This month, Focus Home Interactive have been poking their heads out of the corners, softly whispering: “heeeeeey, what about us?” in reply to community outrage over SimCity.

The general consensus is that whilst SimCity is potentially a good game, it’s not a great city builder. The size, scale, and depth of the game, including how everything is managed is very formulaic – and many people have said it’s not unlike Facebook flash games in the way that you progress. Your ultimate goal isn’t simply managing a vast and complex city, so much as working with friends to support each-other, aiming for one of the monumental region structures, for the benefit of everyone in the region.

SimCity-2013-03-10-03-39-04-02SimCity is so stringent by design that even using the hotly anticipated curved roads feels like episode in inefficiency. Creativity is one of the key aspects of city building games, and whilst the SimCity series have always had ‘rules’ dictated by infrastructural necessities, they weren’t so plainly obvious when the work-space within which you could build was much larger. Now, space is a commodity in and of itself, and not properly allocating large areas to needlessly massive structures for use later in the game is a good way to waste 40 hours of your life.

Whilst I won’t go into the games server problems here (I’ve already been there), the games mechanical problems are well known to many. Whilst Maxis have gone some way to fixing traffic path-finding and Sim AI, some still feel there’s a long way to go to make it the proper successor to a venerable series. In my stated opinion, you could still have enormous fun with SimCity regardless of all the technical problems. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that many of them are merely academic. There’s a way to circumvent them. Being a more hardcore SimCity fan you’d be right to disregard that view, but at the same time, if you’re a hardcore SimCity fan it’s likely 2013′s incarnation will never be for you. So… what else is there?

I want to reference a certain explorative cartoon crustacean

Why not Cities XL? If SimCity didn’t have the problems it faced, I wouldn’t even be discussing Cities XL at this point, because whilst SimCity is a problematic little youth, Cities XL is, in some ways, an equally troublesome adolescent. Released in 2009 by Focus Home Interactive, Cities XL offered the depth and scale of a city builder like nothing we had seen before. It was stocked full of content, such as the ability to pick regional streets without a DLC price tag, and the terrains upon which gamers could build their cities were gigantic and varied. Cities XL was a town-planners dream come true… so what was the problem?

2013-03-16_00002The biggest problem with Cities XL is a problem that remains today: due to the way in which the game was built, and the engine it uses, performance past a certain point crawls to a halt, essentially breaking the game. Cities XL 2011 came and went, with no improvement in that department. Cities XL 2012 came and went, with still no improvement in that department. Cities XL Platinum has recently come and gone… low and behold, performance is better. Did Monte Cristo fix the efficiency bugs that brought Cities XL to a close? They did not – but technology got better. Since the original 2009 release, I’ve upgraded from a 2.8 GHZ AMD Phenom II to a 3.8 AMD Bulldozer running at 4.5ghz. Whilst performance generally does decrease, the game remains playable on even the highest settings.

What does this mean? Cities XL Platinum is suddenly a viable option when people are looking for something more substantial than SimCity, so why is no one talking about that? Well, ostensibly because a buggy game doesn’t deserve your money; there are some games, however, that we make exceptions for. For instance, Arma II from Bohemia Interactive is a ‘buggy game’, but since it is so complex, built on an engine that is absolutely catered to what Arma II is about we learn to live with them in order to get what we want. It sounds a little bit like Stockholm Syndrone, but in reality, we have to look at the differences between ‘games’ and ‘simulators’, and assess for ourselves whether Cities XL is a ‘game’ in the classical sense, or a ‘simulator’. Simulators are notoriously buggy, and in my view, I treat Cities XL like Trainz, Flight Simulator X, and Arma II: technically imperfect, but mechanically magnificent.

To further support the ‘simulator’ argument, it’s important to note that Cities XL is really a constant work in progress. Each iteration includes its predecessor, with any and all DLC updates, including small graphical and game-play improvements. Cities XL Platinum is essentially the ultimate Cities XL experience. It isn’t an entirely new game, just as the Arma III engine isn’t an entirely new engine. It’s serious business.

Both SimCity and Cities XL have problems, but if you’re looking for a city builder, which one is for you?

When Cities XL was first launched, it offered the same sort of MMO experience that SimCity offers. Whilst the game was still – and is – playable offline, mayors could buy and trade resources across regions, over a “persistent online virtual community” called a “planet”. Players could even work together to build some of the games most taxing structures taken from real world wonders, such as the Empire State Building, etc,. This wasn’t free, though, and the subscription model, possibly because of the performance issues, quickly proved unsuccessful. Cities XL‘s subscription model lasted only a year, but it’s interesting to see just how much of the concept was used in SimCity. I actually defended SimCity‘s cloud saving with this exact point: they give you what Cities XL tried to, but for the cost of the box – something barely anyone pointed out.

