So right off the bat, Cities XXL is not substantially different from its predecessor (Cities XL). In my time with the game so far, I've only encountered two new features. Everything else, right down to the buildings available and the game interface, are unchanged. XXL hardly deserves to be called a sequel or sold as a new game. It's a content patch, and not even a very good one.
But on the upside, since I never got around to reviewing the original Cities XL, I can just roll them both into one review!
When I first started playing Cities XL a few years ago, I was really impressed with it. I hadn't really played any modern city-builder games since SimCity 4, and so the jump to 3-D graphics, the ability to draw curved roads, and the sheer size of the maps was enough to win me over initially. But as I've played the game more, it's limitations and weaknesses have become much more apparent and hard to ignore. This is especially true in the game's interface and controls, which are very rough and full of nagging annoyances. When compared to the much smoother and organic controls of games like Tropico 5, the modern [disastrous] SimCity reboot, and even older games like Caesar IV, Cities XL really starts to look bad.
Ugly, obfuscated UI and clunky controls
The biggest deterrent to enjoying Cities XL is its UI and controls. There's nothing that really single-handedly breaks the game, but there's a cacaphony of small, nagging problems that gradually wear down your resolve to play the game. The first thing that you'll notice is the ugly and disorganized interface. There are buttons and widgets floating all over the screen: build icons, overlay toggles, camera control widgets, zoning sub-controls, and so on. You can customize some of the UI elements by dragging them to different places on the screen, but there is no arrangement that really feels comfortable.
Charts, graphs, and table widgets are also ugly and difficult to read or understand, so I rarely use them. There's a lot of depth of information in these widgets, but they are just so poorly designed as to be nearly un-useable. And while some info-widgets show a great degree of granularity and precision, others are oddly abstracted. For example, shops and industrial buildings say that they require a "medium" number of workers of various classes, but they don't specify exactly how many employees they require. I assume that "low", "medium", and "high" correspond to the respective sizes of the residential zones, but I don't know for sure.
This office building had to close before I found out why it was unsatisfied.
Feedback in general is one of the game's weaknesses. The "satisfaction" level of buildings are all shown as colored circles rather than actual numbers. Those colored circles that indicate the satisfaction level of a building can be highlighted to show the percentage of satisfaction, but it won't necessarily give any indicators as to what is influencing that percentage. It won't be until a building actually gets abandoned that you might find out why it closed (if you're lucky). And even then, it might be ambiguous what kind of steps you could have taken to prevent it. Does "lack of passenger services" just mean that traffic was too bad? Could it have been avoided by building a bigger road when I was planning the development of the area? Or does it require that I provide bus and metro lines? Could it be resolved post-hoc by building bus lines and subway tracks?
The "quality of life" metric is also very ambiguous. You'd think that such a qualifier would apply to residences (where people actually live), but it instead applies only to some types of businesses. I assumed that it was a metric of how happy the citizens were, so I assumed that having convenient access to shops and leisure and city services would make for a high quality of life. But no, these instead seemed to make the problem worse! After some online research, I discovered that "quality of life" is basically a combination of traffic satisfaction, environment, and noise pollution.
This is apparently one of the ways that the game tries to encourage players to spread their cities out more and use up the massive amount of space that is provided, since dense cities have worse traffic and more noise pollution. City-building games have been training players for years to create compact grids because that's always been what is most efficient and productive. But Cities XL is an exception to this general rule, and it never bothers to tell us this. It would be a fine mechanic if the game were just more up front about what "quality of life" means and how to manage it. Why wasn't this covered in the "Industries and Satisfaction" tutorial?!
Why won't roads line up?!
But feedback isn't the U.I.'s only shortcoming. It's also just annoyingly hard to get certain things to work. Roads, in particular, have annoying habits of not lining up properly unless you follow certain tedious micromanagement procedures.
Even though roads can lock at 90 degrees, they are sometimes not exactly 90 degrees unless you actually extend the road beyond the intersection of another perpendicular road. If you fail to do this, your roads won't line up properly, and you won't be able to fit as many buildings inside the block zone as you might want. This doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but since most of the buildings in the game have the same small square shape, packing them into grids is the most efficient use of space. This problem is partly mitigated by the large area of the map, and by the fact that you can fill the dead space with decorations that contribute to the area's environment satisfaction. But that undercuts the fundamental point that it really shouldn't be this hard to place roads and buildings.
Road construction requires annoying micromanagement. For example:
Roads of different sizes won't intersect unless you extend the cross road(s) out beyond the intersection.
