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Crossing the Steams 02.09.13: Cities XL Thoughts
Posted by Marc Morrison on 02.09.2013



Welcome to another edition of Crossing the Steams. Last week I mention I was going to look at Defense Grid: The Awakening, and while I have spent some time with it, it's not enough time to render a verdict on the game. So I instead thought of this idea about the Cities XL franchise, what it's a little about, and what they could *really* do to improve upon the ideas it has, and try to be a bit more competitive.



For the past few years, Focus Home Interactive has been releasing the past 2 Cities XL games, namely 2011 and 2012. These were built on the remnants of the original Cities XL game made by Monte Cristo back in 2009, before poor sales of the original game caused Monte Cristo to get shuttered. Heaven knows what convinced Focus Home Interactive to pick up the franchise, more importantly; there may not be a reason as to why they haven't done anything to upgrade the game in the past 4 years.

Cities XL (and all future incarnations) work as a city building simulator. Its closest brothers are the obvious Cities in Motion and the more popular Sim City franchise. The basic goal of the game is to create a self-sufficient city where your citizens are happy, growth is steady, pollution is down, and that there are enough shops, power stations, police presence, roads to be traveled, and so on. This is the real goal of the game and it both fails and succeeds at it.

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It succeeds partially with just setting up a small town. There are four levels of citizenry to deal with, 1-4, with 1 being unskilled labor up to 4 being "elites". When you play the game, you can reasonably set up a decent 1 or 2 leveled city, which might not be perfect, but can actually coast along fairly well. The problem is when you read levels 3 and 4 and the interface problems really crop up during the time you play.

Here is one more positive (which will turn negative soon enough), the game, on the whole, looks pretty good. At street level it can look a bit janky, but when you have a bird's eye view, the graphics look impressive. There is some real detail in the buildings and the world and some of the time, it looks absolutely beautiful.

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Ok, here's the bad (and a few solutions on how to fix the problems):

1. The interface has been unchanged for the past 4 games. It might have extremely small improvements, but from the naked eye, it's still trash. Now in 2009 it may have worked (but really didn't), but it's 2013, and they haven't fixed one damn problem with it. The basic problem is that it does a dual non-functioning role of telling you not enough about what is going on, and conversely, telling you WAY too much information. It doesn't tell you enough by just it being hard to navigate, the status messages don't work well (since it doesn't tell you how to fix the problems). It'll tell you, "Oh, your city needs resources, place a Utility Center down", but the in-game status screen doesn't tell you where that is, in its myriad of countless things to click on stuff. The converse is also true; the game bombards you with information later on that it all becomes overwhelming. Once your city gets going, you will get inundated with all the problems your citizens are having in your status message. But since that doesn't tell you how to actually fix any of the problems, the people will just get more and more pissed, until they decide to leave. There's also stuff like if you have something selected for building, and you try and click something in the actual menu, the game just thinks you're trying to build where the menu actually is. You have to right click to erase your current selected option, and then you can use the menu. That's nuts.

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How to fix: Change the UI badly. It has been the same for 4 games straight with nary a change in its function or form. Let someone else actually try to make a new system for the game, so you can control everything. If I have to see that blue camera/city control wheel one more time in one of these games, I think I'll scream. Steal a page from the Civilization franchise (specifically Civ 3 and Civ 5) and actually have someone advising you in the game. Have a button that says "The advisor thinks you should…" and then have options for what that advisor wants you to do.

2. Remember how I said above that from certain views the game is amazing to look at? The key words there were "certain views". In actuality, movement, camera, and the graphics in this game are wrecked. The game engine simply can't keep up with any type of camera movement, jerking around constantly, especially when you zoom in and zoom out. Once your city expands beyond a small section of the map, you can also forget trying to zoom around from one place to the other. Even on low density maps (not skyscrapers and such), the game barely manages to keep up with itself. Like the UI, the actual game engine hasn't been touched in 4 years.

