The city-building genre, once dominated by Will Wright’s 800-pound gorilla SimCity, has seen numerous competitors in recent years. While many have been rather forgettable, competing developers are finding new and unique ways to expand upon the genre. City Life is one of those new titles, that has some good ideas and a workable implementation.
Developer Monte Christo has laid out all of the bare necessities with City Life, so it has a competent collection of what a city builder needs. Numerous environments are available from the start, and they have a succession of difficulty that fills in for the “easy, medium and hard” settings you’d find in other games. A tropical paradise is clearly more conducive to a metropolis than a craggy mountain or arid desert, but if you want the extra challenge you can build in these less hospitable areas.
The first order of business is to erect a city hall. This building acts as a hub for the rest of the city, and is the nerve center from where you direct operations. Placing small, upper-class neighborhoods around your city hall is a good idea, as it allows for an influx of trained employees to make your government run smoothly. This is the easy part; once you start to branch out into the local real estate, problems crop up rather quickly.
City Life’s main innovation in the sim genre is its social aspect. While The Sims may let you micromanage a family’s daily operation, City Life pans back to the big picture of demographic interaction. What this means is that the different social classes within your city don’t get along very well at all, and it’s your job to keep the separated, or at least content. This also means that the layout of your city needs to be planned with painstaking care.
You can’t just drop neighborhoods and businesses at random across the landscape, or the differing populaces will clash with disastrous results. Middle-class employers should be placed near middle-class housing developments. The fringers, elites and have-nots (homeless) also have their respective tastes, and their areas need to be placed a significant distance away to avoid riots. To put it simply, building a Panera next to a greasy burger joint will cause a small riot.
The whole setup feels uncomfortably like a caste system, as class segregation is a necessity of a successful city in this game, but there is a class progression that makes everyone more or less equal. Through well organized education, even the homeless can move up the social ladder to become affluent members of your society, but this process is slow and takes careful planning, like everything else.
Once the population is sufficiently educated and well mannered, corresponding architecture unlocks to house and entertain them. Small baseball diamonds are replaced with stadiums, super markets become malls, and modest office buildings upgrade to multinational conglomerates. If you’re really good, you can even get different social classes to work and interact in the same building, although you always run the risk of an altercation.
This social dynamic is a great idea, I just wish the implementation was a little better. When I started a city, and in an easy location no less, entropy seemed to be the predominant force. The different classes mixed no matter how far apart I put them, and people complained about work shortages even as I built appropriate business districts. Maybe this rocky start was a conscience design decision to make the game challenging, but without seeing any real progress, I grew frustrated. My people bickered with each other so regularly about problems I was trying to fix, I wanted to erect loudspeakers and play “Why can’t we be friends?” 24 hours a day.
…And that brings us to the subject of music. For some reason, the developers thought smooth disco was the right music for City Life, as the entire soundtrack. Being a child of the 80s, I’ve never had much of a taste for disco; I don’t revile the stuff, but some easy jazz would have been preferable to the spunky beats that permeate City Life. In any case, it doesn’t sound very metropolitan, or very industrial, and it felt out of place the entire time I was playing. Because the sound effects were rather sparse anyway, I was tempted to turn down my PC speakers and drop a disc into my CD player.
As a counterbalance to the decidedly unappealing music, City Life’s visual presentation is quite impressive for a sim. The water effect caught my attention right off, and I spent some time zoomed in on my California facsimile’s surrounding ocean. The environment and the buildings you put in it all have a very high level of detail, and for one big reason: you can explore your city up close. With the zoom camera, you can take an almost first person perspective within your city, allowing you to examine problems and progress on a personal level. This is a nice addition, but it also shows some of the uniformity that is inevitable within a sim.
Buildings start to blend together because they are, in the end, set pieces chosen from a menu. Terrain relief is pretty much dominated by these buildings too. Even the people strolling about lack much variety; once you’ve seen one hobo, starched businessperson and rebellious, black eyeliner-sporting punk, you’ve literally seen them all. I would’ve liked if the social classes customized their neighborhoods by adding little improvements, messing things up or spray painting graffiti, but perhaps that is too much to ask from this kind of game. It isn’t an MMO, after all.
City Life is a transitional kind of game. It adds some very creative elements to a genre in need of new ideas, but it doesn’t take them as far as they could go. Social classes are a concept that deserved more exploration, but City Life’s design necessitates that they be rather clearly defined. Maybe future games will add more gray areas and allow for better diplomacy between classes. I’d love to see a modern Romeo and Juliet quagmire that needs a little working out from city hall. As it stands, City Life has the basic idea of social problems but without any of the close personality that would really give them flavor. The rest of the game is a highly competent sim that may take more patience than the average gamer would expect.