CitiesXL: A First Look

By Jim Rossignol on June 18th, 2009 at 11:50 am.


Cities XL is the French massively multiplayer cousin of SimCity. It carries genes from both genres: you create an avatar, and then you start a city on a vast, heavily populated planet. Populated, that is, by other player’s cities. It might just be where the city-building genre goes next. The closed beta is up (keys still available from some sites, according to the homepage) and we were fortunate enough to get some access. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of yesterday bankrupting my city. No sign of a towering metropolis just yet, I’m just trying to make ends meet. More below.

The first thing you’re faced with is, as any in MMO, an avatar creation system. It’s a kind of poor man’s Sims character creator, with a rather cartoonish character being stretched, morphed and inappropriately dressed before you upload him or her to the server. The game allows you to trade between cities and for you you build places where online avatars are able to interact, such as a park where they can do stuff. I don’t know what, I’ve haven’t seen that yet, but it’s probably not skateboarding or illicit sex.

Anyway, stage two is to log into the one of the planets. These are absolutely gigantic in scale. Scattered across them are hundreds of plots of land which, if unoccupied, can be selected as a place to build your new city. Hovering over each location reveals a bit about its properties. Some areas are ideal for farming, while others might be fuel beds, or other resources. Some are lush and temperate, others are practically deserts. These factors will, of course, play into the kind of city you end up building.

Stage three is the city building itself. I wasn’t kidding about farmland: there’s enough space for it. These maps are gigantic, and suggest that the size of the cities we’re going to be able to create are pretty epic. That first screen up top is clearly a city that the devs mocked up, but my aim is now similar. I got cracking.

Having established my city with a town hall, the differences between this and the Maxis city-building models start to become obvious. Rather than building separate infrastructure and zoning, the two are integrated. If I lay out an industry sector its boundaries will be defined by the roads that people will use to get around it. I can build single roads on their own, of course, or single building units, but basing road plans around zoning for commerce, industry, and residential areas is going to be crucial. Industry doesn’t just mean ‘orrible factories, either. You can lay out farmland, and build your city into the core of a huge agricultural network.

Needless to say, I immediately got over-excited and built as much as I could. Within half an hour I was bankrupt and my economy was plummeting into the red. Raising taxes was going to be no use. I had to take out a gigantic loan. Now I’m busily trying to hammer way back toward profitability before the money runs out. As in games, so in life, etc. I’m now wondering what the exact parameters of the fail state are. Will Cities XL’s planets be littered with abandoned, bankrupt cities? Probably not, but it’s a spooky thought.

One of the peculiar things about this being an MMO is having global chat in the corner of the screen. Although the building is essentially a solo activity, there was a hum of chatter in French and English in the corner of the screen, with people asking questions and boasting about their exploits. What was interesting to me was that I kept thinking “How do I…” only to have my question answered by ambient chatter from the other players. (Even more surprising, perhaps, was how much French I understood, it being over fifteen years since I tried to speak any.) Crucially, of course, the multiplayer element means that we’re going to be able to trade with other cities to make money, and making the most of our natural resources is going to tie into that. I’ve not yet ventured into that area (I’m not even sure it’s been unlocked for the beta so far) but I’ll definitely report back on it when I know some more.

Sadly some elements of the game are still not available, and so core utilities such as power, police, and fire control are locked down, so I can’t really give you a rounded picture of the construction possibilities the game has to offer. They’re clearly enormous, however, because the things that are greyed-out at this stage are voluminous, and I’ve barely begun to put together more than a small town.

I can’t wait to see more of it as the testing continues. Assuming I can create a profitable town, I’ll be back regularly to see how things pan out. The servers are a bit wobbly at the moment, but that’s only to be expected at this early pre-release stage. From first impressions, I’m getting a really good feeling about Cities XL. I’ve not been this engaged with a building game in years. More soon!

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34 Comments »

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  1. Ian says:

    I know already that this won’t be my cup of tea, but I’ll be interesting to see how it progresses and how the game works the further you get in.

    So hopefully you guys like it and so write about it, saving me the bother of having to LOOK. :-)

  2. Shadowcat says:

    Christ, that first image is the stuff of nightmares.

  3. MD says:

    This looks like it could be a really nice surprise.

    Any word on system requirements?

  4. Gap Gen says:

    I’ve always thought that something few games get right is the true scale of big cities (ArmA often feels a bit spooky by how small the cities are). It would be interesting to see another developer take these city plans on and make a game around them (a bit like Subversion seems to be doing).

    It would be quite cool to have planets full of explorable, dead cities. Either that, or you could just have plenty of broke-ass mayors of broke-ass cities with slowly expanding ghettos, crime-ridden streets and a million broken dreams.

