Ever since Sim City 4 came out six years ago, there hasn't been a decent city building title since, and with Sim City Societies failing to plug the gap being largely received as a lazy, diluted version of the full game, there's been a hole in the market that has remained unfilled. Enter Monte Cristo Games, the French developer responsible for City Life, who have recognised the void Maxis have left in pursuing their lucrative Sims and Spore franchises, leaving the city building genre wide open. Cities XL looks to be the answer to fans' prayers, offering the most complete city building experience possibly ever conceived.
Dropping its previous 'Unlimited' label, the newly appointed XL tag is no embellishment. This is a behemoth of a game, sporting a device called 'planet-hopper', which allows you to pick any of the multiple Earth-like planets on offer to build your city. Each globe is populated by dots, each of which represents a settlement. A green dot denotes an established city, which is online, while a red dot indicates an offline settlement. White dots are empty plots, ready for you to name and start dropping lumps of concrete into. Each area is 100 square kilometres in size, presenting the opportunity to create a vast urban sprawl, from laying roads to placing essential amenities. We jumped on the Eurostar to visit Monte Cristo's studio in Paris and get some hands-on time with their new game.
The tools available to you in Cities XL are numerous yet incredibly simple to use, and give you everything you need to create a vast settlement, from roads to train tracks, bridges, tunnels and all manner of various buildings. There are quite a few menus to initially get to grips with when assembling your burgeoning settlement, but they're all presented in a clear and accessible fashion making navigation mercifully easy. Choosing a fertile plot suitable for agriculture, the view zooms in to give us an overall aerial view of the area, which looks perfectly suited for a first attempt to establish a successful city. There are loads of different regions to choose from, including snowy tundra or desert, bringing a whole host of added challenges according to the terrain type. Since a green and hospitable zone is easiest, this is the best choice for a beginner as there are fewer variables to take into account. Once you're happy with your choice, the first thing to do is link your roads to the green boxes that represent the edges of other cities you can connect to for imports and exports. Doing this gives important early lifeblood to your city, earning you extra capital towards further development.
Before long, you'll have a growing concrete jungle depending upon how you fulfil the needs of your population. In Cities XL there is a fine balance that you need to master to ensure there is enough housing and jobs for your citizens. As your city expands, the needs become more diverse meaning you'll need to introduce hospitals, leisure centres, police stations and other important businesses and facilities. Once you've established your bustling metropolis, other issues will start to arise such as pollution, traffic and other factors that affect the quality of life for your inhabitants. And while the game is being marketed as the first city building MMO, Monte Cristo is keen to stress that the game can be enjoyed as a single-player experience without any of the online social interaction should you prefer.
Online is where the game really comes alive though, with a social networking website built from the ground up acting as a companion to the main game, you'll be able to manage aspects of your city from your very own page complete with custom avatar that can be used in-game. Fostering a co-operative community where players can mutually benefit from making trades and collaborate in the construction of ambitious megastructures, such as the Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower or even the Colossus of Rhodes, is an integral and deeply involving part of Cities XL's online component. Constructing your own landmark requires a great deal of tokens, which are steadily accumulated as you fulfil the requirements for certain objectives during the main game. Tokens act as your currency, enabling you to trade with other players for extra manpower, resources and so on. You'll then acquire blueprints for building a landmark of your choosing - and you can put forward proposals for any that might spring to mind - before setting to work on construction. Successfully finishing a megastructure is time consuming, taking place over four separate levels that each require a certain number of tokens to complete. Once your landmark megastructure is complete however, you'll profit from the huge source of revenue that attracted tourists will bring in as a result.
Over the course of our two and a half hour hands-on session, we became utterly engrossed, almost forgetting that we had to catch the Metro to Gare du Nord to get home. The flexibility of the toolset makes creating organic layouts simple, so there's no more adhering to a strict grid system like the majority of city building titles. Within minutes, we're tuning the delicate housing versus jobs balance before solving traffic problems, security fears and alleviating the smoggy atmosphere with a couple of parks and as many trees as we can cram into our dwindling green areas. It's genuinely astonishing how much we manage to achieve in such a short space of time, from a barren patch of greenery to a heaving, lively metropolis. What's even more impressive is how you can seamlessly zoom in from a satellite view of the entire city right down to street level where the population drive to and from work, stroll along the pavements and even play basketball or skateboard in the park. At present, there are still a few glitches that the developer are well aware of, and intend to iron out before release later this year. Exploring a larger city at ground level can cause a bit of slowdown too, but considering the level of detail on show, it's amazing that it runs at all, especially given that we're playing beta code.
We've only really scratched the surface of what Cities XL will offer when it launches. Voice chat, mod support and DLC are all catered for and you can meet up anytime in your city with a friend and negotiate your latest megastructure project should you wish. Its single-player features alone would constitute what one would normally consider a full game and we haven't even talked about the Gameplay Extension Modules (or GEMs) yet, which will offer even more content post-launch, the first of which is the Ski Resort. Factor in the sheer depth of its online experience too and you have potentially the most comprehensive addition to the city builder genre since Will Wright stopped making Sim City games.