Cities XL isn't as supersized as its title would have you believe. Monte Cristo's latest attempt to knock the venerable SimCity off its throne delivers when it comes to standard city-building genre features, but its massively multiplayer online-style mode, where you interact with virtual city planners across the globe, fails to deliver. Not all of the ground-breaking elements are fully realized out of the box, so you're left with a pretty conventional city builder with a few innovations that hold promise for revolutionizing the genre sometime down the road.
The basics of Cities XL are pretty much what you would expect. This is essentially a revision of the now-classic SimCity formula, somewhat similar to that on display in Monte Cristo's previous City Life games. You take the role of a near-omnipotent city mayor with the ability to lay down roads, build houses, erect factories and office buildings, and so on without interference from nuisances like city councillors and chief architecture officers. Construction efforts are centered on zoning. Just like planners in the real world, you lay out street grids zoned for residential development, heavy industry, high-tech manufacturing, offices, and retail stores. Then you toss in services like sheriff stations, hospitals, electrical plants, bowling alleys, and hotels to keep everybody healthy and happy. The only difference between the gameplay and wrangling with real city zoning bylaws is the ability to be specific about what you want. Instead of setting up areas for homes and establishing allowable population density, you have specific zones for unqualified, qualified, and executive workers, along with the elite upper crust. Each group of citizens is needed for specific employment. Unqualified workers, for instance, consist of a blue-collar crowd needed for factories and the like, qualified workers serve as management in offices and manufacturing facilities, and executives take charge of places like high-tech factories.
Gameplay is geared toward city-building beginners. The solo mode of play is based around 25 sandbox cities in five regions (30 in six regions in the Limited Edition version of the game) scattered around the continents of a fictional globe. Everything is unlocked from the start of play, so you can freely move between cities in green plains where it's easy to develop a thriving metropolis and cities in resource-deprived deserts in the middle of nowhere. There are no set goals or varied challenges in these locales, however, or any spicy frills like massive natural disasters, which can lead to some city-building ennui after a dozen or so hours of play. The satisfaction of laying out cities and watching them prosper is still good enough to get you hooked, but because of repetition and the always nifty sensation of playing God, there's no sense of wondering what's next.
The game's appearance is decidedly bland. While the cities themselves look realistic at certain angles due to good use of lighting in the day-night cycle and scenic backdrop terrain, zooming in low or wandering through cities with the avatar you customize at the start of play reveals little but deserted boulevards and the odd car zipping around. Virtually no pedestrians are out and about, in dramatic contrast to the often crowded sidewalks of the City Life games. There is also little street noise. The only sound effects come when you click on buildings and are recognized by a canned acknowledgement like a doorbell ring for a residence and what sounds like a dot-matrix printer for an office. The soundtrack is also barely noticeable, being a mash of woozy jazz that sounds like something Moby would come up with after drinking a few cups of chamomile tea.
Single-player game mechanics are also somewhat blah, especially when compared to the City Life games that Monte Cristo released in 2006 and 2008. Where those games tried a different approach to city building with six different demographic groups of citizens that you had to keep separated to avoid riots, the game design here is more of a straight-up SimCity clone. This is pretty disappointing, as the class warfare of the City Life games made for challenging urban planning. Cities XL returns the focus to money. Instead of keeping the elites and the have-nots apart, you watch the bottom line. An intuitive interface provides you with all the key information needed to avoid catastrophe. Single clicks access core economic data such as class unemployment rates, cash flow, and citizen satisfaction. Economics are straightforward, with everything based on the "build houses, then businesses" method. You have to deal with requests for police protection, fire departments, health care, education, and leisure, although the great unwashed aren't too demanding. Many buildings are locked out until you hit population levels, preventing you from going off the rails with crazy expensive services. But as much as this keeps you from doing something stupid, it also makes developing each city a paint-by-numbers experience.
In the end, what you're left with is Cities XL's newfangled online component. Planet mode is being billed as an MMO game and comes complete with a subscription model where you pay $9.25 per month (or less if you take multi-month deals) for access to various online features. This fee gets you up to five online cities, which you can place in unoccupied regions on a selection of servers set up as different planets. Taking a city builder online like this is long overdue, so kudos to Monte Cristo for making the attempt. But boos to Monte Cristo for shoddy implementation. For starters, the online aspect of the game is shoved in your face too much. You need to register the game and log online to play the single-player cities, which is unnecessarily intrusive and makes offline play seem like an afterthought. Even the tutorial missions hit you with sales pitches. By the time you've finished them, you'll think that you're not getting the complete Cities XL experience without paying a monthly fee…which isn't exactly what you were promised on the box cover.
Unfortunately, you aren't getting a whole lot for that monthly fee at present. Mostly you just get promises about things like deals on coming-soon expansion packs called Gameplay Extension Modules (GEMs), which will apparently add tycoon-style minigames so you can add frills like ski resorts to your cities. Most importantly, this monthly charge doesn't entitle you to play with or against anybody else. Your subscription really just gives you access to persistent worlds made up of player-run cities. There is no real connection between city mayors aside from the ability to swap resource tokens generated by your cities and mimic a real-world economy. In some ways, this is kind of cool. Resources come in a wide variety depending on your city region, and virtually everything that you produce can be sold. You can take over an oil-rich region on a planet and start cranking out black gold like a Saudi sheikh, for instance, or move into a tropical zone and start selling off holidays. Trading with other human players is also a better option than trading in solo mode, as there you're stuck dealing with the AI-controlled OmniCorp, which rips you off on every transaction. Still, does this seem right? Should you really have to pay a monthly fee to access a trading feature that doesn't gouge you six ways from Sunday?
Also, there are serious issues with player trading at present. The interface where you check on deals being offered for specific resources is always a few seconds or more behind you, with buttons not responding to clicks and trade offers often taking a minute or more to show up after you get the initial notification that you have a proposal on the table. This can be frustrating, especially when you have a trade lined up and are chatting with the other party online. It's kind of like a tease, making you wonder if the deal is actually going to go through. Even more frustrating is the market itself. While the online community playing the game is quite active at present, everybody seems to be looking to move the same resources. Want to get rid of that excess high-tech? Well, so does everyone else. Good luck finding a taker. Monte Cristo is working on enhancing the entire trading concept, judging by the patches to the client software issued during our time with the game. But the developer will have to continue to do a lot of work before this option is ready for prime time.
As engaging as Cities XL can be for those who appreciate straightforward city building, the game is only halfway there. The single-player mode has clearly been manipulated to nudge gamers toward the MMO-styled subscription plan, which doesn't offer great bang for the buck at present. Serious improvements will have to be made to the online features to make Planet mode viable for the long term. So right now you're stuck with an unremarkable and rather conventional city-building game that's big on promises but has yet to make good on most of them.