  5. MD says:

    To answer my own lazy question:

    ystem requirements
    Desktop Minimum
    CPU Intel Pentium 4 @ 2.5 GHz or better
    RAM 1 GB (XP), 1.5 GB (Vista)
    Video Card nVidia GeForce 6600GT / ATI Radeon X1600 or better
    256 MB VRAM or better

    Desktop Recommended
    Intel Core 2 or better
    1.5 GB (XP), 2 GB (Vista)
    nVidia GeForce 8800 / ATI Radeon HD 3850 or better
    512 MB VRAM or better

    Laptop Minimum
    Platform Intel Centrino 2 w/ Intel Graphic Accelerator
    RAM 1.5 GB (XP), 2.5 GB (Vista)

    Laptop Recommended
    Intel Centrino 2 w/ nVidia or ATI GPU w/ 512 MB VRAM
    1.5 GB (XP), 2.5 GB (Vista)

    All Platforms Minimum
    Sound DirectX Compatible
    DVD ROM 2x
    Hard Drive 8 GB
    Operating System Microsoft Windows XP SP3 or Microsoft Windows Vista SP1
    DirectX 9.0c
    Note: need to be DirectX 9.0c compatible and support Shadel Model 3.0

    So my 9800 pro won’t cut it. Pity, I was actually sort of excited about this.

  6. rei says:

    Looks great! I just dug out SimCity 2000 in order to sate my city-building compulsion, but something new would be nice too. I’ll definitely try to find one of these rumoured keys.

    (I feel like a bit of a jerk pointing this out, but the typo density in the second paragraph is quite high :D)

  7. G says:

    And besides, beta-testers of this game agreed to a NDA, so, no talking about the game outside of the dedicated places…
    But i guess no one cares.

  8. Chris Evans says:

    Downloading the beta right now, along with the demo for Anno 1404, not sure which one I should prioritise though…

  9. frags says:

    I was sceptical with this being Monte Cristo. They aren’t really known for doing good games.

  10. jarvoll says:

    Oh MAN! I *love* SimCity – this looks like a really cool idea! Of course, like most online games it’s probably going to be beyond bad, but I remain confident that one day, someone will actually make an MMO that I can play ( I used to think, for example, that Galaxies was that game; alas…). Any word on business model / payment scheme?

  11. GriddleOctopus says:

    There’s no NDA for previews.

    (Caveat: I’m the UK PR for this.)

  12. Frye says:

    If that top screenie is an actual in-game shot running over 10 fps then im buying this just to see the engine.

  13. Clovis says:

    Building cities is fun, but it is the multiplayer aspects of the game could be great. I immediately thought it would be really cool if global events could be caused by the cumulative actions of the players. IE, build too many industrial cities (and tear down too many trees) and you start to have global warming. There would then have to be some method for the players to enforce global rules then.

    And those dead cities could be a menace to other players when their starving, crazed inhabitants start invading the peaceful utopian city next door.

  14. Pie21 says:

    Shacknews had an article on the cost model… there it is. It actually seem pretty affordable, even for someone of my level of stinge.

    I’ve got high hopes for CitiesXL. SimCty 4 was great and all, but there was always something missing. I’m hoping by cramming in enough sheer scale into this game all that will go away.

  15. bansama says:

    On one hand I’m hoping they’ll have an open beta at some point as I’ve been following this on and off since it was first announced… But I’m not that big on MMOs so it’ll be interesting to see how well it works out.

    Then again, if it doesn’t turn up on Steam, my chances of even being able to play this post release are none so I wonder if I should even bother looking forward to it at all.

  16. CitizenParker says:

    I’m REALLY hoping this won’t be as complicated as SimCity 4 turned out to be. It was a gorgeous, though-provoking game that was virtually impossible. I was okay when SimCity 2000 introduced water supply, but SimCity 4 went completely overboard.

    If Cities XL can’t pull it off (and I’m hoping they do), I would love to see a city builder in the hands of Soren Johnson. His “add something, take something away” philosophy could work wonders in this style of game.

  17. 18Rabbit says:

    Massively.com is giving away 500 beta keys if anyone is interested: http://www.massively.com/2009/06/18/win-your-very-own-cities-xl-beta-key-through-massively/

  18. MrFake says:

    What’s the level of persistence? I assume cities remain on a planet when their controlling player logs off, but does the local economy keep functioning; i.e. could an untended city go broke? Is trade a one-time bulk deal or can you set up continuous trade between cities and how is that persistent?

    That’s always been my gripe with the multi-city approach that SimCity has taken: two cities will interact, but they only change while active. Not only is it a serious exploit, but it’s downright silly seeing things such as the small industrial plot that generates a Mexico City worth of smog while the neighboring Utopian Eloi live it up on a crystal clear beach.