Now, to many people, the social aspects of SimCity are exactly the problem – so there’s no sense strengthening an argument for Cities XL by referring to them. Cities XL Platinum hasn’t even a whisper of the originals’ social intent, and all the resource trading and tourist swapping is handled by AI. Cities XL is a single player game, and in reality, it was designed as one.

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In other words, in Cities XL you can actually fail.

SimCity’s build-able area is around 2km x 2km, whereas Cities XL’s is 10.5 x 10.5 kilometers. That’s one problem already solved. SimCity’s cities rely primarily solely on your income vs your outgoings. This relies solely on keeping your Sim’s happy. It sounds bizarre, but so long as your Sim’s are happy, they’ll keep paying their taxes. Whilst it’s beneficial to produce, sell, and mine for ores, it’s still very easy to stay in the green merely by spamming parks all over the place. Sim’s don’t even need jobs, so long as you keep them happy with parks, play-grounds, and other functional aesthetic pieces. Cities XL is a little more complicated than that. The needs of people in Cities XL are independent from one and other. As your city grows, they will necessarily require healthcare, policing, fire services, etc,. These are a huge drain, as they are in SimCity on your economy, but this can be alleviated by picking different sizes of a respective service. This isn’t too different to SimCity other than if their need for leisure, education, healthcare, safety and security aren’t met, they will leave regardless of what bush you plonk down next to them. In other words, in Cities XL you can actually fail.

Whilst Sim City used to have more depth in that you’d have to lay power lines and water-pipes, you needn’t do that any more. In Cities XL, too, you needn’t worry about that. There are some instances where 2013′s SimCity shows a little more depth than Cities XL: garbage trucks, dynamic, real time traffic, and services management is a good example of that. This micromanagement is designed for tiny towns, though, and not cities to the tune of 10.5km squared. Cities XL compensates for this with more budget mangement than SimCity. Zoning costs money, and a lot of it. Everything in Cities XL is built by the state, and essentially taken over by private enterprise. Residential areas, manufacturing, industry, office space and “high-tec” zoning all costs varying amounts of cash – so you need to plan whether or not you have the people to man it, and the infrastructure to ship it and support it. Too many shops, and goods will be too hard to sell. Not enough shops, and nothing will sell, causing a chain of events that really is exclusive to the franchise:

Here’s what happens if your retail sector fails:

  1. The stores go out of business
  2. The entire residential region have no retail fulfillment, so they leave.
  3. Money through taxation is reduced
  4. Industry has no workers, they close down.
  5. Manufacturing sector has no materials to manufacture.
  6. Office space has nothing to manage.
  7. High-tec sector has no produce, and no executive workers.
  8. Your city collapses.

Too much of a good thing is bad in Cities XL, and there’s always a delicate chain of economic demand that must be kept on a tight leash. You really don’t have this in SimCity, and looking back at one path to success, all you have to do is zone residential (at no cost) and plonk a bunch of aesthetic items everywhere. Sim’s are very simple people, it seems. So whilst there is in some superficial way more depth to SimCity, it’s really only within the traffic AI management, and it’s micromanagement that deters away from the bigger picture, something the title lacks as a city builder.

Success in Cities XL

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Starting Cities XL is like committing to a long and troublesome relationship. It’ll have its ups and downs, good times and bad times, but if all goes well it’ll last a life-time and grow into something grand and magnificent (although if it’s anything like mine, it’ll grow enormously over a week and then implode into a post apocalyptic wasteland). You begin by placing your highway wherever you want and in multiple places, placing your town hall and ‘city utilities’ somewhere on the map. Then, you zone residential, which has a good amount of depth:

Residential is split into four different ‘classes’:

  • Unskilled – 75 tax income
  • Skilled – 150 tax income
  • Executives – 300 tax income
  • Elites – 600 tax income

As your city grows, you unlock different densities for each. They don’t automatically upgrade according to density allowance like in SimCity, you periodically unlock density options through population growth. You’ll start by building small houses, eventually unlocking tower-blocks. Each density costs more, but offers more tax reward. Remember, citizens are a commodity themselves, and each industry sector has the same unlockable densities. For instance, it’s a bad idea to place high density industry with low density unskilled workers, since there won’t be enough to run it. Likewise, the different industry sectors require a mix of different workers. Offices require a mix of skilled workers and executives, and high-tec offices require more of both, and at some stage, elites. Keeping everyone happy is the key to keeping everything afloat, which in turn, keeps everyone happy.

Providing food and city services is equally important. We’ve already discussed hospitals et al (they’re not upgradable in Cities XL), but Cities XL also offers the ability to create garbage waste dumps at varying sizes. Nothing is Cities XL is capped to the degree that it is in SimCity, and this is my favorite aspect.

