Publisher: CDV Software
Developer: Monte Cristo
Release Date: May 29, 2006
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Karl Marx must not have played too many city builder games where, until now, class struggles have been conspicuously absent. CDV Software's City Life puts a decidedly Marxist spin on an old formula by introducing the idea of different socio-economic classes and giving you the job of getting them to coexist peacefully. You see, the denizens of City Life are sociopathic low tolerance creatures who would rather not have to deal with people outside of their immediate cultural and economic class. Manage your city badly by throwing them in too close proximity, and you might find the machine operators spilling out of their blue collar pubs and setting fire to the hippies' Volkswagen camper vans, or, conversely, a gang of suits getting medieval on some hapless proletarian. Aside from the muted social commentary, it's a strikingly inventive game concept that brings a degree of reality to the genre. Not only that, but it's a sufficiently challenging and addictive enterprise in which you can lose yourself and many hours of your time trying to design a working metropolis where everyone just gets along.
Your endeavor starts through the selection of one of five topographies, and a bunch of scenarios. Far from just a cosmetic difference, each of the total 22 situations – whether it's the polluted coastline in a temperate zone or the volcanic archipelago in the tropics – comes with its own unique sets of goals, challenges and emphases. The final build also promises a map editor tool for even more open-ended options. From then on, the basic gameplay borrows heavily from the example laid down by Maxis' Sim City series. Much like a gardener, you sow the seeds of population in your patch of nowheresville, provide zoning and infrastructure for different classes, and wait for it all to grow into an urban behemoth.
Initially, you have to provide a balance of housing and jobs for the three different socio-economic classes available in the preview build. The nuances in the presentation of each of these groups aim to poke fun at some real-life class stereotypes. The "have-nots" are the game equivalent of the working class. In appearance, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the living dead in their dress and gait and fill up the bottom rung of jobs in your waste-processing plants and textile factories. The "fringe" types are a bunch of liberal game developers and socially progressive sorts, while the blue collar folks are portrayed as your average Joes.
It would be easy if you could just build isolated cultural ghettos where each class would never have to sully the presence of any other. However, certain essential services require different employees from across the class divide to function effectively and need to be located within commutable distance. Herein lies the challenge in providing a layout that brings the different groups close, but not so close that they end up going postal on one another. Each class also has different levels of demand. You can build enormous areas full of "have-nots" who want nothing more than a job, while the blue collar and fringe folks will be more forthright in needing the usual city building staples such as health care, somewhere to shop, parks, leisure spaces, and schools.
In the effort to balance your budget, you'll quickly realize how the low-maintenance, low-cost "have-nots" also generate noticeably less income than the higher classes. The usual city builder blueprint of balancing the city budget, managing waste, electricity and traffic is given an added level of depth and difficulty through these sorts of considerations. To help you manage, the user interface features a healthy range of data displays whose only drawback is that they tend to clutter the screen. Color-coded overlays allow you to easily see where each class is located and where there are potential areas of conflict, or districts of over- or underemployment.
In the end, building a successful city while maintaining class order is a challenging task that takes planning and foresight. Of course, half of the fun is in the failure and assuming your city is large enough to deserve a TV station; reports of the euphemistically labeled "cultural conflict" come in the form of televised news clips showing one class group whaling on another. If you leave it to fester, the conflict will escalate to class war and rioters will turn to arson to express their angst at having to live so near such an intolerable group of people. You did remember to build enough riot police and fire stations, right?
The game sounds are typical for a city builder, with a range of ambient noises and gibberish chit chat that conjure up an urban atmosphere. The music features some jazzy buoyant ditties that are so cheesy that Kenny G would probably be proud to have penned them. They're also genuinely catchy, and I caught myself whistling along to more than one of them.
While the game's impressive 3-D engine lacks a truly do-as-you-please camera angle, it does feature up to seven levels of zoom, from breathtaking aerial views of waterways and majestic skyscrapers to the downright up-close and personal, which is where the city really comes to life. Flitting between different class areas, you can get a good feel for the gritty urban existence of the "have-nots," the shiny life of luxury of the city suits, and everything in between. In the cars they drive, the condition of the sidewalks, the way they walk and hold their children, the game aims to evoke the full gamut of diversity in a modern city. Stick around long enough, and you'll get to witness some precious moments. If your health care is lacking, a pedestrian will engage in a prolonged coughing fit before keeling over. Concerned passers-by will rush to his side, frantically waving their arms; before long, an ambulance will turn up, and the emergency paramedics will lift him on to a stretcher and cart him away.
If you haven't seen fit to build a few police stations and crime is escalating in your city, gangs of youths will appear out of nowhere, and amid screaming citizens and a hail of Uzi bullets, they will gun down a passing car before running for the hills. The attention-grabbing graphical details and moments like these make it really worthwhile to take time out to zoom in for a closer look. Another neat feature even allows you to get inside the heads of your citizens for a first-person perspective on the playground of your imagination you call a city.
The preview build is still largely a work in progress, but it shows enormous promise, and rivals at Maxis ought to be taking a long and careful look. The inclusion of class conflict adds a dimension of social reality which is rare in other games of this sort. It features a great balance between macro and micro gameplay models and the same kind of addictive interaction that keeps you playing until your eyes are sore and time loses its meaning. Keep a look out for City Builder, as it is likely to be well worth the inevitable sleep deprivation that it demands.
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