October 11, 2009

Cities XL - First impressions

Dale Culp says I've been having a go at Cities XL, a massively multiplayer take on SimCity, which came out a few days ago from Monte Cristo Games. So far, it's been just about amazing.

If you've ever played a SimCity game, likely you're already familiar with the finer points of building roads and assigning zones. You'll be happy to know that all of this is dead-simple in Cities XL. Select the appropriate tool, paint-in residential areas where your citizens will live, lay out industrial areas for them to work and fill in the rest with your imagination; it's like Photoshop for world-builders. As long as you maintain something of a budget and provide your citizens with the necessities of every-day life, growing your city is relatively easy.

Given the size and scope of the world you create, there's going to be a lot to draw on the screen. Taking this into consideration, the graphics look pretty good. From a birds-eye view, it's hard to be impressed, but zooming in all the way for a ground-level view unfolds the city around you, allowing you to explore the urban landscape from the point-of-view of one of your citizens. This is where the game could have been a lot better, unfortunately. Moving around is awkward. You can either use the keyboard to tilt, pan and move around or use the mouse. Either way, it's not as robust as I'd hoped. Because one of the first things you do is to create an avatar which represents you, as mayor of the city you're about to build, I wish they would have fleshed the engine out in such a way that you could "walk" around the city much as you would in a first-person shooter, interacting with your citizens and getting an idea of what they really think about you and the city you've created for them rather than reduce everything to a graph or bar chart with some text and numbers. To move about and really experience your city, to watch your citizens as they go about their daily lives and get a real feel for this place you've put so much work into, I think that would have been what really got to me. Instead, you feel more like a ghost -- you're hardly there and it's not a very practical way of getting around. It's a nice touch, but could have been so much more.

Taking the game online is where Monte Cristo Games got really ambitious, however. The land you choose to build your city on will play an important role in how your city develops. Aside from geographical considerations and the limits imposed by hillsides, weather conditions and other features such as lakes and rivers to contend with, you also have to think about the resources available to you -- oil, water, fertile lands for growing crops, etc. Simply put, if you choose a region that has no fuel, you'll have to trade with other players to get some. Likewise, you'll have resources at your disposal to trade with when other players come to call on you for their own needs. It's a little confusing and I have to spend more time with the game to really understand how it all works, but based on what I've done so far, I can't wait to keep going.

Watching your city grow around you, organically, and managing the important aspects of what goes into that are just as pleasing in Cities XL as they've ever been in a SimCity game. With the addition of the online game, however, you're being given so much more. You can visit other cities as well as play host to other players who come to visit yours; that makes room for some very interesting ideas and should be more than enough to keep you coming back for more. Because this is an MMO and it has no real end, I'm not sure how my final review is going to look. After several more days of experiencing the game, I'll have a lot more to say, I'm sure. As for now, I'm just really enjoying the game.