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How to fix: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, UPDATE THE GAME ENGINE! The original (minimum) specs of Cities XL were: 2.5ghz Pentium 4, 1gb of ram (2gb recommended), and a GeForce 6600 with 256mb of vid ram. The minimum specs for Cities XL 2012 were: 2.5ghz Pentium 4, 1gb of ram (2gb recommended), and a GeForce 6600, with no video memory requirement listed. The minimum specs for Cities XL Platinum are: 2.5ghz Pentium 4, 1gb of ram (2gb recommended), and an actual upgrade for once, the game "requires" an Nvidia GeForce 8800 with 512mb of ram. By the way, the GeForce 8800 it requires, that was the recommended video card for the previous games. I am positive if I had a GeForce 6600, I could get Platinum to run on my computer no problem, well besides it playing like garbage. From what I've read the game doesn't support multi-core CPU's at all. I currently have an i7 3610QM processor, and this game chugs like crazy on it. Since the game doesn't have any multi-core support, even if you had the most blazing processor on the market, it would still stutter like crazy. My video card is also a GTX 660 which I think outclasses the 6600 by quite a bit. There needs to be an actual, substantive update to the game engine, or else just build another one. You're using 4 year old technology that was already old when it was released. It's not like dual core CPU's didn't exist in 2009, apparently the original developers thought it was just a fad and didn't bother with actual support. And hey, since the engine was already done, Focus Home Interactive didn't bother fixing any of the glaring problems it had, so the issue has only compounded itself with each new release and with newer technology on the market.

3. You can't share cities/saves in the game, and the "modding" tools are broken. Pretty much sums it all up in one sentence.

How to fix: Why aren't cities sharable in the game? Think about Sim City 4, you could download other people's cities and try them out for yourself. Hell, you could do that in RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, you could freely share designs, mods, and parks that other people created or changed. This game has none of that and it's baffling. I suspect it's due to the original game having a MMO bent, where it had a persistent world where you could trade resources and try and build important structures with other players. That was a miserable failure (because they charged for it), so they removed the functionality. I assume they didn't give you city save files (back then) because someone could just create the best city ever, and everyone would copy it, breaking the MMO part. But that system is LONG gone, and they still give you no access to the city files themselves. There are some *amazing* looking cities that players have created, and there is no way to see how they look in the actual game (design-wise). On the same thing, the modding tools are also pretty shameful. The "Modding" button pops a DOS window and then directs you to a site with links to 4 Cities XL sites, 1 didn't work, 1 in French, and 2 were fine. What the button doesn't do is tell you how to install mods, or what mods you might have running, or anything actually useful. How about they actually let you transfer cities between players? Or give you some idea on how to mod the game, without resorting to a few scant sites.

These are only a few of the problems with this game, the audio (like everything else) hasn't been touché din years, the pathing on the roads/construction is a mess, the game is frustratingly hard even on the easiest land difficulty, and so on and so on. There's no "review" to this game, because of its frustrating problems and Focus Home Interactive's seemingly inability to give a damn about any of them. All the newest game, Cities XL Platinum, has is a lot more buildings to choose form. But because of the interface issues, good luck trying to see what is actually new or not. I firmly believe that they only pushed this game out right now because EA is going to release Sim City next month and destroy any and all credibility Cities XL has gained since release. While Sim City might sound the death knell for the Cities franchise, it is their fault for never upgrading the game, fixing any of the problems, or caring about their customers.

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This is a gorgeous shot of someone trying to re-create New York City within the Cities XL engine. It's completely beautiful, and likely runs at about 3 frames a second if he tries to scroll around the game world. I would have an easier time actually building NYC from scratch with my own two hands, then I would of trying to re-create it within the game.

Other Steam News

Well, three games are announced for release, but we all know that means 20 games will likely come out. The big game for next week is Aliens: Colonial Marines which is due on February 12th. This is the….3rd (I think) attempt at bringing the Aliens franchise into the FPS realm, after the semi-disastrous Aliens vs. Predator game from 3 years ago, and the well-received Alien vs. Predator game on the Jaguar (the Jaguar's only good game). On the 14th is Impire which kind of looks like a demonic version of Diablo, with a closer camera system. Also on the 14th is Ys I & II Chronicles+. It looks like a top-down action/rpg that has been ported to a dozen other systems in the past. Next week I hope I can look at Defense Grid: The Awakening, but we'll see.





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