With SimCity Societies taking a disappointing new direction in 2007, SimCity 4 was the last title with the series-defined classic play style. The revival of this style of city building simulation came through with the release of CitiesXL in 2009. Despite having spent many hours on SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 back in the day, I somehow managed to miss this first title of the series. So with no previous experience with the first title, I will start things off with my initial impressions of CitiesXL 2011.
Upon startup you are asked to play the tutorials, and having been away from the genre for several years I opted to do them. Flying through the first three tutorials on the game basics, I was prompted to either play the game or continue on the tutorials. From the tutorials alone I was able to draw many similarities between CitiesXL and SimCity, so I seized the opportunity to start my very first city. Spending a good fifteen minutes building up a small city had convinced me that CitiesXL, in many ways, is worthy of being named the spiritual successor to SimCity 4. Back then, zoning was a choice between three levels of density, and laying down your choice of residential, commercial or industrial space. Taking this concept further, CitiesXL further divides the three types of zoning into a combined twelve sub-types. To further complicate things, each of the thirty-six possible combinations depends on another sub-type of zoning. Thankfully enough, when I started my first city, I was limited down to a handful of choices. As my city grew so did my choices in zoning and transportation. Strangely enough each unlock ended up being an achievement, and every few minutes a slew of them would bombard my screen. After turning off the achievements display, and removing the progression based unlocks by checking the “expert mode”, I was ready to start a proper city for the long run.
Choosing a challenging map out of the forty-seven unique locations available, I set to start my first long-term city. Having only spent half an hour on my first city, and enabling the “expert mode” I quickly realized the importance of the progression based system. I had made the mistake of jumping into higher level zoning extremely early, causing me to constantly throw off the ratios. Of course as time moved on I managed to handle the very fine employment demand to availability ratio. My biggest issue with the zoning was the lack of clear and concise information especially considering how finicky the balance is. The only time I would be aware of such issues is when the citizens or businesses would express a lack of surplus of certain resources. It’s a shame that they didn’t implement a simple graph like SimCity where it shows the offer/demand of each zone type. Speaking of features, I also wish there was some sort of grid based snapping system for the roads. Pre-building the road infrastructure is important for more serious players to prevent traffic issues in the late game. However when I would attempt to lay down a logical infrastructure, I would often end up with misaligned segments and lots of wasted place when I would start zoning. I did manage to remove some of the guesswork by taking the standard square zoning and attach the included roads to a high capacity backbone.
Overall CitiesXL takes a good step in the city building genre. I really enjoyed how much of the building process has been streamlined. Where SimCity would make me manage multiple utilities, the zoning and road system remained quite trivial. In CitiesXL you drop a general utilities building and then you focus on the much more complex road and zoning system. While the zoning balance gets increasingly complex and finicky to manage, leaving the “expert mode” off will slowly introduce the new zoning and make management much easier. Speaking of management, the game provides loads of data that should be used for creating the best city possible. Despite the large amount of overlays available, I only used the employment and traffic ones because the rest were quite irrelevant. Most of the issues with my city came down to the zoning ratios and I could not find anything on the demand for each type. This makes it very difficult to judge if there is a surplus or a lack of any type of zoning.
While CitiesXL may still have some rough edges here and there, most of them remain out of a casual player’s sight. Taking the classic SimCity 3000/4 style of game and improving on most of the mechanics was a great idea considering it has been eight years since. The streamlined nature makes it both easy and great to jump in for a short playing session. Heck it’s become my go-to title when I’m looking for a change of pace or just wanting to take a break. With some added substance and polishing, future iterations could topple SimCity out of existence. For now we can settle on a good interpretation of what was once a popular series.