    SimCity always needed multiplayer, and an MMO City Builder …

  19. Nimic says:

    I might actually give this a try. I was a huge Sim City 2000 fan, and had a fair bit of fun with Sim City 4 as well.

  20. Clovis says:

    The screenshots show modern cities. So… does the game start with an empty planet, and then everyone just starts building modern cities from scratch? Or does the game include some kind of explanation that you got there by spaceship or something? Or does it not bother because it is “just a game, quit worrying about his stuff”.

  21. Tei says:

    I was soo fan of sim city, that I buyed the game before my PC… so I was having the disk for the game, before a computer to use then. (I was a c64 users back then). I am more a old sim city player, than a pc gamer :-)

  22. jonfitt says:

    Seems like EA/Maxis really missed the boat on this one. It’s the logical extension of Sim City 4, but the Real Sim portion of Maxis has been somewhat lobotomised recently.

  23. Rich_P says:

    Agreed Parker. SimCity 4 might be the most beautiful, complex, and detailed city builder to date, but SimCity 2000 and 3000 are still more fun to actually play.

    I view SC4 as a fancy model kit, designed for the people who enjoy spending hours painting and building model railroad towns. SimTropolis must have hundreds of city journals detailing their creators’ painstaking effort to sculpt the perfect city. It’s quite a unique method of art and storytelling.

    As far as growing a city for shits, giggles, and fun goes, SC4 is probably the worst in the series. Shame I can’t import SC4’s graphics into SC2000 :D

  24. Sam C. says:

    I thought SimCity 4 had just the right amount of complexity. The earlier games were great in their time, and I played the crap out of all of them from SimCity Classic on, but trying to go back to the earlier versions is kind of painful. The graphics aren’t a big deal, it just seems so simplified in comparison. They’re also lacking the rewards and little hooks SC4 had. SimCity 4 had problems – some of the traffic systems were a little wonky and it could have used some more tweaking, but I still had the most fun with it I think.

    Hopefully this beta whets my appetite for some city building.

  25. rei says:

    Hurrah! Got into the beta via Strategy Informer. I’m eager to dig into it, but won’t have access to a proper computer until next week :[

  26. Serondal says:

    Is this more like simcity or more like those Travian series of games? Can you sit there and build all day if you want or can you only build a bit and then you gotta wait 24 hours or so before you can come back and do something diffrent? From the sound of things you can build a lot but risk going into the red if you do so. Sounds interesting will have to try and find a key tonight if I have any time at all.

  27. Tei says:

    I have named my first city Boatmurdered. I have created it on the center of a volcano (Mount Saint Helen, aparently). Muahahaha… o suckers!.. why is all the business bankrupt?

  28. jarvoll says:

    Huh. I *totally* thought SC4 was half as complicated as it ought to have been. When Will Wright said that they thought it was too much, and wanted to scale back (i.e. the idea that became Sim City Societies), I distinctly remember thinking, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” For example, where’s the political simulation? A more detailed economic model (that, for example, allows your city to thrive on high-tech industry alone)? Social dynamics with immigration policies? National-level simulation, in which one can make a ‘nation’ of cities and towns who share national GDP, and can engage in trade, share national imports/exports, etc..?

    For someone very interested in these kinds of minutae, as I am, there almost could never be enough to simulate in SC games.

  29. Thranx says:

    thier website is toast. Sadness.

  30. josh says:

    does anyone know if there are any beta keys left out there??

  31. Eddie says:

    I have a theory about the failed cities. Their next property is going to be a post-apocalyptic shooter, and it’s going to use the worlds full of ruins as maps.

  32. Kommissar Nicko says:

    This game seems scintillating. It’s been so long since the last good city sim, and this looks like it’s right up my alley. Honestly, I can only hope it’s at least as complicated as Sim City 4, if not more so. Taking the MMO angle seems logical enough (in fact, Maxis tried it way back with a network edition of SC2000, but I don’t think it took off).

    @jarvoll, I too hope for something like what you describe someday. Maybe the new version of Tropico will get to the heart of it?

    Anyway, can’t wait. I’m also sad I didn’t get in on the beta.

  33. bbot says:

    Jim, you’re behind the times. In SC4 zoning automatically produced roads, and plots (within the zone) aligned to them.

    As for everyone whining about complexity, I thought SC4 was all right, (even though I can always use More! Complexity!) what was really egregiously missing was car licensing taxes. No matter how many subway stations I built, the little fuckers insisted on driving, and then complaining about all the pollution and noise!

  34. Jim Rossignol says:

    I don’t remember that from SC4, feature-list overload :(