The game also throws up all over itself whenever you try connecting roads of different sizes. The game won't just create an intersection of the proper size unless you first extend the length of the crossing road(s) well beyond the point(s) of intersection. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to cost you any money, since you can pause the game to place all your roads, and the game will only deduct the funds necessary for the changes that are in place when you unpause. But this doesn't help with the fact that you may end up spending a very large chunk of your playtime fighting with the road construction tools.
This problem also rears its ugly head whenever you attempt to connect a road to the end of another road. If they aren't lined up perfectly, then the game will lock the ends of the roads together at an odd angle, or just outright refuse to create an intersection. In order to maintain your 90 degree grid, you have to extend the existing road far beyond the point of intersection, and then build the new road to extend far beyond the point of intersection, then delete the extraneous bits again.
Road construction requires annoying micromanagement. For example:
Lining up roads so they'll join at a 90 degree angle requires extending both roads far beyond the point of intersection.
And there's other annoying road-drawing issues. It's excessively difficult to get curved roads to run in parallel or to get them to form actual circles. And the roundabout / traffic circle object is a complete waste, since it's only useful as a 4-way stop and doesn't allow more intricate 3-way or 5-way intersections. So what's the point of having it? I'd rather draw my own traffic circle free-hand.
This sort of stuff made me really miss the convenient guide lines that the SimCity reboot used to keep your roads aligned (including curved roads). It's exceedingly hard to keep your roads lined up in this game, and very common for roads to start shifting because you're off by one pixel. When this happens, you'll find yourself without the room to place buildings, and you get a lot of wasted space. Fortunately, you have a huge space in which to build your cities, so some wasted space isn't a game-breaker like it is in SimCity. It's still frustrating.
What is the point of holding Shift to change the elevation of a road?
This is all it does!!!
Another really confusing "feature" is the ability to change the elevation of roads by holding the Shift key. Doing so just causes the road to jut sharply up or down at the end and cause a "ground error". You'd think this functionality is how you would build elevated roads, bridges, or tunnels. But no, there is a separate bridge tool for that (and the Shift key does work for changing the elevation of roads built with that tool). So why is this in the game?
There's more weird issues with roads and infrastructure, but I can't list them all here.
Slow, but useful pacing
The game's terrible tutorials are somewhat mitigated by the fact that the game's design helps to tutorialize the player indirectly. At the start of the game, you only have access to a small selection of buildings (basic homes, shops, industry, and roads). As your population grows and you hit other milestones, new buildings and infrastructure will unlock. This acts as a bit of an in-game tutorial that paces your growth and expenses to keep you from overdeveloping and running yourself bankrupt. As someone who routinely went bankrupt in my early city-building days in SimCity 2000 by building police stations, schools, hospitals, and other services immediately upon founding a city, I very quickly realized the benefits of this pacing model.
The unlocking of new services is kind of slow, and sometimes it can be a painfully long time before you unlock some useful infrastructure (like public transit or highways). This does also add some challenge to the game, since your early city layout will have been done with the limited tools and infrastructure that was available at the start of the game. So if you need to start adding the more advanced infrastructure (such as replacing low-capacity roads with higher capacity expressways and highways), you'll need to tear down old structures in order to make room.
And some of these more advanced infrastructure options can be very complicated and difficult to manage. For example, buses are much more complicated than in most city builders that I've played. You must manually assign the paths and every stop that each bus will make through your city, as well as set the size of each buss (i.e. its capacity). It's a lot of control for the player to have, and it's fun to play around with at first. But it's also very demanding and quickly becomes tedious as the city grows and you have a dozen or more bus routes. And if you ever build new roads and want to redo your bus routes, you can't just move a single stop or route (like you can do in Google Maps); you have to delete the whole route and start over from scratch!
One area in which the game is strangely detailed is bus routes, as you must manually assign
the paths that buses take and every stop that they will make.
Metro lines have similar problems. You can't extend an already completed line or build an additional stop in the middle of an existing line. In either case, you have to build a whole new line at a different level underground.
If you want access to buses or highways or airports earlier in the game, you can always just start the city in "Expert Mode", which just unlocks all buildings from the start. It doesn't actually make the game any harder, except that now you have to more closely control your spending, since you have access to expensive infrastructure options. But this can be a good method for creating a very specific city concept. If you want to create a beach resort town or something, you can start in Expert Mode and have immediate access to the hotels and leisure buildings to make that work without having to go through the grind of building the population up to unlock them.
