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!