and makes any design that deviates from the classic American grid rather inefficient.
We were surprised to find that there's little more to Cities XL's urban planning than zoning and roads. Yes, you need to place specialist buildings such as police stations, hospitals, hotels and power stations, but in the case of the latter, you don't even need to put down power lines to cover cross-country sections. There's also no provision for public transport - at least, not yet.
Our main issue with Cities XL is that it feels like half a game. To get the other half, you have to subscribe to the online Planet mode, which costs from £4 a month. You'll then receive further updates over time, some of which we feel should have been included in a game that costs £20, such as public transport. You get a 35 per cent discount off the upcoming Gameplay Extension Modules (GEMs), which will include such varied content as ski and beach resorts. It's a great idea, but it remains to be seen whether these will be worth the price.
In Planet mode, you can build up to five cities on a globe that's bustling with other players' creations. You can then build up your city as usual and trade with other people's. This allows you to specialise in certain industries and trade your surpluses for resources you lack. If you can find someone reliable to trade with online, this is a masterstroke and a real evolution of the genre. Unfortunately, solo players can't trade between their own cities, which feels like a cynical move to persuade people to sign up online. Solo players can only trade with the computer-controlled OmniCorp, which offers you such a bad deal that many of the game's industries become economic suicide. Cities XL is slick and easy to pick up, but it feels as if half the game is locked up in the subscription-based online mode, and even then you'll need to pay extra for the most exciting new features. We feel it moves away from SimCity's haphazard social experiments into a more serious and competitive arena, and it's not a move we can wholeheartedly applaud.