Punctuated equilibrium dead ends development
After starting up a couple cities with the default settings, you might want to go for Expert Mode, since the normal game is very easy. Since buildings don't really grow or expand in any way on their own, it's very easy to manage jobs and workers since there's very little that will affect the balancing act as you expand. If demand for housing exceeds the available housing, the citizens won't tear down their old single-family houses and build larger, multi-family houses like you might see in games like SimCity. Once I got used to the pacing of the game, I never had any problems growing a city to 50 or 100 thousand population while keeping unemployment at virtually zero and overall satisfaction near a hundred. And as long as everybody is working, businesses have enough employees to operate, and you don't go crazy on expensive infrastructure (which is almost impossible until you get to 100,000 population anyway), then you're budget will always have a surplus.
Once you hit a balance between workers and jobs and provide all the unlocked services,
there really isn't any pressure or incentive to continue developing your city.
This does eventually lead to the problem of not wanting to disrupt an equilibrium. Since the only mechanics that ever seems to cause disruption to the city is pollution (which is also easily managed by zoning and use of decorations) and occasionally traffic, I often hit an equilibrium point in which unemployment is virtually zero, there are no vacant jobs, I have a large budget surplus, all my citizens have access to all the available and necessary services, and traffic is flowing smoothly enough to not cause problems. At this point, there is simply no need for further development, and the game really stagnates - especially if there aren't any newly-unlocked buildings that you want to plop.
Connecting your cities
I rarely had any issues managing a city prior to 100,000 population. And after that, the only real problem that I encountered was an insufficient supply of offices, heavy industry, or so other resource "tokens". Meeting the demands for all the services that the city needs can be tricky to do within the city, but you can trade these various tokens between your cities.
Trading allows you to further specialize your cities if you want. But the game doesn't go as deep into the specialization rabbit-hole as SimCity does. You can still build self-contained jack-of-all-trade cities that run independently and don't rely on other cities for imports, as there's plenty of room on the balanced maps for all the resource-production buildings, industries, housing, and services that you'll need to build. You just have to be careful about where you place them.
But not every map will have access to all the resources, and those cities will need to trade in order to offset their natural deficiencies. Food, water, fuel, and "holidays" are all resources that appear in varying amounts on different maps, and they can all be traded. Some cities can specialize in food or fuel production and export those resources to other cities; while the other city could specialize in building vacation beach or ski resorts in order to export "holidays" without needing to pollute itself with its own food and fuel infrastructure.
Resources can be traded between cities, but the feature is highly abstracted and the cities never feel truly connected.
Other non-map-based items can also be traded, such as industrial goods, electricity, office space, and even workers! So hypothetically, it's possible to build one city with nothing but houses and shops, and another city with nothing but industry and offices, and the two cities could share everything.
These trade mechanics are very abstract and in-tangible. There's never any real sense of your cities being connected to one other, as the abstraction of the trade mechanics maintains a sense of disjointedness for your cities. You don't have to build specific trade networks with other cities; you only have to build enough city connections to support the total amount of freight that you are exporting or importing. Every city can trade with every other city as long as the respective cities aren't bankrupt. Even if your city is bankrupt, then there's still the ever-present Omnicorp for you to trade with, which makes the other cities feel kind of unnecessary.
Further, insufficient supply of any given tokens doesn't seem to ever have a critical impact on cities. Maybe when the city gets into millions of population, it becomes a major problem? In the meantime, lack of tokens may limit the profitability of certain buildings, but never to the point that it severely hurts your economy. I've never had a situation in which I backed a city so far into a financial ditch that I couldn't recover.
Cities XL really struggles with tone. It can't seem to decide if it's a serious, straight-line management simulator or a tongue-in-cheek city-builder like SimCity.
The tutorial is set up to be one big joke in which you're being trained by the assistant of an incompetent mayor in order to fix his mistakes. But the whole joke falls flat, and the tutorial is an embarassing mess. A couple of the joke reasons for buildings closing can be chuckle-worthy, but it wears thin after a while.
Maxis is still the undisputed master of tongue-in-cheek city-building humor, and even Tropico 5 is an order of magnitude funnier than this game.
People have goofy - and ugly - bobble heads.
But it isn't just the failed attempts at humor that cause problems with the game's tone. The graphics are also inconsistent. At a high-level, the game looks like it's going for a satellite-photo quality (and looks gorgeous!). Buildings and roads are detailed and realistic (weak draw distance for cars notwhithstanding). But when you zoom in, the citizens are oddly exaggerated bobble-head characters. It's weird!
And even though the building models look good, they're all so bland up close! Most of the buildings in the game take up the same small square area, and even a lot of the service buildings are this same size. And since service buildings are thinly dispersed across the city, it's very easy for the majority of a city to just be a dull grid of housing and factory zones.
