Review: Cities XL Platinum

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The vacuum left by the SimCity series after 4 was a perfect opportunity for another developer to swoop in and claim the city-building throne. After all, as venerable as it was, SimCity never actually ventured into full 3D, and the rare competitors that did could never match the quality of the core simulation. Eventually the folks behind Cities XL stepped up to the plate, and while it ticks all the right boxes for a fine city builder, it also leaves a lot to be desired.

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XL’s pitch was that you could finally build the modern city of your dreams, as huge and sprawling as you want. To that end you lay roads, zone for residences and businesses, provide utilities and services, and manage the finances of your burgeoning burg, just as you would in a traditional SimCity. All of this is rendered in full 3D, with skyscrapers rising from the hills and valleys of your map, all while little cars and even people traverse your network of streets. From that perspective, it’s pretty much what anyone wanted from a SimCity 5.

But Cities XL is more than just a copy of the old formula. The familiar residential, commercial, and industrial zones are split into types that demand specific resources of each other. Homes can be zoned for unskilled workers, skilled workers, executives, and “elites”, whatever that means. Industries can be anything from farms to factories, tech centers to office complexes. Different industries require different proportions of worker classes, and then produce goods for your shops and trade outside the city. Some resources are limited by the map, such as having specific agricultural zones for farms or fields for oil. Not every map has every resource, either, so use of the trading system becomes necessary as you expand.

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New buildings such as larger services and higher-density zones unlock at certain population levels. In a strange twist this happens at specific “ticks” that actually make XL play more like a turn-based builder than a real-time one. You can set the amount of time between each tick, but until it rolls over nothing will really change in the city. Income, trades, unlocks, and changes to building status are all held until the next tick. Honestly I found speeding up the ticks more useful than playing slow because it keeps the money rolling in at the pace you need to expand.

And boy howdy, will you be expanding. The specific balances of workers against workplaces is so fragile that you’ll constantly be zoning new houses and factories to keep up with the alerts pouring in. This isn’t the lazy suggestion of SimCity’s RCI meter, this is the constant threat of businesses going bankrupt and citizens streaming out of your city. The way Cities XL is designed, your city will never be at peace or even equilibrium. You’ll always be lacking something, and forever be pestered to fix it.

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That brings me to my chief complaint about the game, the feel of it. Stripping away the complexity of the zoning and additional systems, you could almost mistake XL for a SimCity if not for the incredibly cheap feel of it. Every single menu is a simple blue gradient with text misaligned on it, like a developer’s first mock-up of a UI. The building menus have teeny-tiny tooltips and titles, leaving you to rely on the blurry icons to figure out what you’re building. You have several zoning tools at your disposal but they all map out fields of square zones mashed against each other at awkward angles or in boring grids. Sure, you can make curved, complex roads, but why bother if you’re just going to be snapping cubes against them?

In the end, the shoddy presentation and the unnecessary complexity doom Cities XL to languish behind even the earliest SimCities. The graphics can’t even save it, cursed with washed-out colors and bland models for even the largest skyscrapers. You can make enormous, sprawling cities but they’re just going to be grids (or knots) of ugly, samey buildings, with little to even differentiate offices from condos. And honestly, if you can’t build a city you can admire, there’s just no point to building.

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