Cities XL 2011 is a city-building affair which was unfortunately given a name that makes it sound like a government form. (Cities XL 2011? Really Hasbro? This is what we’re calling this game? Notice how, years ago, someone named them “Transformers” instead of “Plastic Car-Robots 1984”. Let us reflect on the wisdom of this.) For me this game was a four-day obsession, followed by furious bickering, sulking, and estrangement. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Back in 2009, developer Monte Cristo released Cities XL, a strategy game along the lines of Sim City. The hook was that it was an online game. Each city had needs: Fuel, food, electricity, water, industry, manufacturing, high-tech, and so on. It was really inefficient to be self-sufficient, simply because some endeavors preclude others. In a city of factories, power plants, and oil fields, it’s going to be hard to come up with enough clean drinking water. It’s hard to come up with enough fuel and industry if your land is given over to farming. And so on. By trading with other players, you could specialize and thus make a larger and more successful city.
I didn’t play it. And as far as I can tell, neither did anyone else. Apparently “MMO Sim City” wasn’t a concept for which gamers were hungering. I would also argue that while multiplayer Sim City might be fun, it’s not “ten bucks a month” fun. If they had gone free-to-play and sold special buildings and other premium items, they might have done a lot better.
The rights to the franchise were bought by Hasbro, and just a year later they came out with Cities XL 2011. The single-player aspect of the game was expanded and the multiplayer was dropped, and what remained was a possible contender for the Sim City throne. Let’s pit the games directly against one another for our own amusement. (Note: All screenshots here are for Cities XL 2011, not Sim City.)
In Sim City, you must zone for commercial space, residential space, and industrial space. There’s a fixed ratio for these. You need A block of commercial and a block of industrial for every two blocks of residential. You want to put the residential as close as possible to both commercial and industrial, so that people don’t need to drive very far to get to the store or to work. Otherwise your city will be gridlocked in no time. All of this simply encourages excessively mechanical building.
|For the uninitiated: Green is residential. (Houses and apartment buildings.) Yellow is industrial. (Tractor factories.) Blue is commercial. (Wal-Mart.) The gray is roads. The government buildings in the middle cost money to build and run, and have a maximum effective radius.|
Cities XL 2011 (hereafter CXL) doesn’t allow you to settle into nice even patterns like this. It’s less brutal with traffic, which allows you to build naturally, as opposed to trying to construct a Borg cube. It’s a much deeper simulation, to the point wher you can click on an individual house and see exactly where the inhabitant works. Every business is a little simulation in itself, hiring and firing and procuring resources. The different building types are also not as simplistic as “commercial” and “industrial”. You have:
- Heavy Industry (Steel mills and the like.)
- Manufacturing (Factories making TV sets or toasters or whatever it is people buy.)
- High Tech (Software and internet companies, I assume.)
- Office space (Accounting and insurance type stuff, I guess.)
- Business hotels, which are distinct from…
- Tourist hotels.
But these businesses consume each other’s output at different rates. You need a hotel for every ten offices or so. Maybe you need an Office for every five Heavy Industry outfits. And you’ll need seven Heavy Industry buildings for every five Factories. And you need both Factories and Office to support High Tech, also in inconvenient ratios. The upshot is that you can’t just design a couple of self-contained city blocks and repeat them over and over. This encourages you to grow more organically, looking for needs and zoning for them.
One interesting twist is how residential is broken up. In Sim City, residential is simply divided into classifications of increasing density. You can zone for individual homes, for apartment buildings, or for high-rise buildings. In CXL, the game adds the additional idea of zoning for specific economic classes.
On one hand, it feels unseemly to decide, “My blue-collar workers will live here, and my fatcats will live here”. On the other hand, it gives you a lot more control over how your city looks. If you like, your rich people can live on wide boulevards by the lake and you can jam the poor people into the valley between the power plant and the oil refinery. You can pack the houses together for downtown housing, or you can space the houses out to make suburbs.
Since houses align with the nearest road, you can make winding country roads and twisted suburban cul-de-sacs. Again, it feels very natural and organic, and escapes the tyrannical grids of Sim City. I know Sim City 4 introduced bending roads, but they were finicky and the houses still wanted to line up with the world grid. Here you can build an entire city on a slight northeast diagonal, or build in concentric circles, or torment your inhabitants with a Bostonian habitrail of tunnels and roundabouts. CXL is also much better about building on rolling hills.
One aspect of the game that I don’t like is that you can’t make your own landscapes. You have to pick from one of the pre-made landscapes. You start at the world map and choose a site for your city. Perhaps you want the river delta with lots of farming and tourist appeal. Or the island with tourist appeal and oil. Or the plateaus with farming and water. But if you want to make a plateau tourist attraction, or a canyon with surrounding farms, then you’re out of luck. And I hope you weren’t thinking of trying to replicate a real-world city. (Unless it’s Paris, which is in the game with the roads already in place.)
Okay, that’s out of the way. I’ve drawn a picture of the game for you and you should have a pretty good idea of what this thing is all about. Lots of good, creative fun with a few rough edges and a few holes where Obvious Features might go. Here is how my relationship with the game came to an end:
It was the largest city I’d managed to construct so far. I was focusing on High Tech. I was exporting my Tech and using the money to import water. Everything was great. The city was balanced and attractive, and grew about as fast as I could lay down zones and roads. Lots of parks, excellent education program, no crime, and I was pulling in about $20k a month. My only problem was slight pollution.
Then I noticed the last couple of offices I’d zoned had never been built. I waited, but after a year there was still no office building. Previously built offices were suddenly going out of business. Then my Tech companies began going under because they couldn’t get the office service they needed. Office was in extreme demand, and yet offices were going out of business. This change was abrupt and unexplained.
After a few minutes I got a notification in red letters: There’s something wrong with the offices!
Yeah, I know. But WHAT? The simulation wouldn’t give me a clue. This made no sense. Plenty of workers. All of the other various services looked good. I felt like like the zoo keeper in charge of the pandas. These people had everything they needed, they just refused to survive.
My Tech companies went out of business. Since they were the backbone of my economy, I went from making $20k to losing $30k a month. I had five million in the bank, but since I was losing money the game refused to let me trade, which means my water imports stopped. Suddenly half the city was unemployed and had no running water, and the mass exodus began. I let it run while I built things and lowered taxes in an effort to coax them into doing some damn office work. The game kept telling me that “something” was wrong with offices.
Since the game auto-saves, it wasn’t possible to just revert to an earlier state. I’d put six hours into this city, and in the space of fifteen minutes it was reduced to a complete wasteland because “something” was wrong with offices. This was a series of multiple failures on the part of the game. Businesses should not refuse to operate in the face of extreme demand. The game should explain the source of a problem of this magnitude. I should have been able to trade for water with the money I had in the bank. And existing offices shouldn’t have abruptly failed in the first place.
I Googled. Nobody else seems to have encountered this problem, but it still managed to ruin Cities XL 2011 for me, forever. Sure, I lost my city, but I also lost my faith in the simulation itself. See, I like to believe that the underlying system makes some sort of sense. Perhaps I insist on it. When it becomes obvious that the thing is catastrophically arbitrary, it loses its appeal as a playground. Even doing well loses its appeal, because there’s always the knowledge that I’m doing well at running a nonsense city of random bullshit. Worse, since I don’t know what went wrong, I don’t know that it won’t happen again the next time I start doing well.
It’s a terrible shame. I really was enjoying the game until the facade collapsed.
The plot of this game isn't just dumb, it's actively hostile to the player. This game hates you and thinks you are stupid.
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