I’ve often complained that I hate the trend of publishers and developers releasing a new version of a game and failing to improve anything. Normally, this is in reference to a specific popular first person shooter, but I think a new game might have won the award for “Least evolution from the previous title”.
That game is Cities XXL, supposed sequel to Cities XL, which publisher Focus Home Interactive contains “hundreds” of improvements and additions, but which is so fundamentally identical to the original that, if you already played the first, will likely have you double-checking that you’ve launched the correct game. This isn’t helped by the fact that even the game’s launcher seems to think it’s running Cities XL, if the game window is anything to go by.
Cities XXL – and that additional X is really the biggest change here – doesn’t do itself any favors then. The original was an ok, if less than inspired city builder that relied mostly on the sheer scale of cities that you can build, but was heavily criticized for suffering from a clumsy, awkward interface, lack of direction or decent tutorials, and some severe bugs and technical issues that could see the framerate plummeting into single digits. While not an awful game, it suffered from being too boring to really get invested in, and had nothing gameplay-wise to distinguish it from many of the other city builders we’ve seen before. So when I saw the announcement trailer for Cities XXL, I was hopeful that Focus had learned from the mistakes of the previous game and created something unique this time. What I was greeted with managed to surprise even me.
From the moment I started playing I had a distinct feeling of Déjà vu. I felt like I was playing the same game I first played back in 2009. The feeling was so intense that I decided to go back and play the original to just double check that I wasn’t losing my mind, and it wasn’t long to realize that I wasn’t. The two games are so similar that the only differences I could find were the addition of a few environmental buildings and a different color scheme for the UI.
Which leaves me in a tricky situation, because I’m not sure what’s worse: releasing the same game every year or releasing the same game every 5 years. But it leaves a very sour taste in the mouth to see a game being marketed as a brand new game, with “hundreds” of improvements, when there’s nothing of the sort. At least not to the naked eye. If Cities XLL wasn’t actually so flawed, this wouldn’t be too bad; after all, plenty of other city builders simply expand on the original design by offering a few more buildings, perhaps some new scenarios, a small handful of new features.
But here we don’t even get that. There’s nothing about the new buildings that would have prevented them from being released as a small bit of DLC, or patched into the game for free. The “improved” engine suffers from all the same performance issues as the original, and the interface is just as hair-pullingly unintuitive. As city builders go, Cities XXL at least pushes the boundary in city size, because the maps you’re given to play with are massive; and this fixes one of the major problems that I’ve always had with SimCity, that the cities constantly felt small and unrealistic, more like an imitation of a small town rather than a real functioning city. My congratulations then to Focus Home for at least having a sense of scale and recognizing that if you’re asking players to create a vast urban sprawl, you need to give them more than the city building equivalent of a back garden in which to do it. Just a shame, then, that urban sprawl leads to system crawl, as the engine judders and slows and, on more than one occasion, leads to lengthy of waits of up to 30 seconds while the game tries desperately to catch up with itself.
Unfortunately, beyond this, the game mechanics are going to sound very, very familiar. You build roads, and then zone out residential, industrial, and commercial districts exactly so many other city builders. While I’m sure that this is probably the best way to construct a city builder and is the most user-friendly way to complete this task, I’ve seen it so many times that I’m beginning to completely lose interest. All of this also has a negative effect when combined with the large size of the cities, because you find yourself going through the same zoning process over and over and over again with very little development or much in the way of new twists to keep things feeling fresh.
I felt like I was just going through the same checklist of motions again and again with very little progress in the gameplay. The only tangible difference I could notice in the zoning system as the game went on was that you get options for denser styles of buildings, meaning that you are doing the exact same thing but it just counts for double or triple of what you were doing before. Even the plot sizes are identical when zoning buildings; there’s one square plot size and if you don’t like it then you’re completely out of luck.
This doesn’t mean you end up building a completely square city with no interesting shapes or original ideas; you’ve still got a lot of freedom in how you decide to lay things out with the very handy decorations tool. It allows you to fill in those pesky little gaps that form between roads or plots, which you’ll find happening a lot. While this has absolutely no mechanical value it does make your city more aesthetically pleasing, and let’s be honest, that’d one of the most important aspect of a city builder game. No-one wants to end up with the next Milton Keynes on their hands, a mishmash of generic residential areas and identikit office buildings connected by a seemingly endless sprawl of roundabouts.
One of the few small additions, as mentioned, is the inclusion of some new environmental buildings. You can use these to try and combat your inevitable destruction of mother nature. Unfortunately, they seem to have very little effect when trying to combat pollution as far as I can tell, but they are popular with elite citizens if you’re looking to encourage the upper classes to move in. You’re also able to adjust tax level for different groups, including different industries and wealth levels, which is a good tool for encouraging immigration and the establishment of new businesses. Even with this tool however I did end up in a situation where none of the office plots I put down were getting filled no matter what I did, and yet every industry in the city was complaining about the lack of offices, which meant they all started to go bankrupt and I lost all of my income. Logical inconsistencies in your citizen’s AI are rife in Cities XXL.
When it comes to the visuals, Cities XXL manages to be both impressive and extremely underwhelming at the same time. A look at the screenshots on this page might fool you into thinking that Cities XXL is something of a looker, but in motion the whole thing falls apart. The grandeur of the scale is definitely pleasing to look at and from a distance the texture and model work looks pretty decent; but as [pullquote]soon as you zoom in close, everything breaks down into a mess of low-res textures, dodgy framerates and questionable lighting[/pullquote]. Don’t get me started on the horrendous character models, which manage to make your citizens look like a cross between the dumpy little characters from the old Settlers games spliced with those horrendous Troll toys from the 90s. I know I shouldn’t expect much from a city builder, especially one of this scale, but Cities XXL looks like a mess on closer inspection, with far too many repeating models and more graphical glitches than is acceptable in any modern title. It also seems as though very, very little has been done to improve things since the previous game, so we’ve ended up with a game released in 2015 that still looks like it’s stuck in 2009. Again, not impressive.
All up there is nothing massively wrong with Cities XXL; it works mechanically most of the time and the graphical glitches only occur when you zoom in, but it suffers from a severe case of being too bland and boring to enjoy, with nothing to make it a worthwhile purchase – particularly if you already own the original. Repetitive gameplay, a lack of innovations and the overriding feeling that we’ve seen it all before adds nothing to the franchise, simply performing tasks that other games have already done better. I think city builder fans will have to wait for Paradox’s Cities: Skylines before we get something excitingly new added to the genre, because Cities XXL is little more than a disappointing rehash of the original.