So what's new in Cities XXL?
So far, this has all been a review of Cities XL in general. XXL doesn't do much if anything to address the problems that I've talked about above. It does add a couple new features, but they are really small and superficial. The footprint of the interface was reduced a little bit, and was subdued from being bright blue and bubbly to being simple gray, square buttons. All the functionality seems to be identical though, and no new construction options or overlays were added. I'm also confident that there's at least a handful of new buildings and / or landmarks, but nothing that really differentiates the game from its predecessor at a mechanical level.
I know where you live
The first new feature that I noticed is that the game sometimes would draw weird blue lines between houses. I think that these lines indicate that citizens are moving from one house to another. I guess this could be useful for knowing which areas of town are more or less desirable, since you can see (in real time) when people move out of their old houses in favor of new houses. But there's already overlays for satisfaction and desirability levels, so this feature seems mostly pointless.
These ugly, blue lines apparently tell you when citizens leave their old houses and move to more desirable ones.
The other new feature is the ability to upgrade industrial buildings to more environmentally-friendly versions. This allows you to somewhat control your pollution levels and gives you a little bit more freedom to build a self-sufficient city in which you can still keep land value and desirability high.
But it's just yet another tedious micro-management feature, as you have to manually click on every, single industrial building one at a time and pay money in order to upgrade it to its eco-version. The building model doesn't change, and there' no obvious visual indicator that a particular building has already been upgraded, so make sure that you save up the money to upgrade them all in one swoop. If you upgrade them piecemeal, then you'll end up having to click through all the buildings in order to find the ones that you haven't upgraded.
The feature also isn't really fun. Compared to SimCity's upgrade feature that allows you to customize buildings with extra parts that provide the building with enhanced functionality (as well as making the building visually distinct), this is just dull and boring. If there were a way to instantly upgrade your all your industrial buildings in bulk (or build new industries with the eco-friendly version from the start), then the reduced tedium might make this feature more worthwhile.
But ideally, such a feature should have different upgrade options available in order to have any value. Maybe if the developers add more variant options, the feature would be better. For example, there could be the standard building, a cheap upgrade to make the building less productive but cleaner, an expensive upgrade that keeps the standard productivity and makes it clean, and an upgrade to make it more productive but dirtier. This would add some actual strategy to the decision rather than it just being a strict upgrade that you should always do if you have the money.
Industrial buildings can be upgraded to an eco-friendly version that generates less pollution.
Another option to improve this feature would be to have multiple upgrade options. Separate upgrades that make the building cleaner, make it more productive, make it consume less water or fuel, and so on would also add some element of strategy and resource management.
But even these suggestions would only exacerbate the problem of not having bulk upgrade capability, and the fact that the upgraded buildings are not visually distinct from their un-upgraded counterparts. So this feature would need to be completely reworked from the ground up in order to be made viable.
This theme of environmental consciousness runs through more of the game, as there are also some new environmental buildings such as an electric car dealership. I don't remember these being in Cities XL, so I'm assuming they are new. From my experience, they didn't really add much to the game or have much of a mechanical impact. The core mechanical issues prevented me from playing long enough to get any cities large enough that pollution was a severe enough problem to warrant these sorts of measures.
The only time that pollution was ever a problem for me was if I stupidly built my industrial and manufacturing zones too close to my agricultural ones. I did this in one city because it had both fertile land and oil resources in very close proximity, and I didn't plan my industrial expansion very well. The farms then went out of business because of the air pollution of the factories. Upgrading to the eco-friendly version seemed to only provide only a minimal boost to the farms, and they continued to go bankrupt, rebuild, be productive for a while, and then go bankrupt again.
An unnecessary sequel to a passably competent game
Cities XL was only passably competent on its own. It has enough to like to be addictive at first. But it's hard to recommend for a purchase due to its proliferation of incomplete, broken, or half-finished features. You can build some impressive, sprawling cities, but it takes a lot of time and is unnecessarily tedious and frustrating to accomplish, even though the actual game is really easy.
Buying XXL is practically paying for the exact same game again. The developers didn't do anything to address the annoying interface problems, nor did they cut the incomplete features or replace them with more fully-realized versions. The couple new features are superficial busts and not even close to justifying the price of a cheap DLC, let alone the cost of a full-priced sequel.
If you already have XL and like it, just keep playing that game. Everybody else can probably pass on Cities XXL as well, unless you're absolutely desperate for a new city-builder.
Cities XXL provides a vast playground, but only if you can tolerate its numerous frustrations.