Zoning builds roads and aesthetic features around it. You can build zones either linearly, with a road and sections for industry or residential either side, or in a rectangle with all the zoning in the middle and roads around the peripheries – or you can ‘free-zone’, which allows you to click roads in varying positions, designing an area however you wish. There are also curved roads, which are fun to use considering the work-space. This means that Cities XL potentially produces much more dynamic, realistic cities. It isn’t one clinically tidy grid: it is whatever you want it to be, often, like some of the worlds greatest cities, a big, unplanned mess.

9It’s incredibly quick and easy to expand in Cities XL and to be honest it’s a relatively easy game… but only in the same way that games like Anno are easy games. Take a look at the Anno dynamic. Impatient players often spam market places, fisheries, and town houses with a view to increasing population as quickly as possible. This surge of townsfolk is great at the start, but the inefficient use of space, and often over-production of produce without appropriately looking at exactly what you’ll need tends to bite you in the arse later in the game. If you want, you can blast through Cities XL in around 40 minutes, using up about 25% of the available space with no foreseeable problems. Soon, though, you’ll notice how crime takes over your streets, and the residential sector shuts down because you spammed one too many shops, or one too little, and the roads are too convoluted for any city services to reach. Expansion might be easy, but collapse is equally easy without looking far ahead and taking it slowly.

I think I’ve done enough to prove that Cities XL is at least a city builder worth looking into, so let’s stop talking about the mechanical differences and similarities and quickly look at the aesthetic ones.

Two pretty games doing their own thing

SimCity’s aesthetic, in my opinion, is wholly reliant on the wonderful soundtrack by Chris Tilton (Fringe). Without this rapid and eloquent repetition, the elegant day to day motions of the tiny toy town would lose all relevancy. I’m in love with the SimCity soundtrack, but not its art-style. Whilst the tilt-shift adds a crisp, layered appeal to the whole thing, I can’t help but feel it further perpetuates the “I’m playing a Facebook game” sensation that many – including myself – suffer in game. Cities XL goes the other way, offering realism. It also pulls it off astonishingly well. You’ll be amazed when zooming to street view just how full of life, and thick, your city just is. The streets, variation of buildings, right up to benches, lamp posts, traffic lights and everything else that amounts to a metropolis, gives you a level of creative satisfaction in some god-like way. “I created this?”

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What’s more, Monte Cristo give you full control over the day and night cycle, allowing you at any moment to change the lighting and atmosphere of your city. If you’ve got the rig for it, Cities XL is a breathtakingly beautiful game, and although it launched in 2009, the updates to the engine retain a sense of polish (at least visually) that rival SimCity in 2013. Whilst it’s not as fun to follow around the citizens of Cities XL, because the street-life really isn’t a real-time dynamic or anything, the over-all effect is one of authenticity without gimmick.

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Of course, Cities XL features the same emphasis on creating tourist traps, hosting events, and expanding travel options as SimCity, but like many things, it takes those concepts further and offers you more options. Cities XL Platinum for instance features all of the regional building DLC’s from prior games, allowing you to stylize your cities at a whim. Other notable differences are the inclusion of an Aspen inspired snowy landscape, allowing mayors to build cities on mud, snow, desert, and green-land. Each of these types are better for milking various resources, and some are better than others for tourism.

Like SimCity, Cities XL has pre-made maps to pick from, indicating specialization and difficulty in stars. If you don’t like that, you can rotate the planet map and pick a city you like from there. You can even re-create Paris from a road template, with the Eiffel tower pre-made. Focus Home are French, after-all (I like to use Paris as my garbage dump… Just kidding).

Closing thoughts

I’ve clearly covered more of the aspects of Cities XL here than I have SimCity, but decidedly so; no one seems to know anything about Cities XL, a game I’ve been playing since 2009 to varying degrees of success. Cities XL isn’t too fundamentally different to the classic Sim City dynamic, but it’s owed relevancy now because it is wholly different to 2013′s incarnation. SimCity is a game about micromanagement, addiction, and enjoying bits of novel whimsy. Whilst it’s been criticized as such, it’s really not a very serious game. Cities XL on the other hand is. Whilst I won’t lie to you and claim the performance problems have been solved – they haven’t – technology has gotten so good as to almost negate them. Look back to my argument regarding ‘simulator’ vs ‘game’ and decide whether or not you want to put your money down on something that some consider to be fundamentally broken, but at £19.99 with tonnes more content than Maxis’ £49.99 effort, it’s really a matter of falling on the most comfortable sword.

We already discussed how SimCity is at least as broken as Cities XL, but given Cities XL is now playable, and people are asking for things in SimCity that already exist elsewhere, why the hell don’t you give it a go? It’s a thing. It exists. Far be it from me to tell you what to play, but I think it’s about time Cities XL deserves a look in, and Focus Home Interactive’s modest relaunch didn’t really do the title justice. I’ve said it a lot privately: SimCity is the better game, but Cities XL is the better city builder.