Publisher: CDV Software
Developer: Monte Cristo
Release Date: June 2, 2006
“So what do you think of the new neighbors?”
“Don’t really like them much. They dress different, and always act like they think they’re better than us.”
“Yeah. How about we go beat them up and set fire to their dog?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Such might be an imaginary overheard conversation between two citizens of your growing metropolis in City Life, the latest city building simulation from CDV Software. On top of the standard goal of creating a successful, sprawling megalopolis, you’re tasked with managing class differences, euphemistically termed “cultural conflict.” It so happens that the six color coded classes that populate City Life’s boulevards and avenues are social snobs who want as little as possible to do with people from outside their immediate social circle. If you mismanage your city by throwing the different groups together haphazardly, you’ll soon have riots with the Elite citizens leaving the comfort of their air conditioned luxury boutiques to forcibly manhandle the Have-nots. Or else you’ll have Blue Collar workers clamoring in the streets and setting fire to the Radical Chic’s vegetarian restaurants. It’s a refreshing idea, and while it doesn’t revolutionize the city builder genre, it adds just enough novelty and challenge to merit a closer look.
Your career as a desktop city planner starts in the selection of one of five different landscapes differentiated by their climate and topography. Each landscape comes with a set of different scenario maps ranging in difficulty from the sunny beachscape to the volcanic archipelago. Each scenario is structured around achieving bronze, silver and gold medal objectives which are usually related to population and income goals in the earlier levels, and complex social fine tuning at the later levels. Achieving these medals will allow you to unlock future scenarios.
Equipped with your unspoiled tract of natural beauty you simply need to place your town hall and you’re good to go. Initially, you’ll have to provide a balance of housing and jobs for three of the six available socioeconomic classes which are parodies of real life class stereotypes. The Have-nots occupy the bottom rung of your economic ladder and bear an uncanny resemblance to extras from Resident Evil in the way they walk and dress. Their dismal appearance is perhaps not surprising considering they’re the ones who take up jobs in the murky underbelly of your city processing waste and tending to the landfills. The Fringes on the other hand are trendy and progressive game designer types who drive Volkswagen camper vans, while the blue collars are the salt-of-the-earth average Joes filling up your manufacturing plants. While you cannot build housing specific to a particular urban sub-culture, you can place leisure and employment opportunities near that housing to attract certain groups.
The most obvious way to avoid an inter-cultural meltdown is to place opposing classes as far away as possible from each other. However, certain essential services require employees from across the economic divide. For instance, the Suits and Elites would rather not have the noisy Hippies from the Fringe and Radical Chic classes living nearby, but they do need someone to teach their kids how to read and write in the primary school. And Radical Chics would rather not have Blue Collar workers cramping their style, but someone has to man the police stations in their neighborhood. The challenge is to layout your city in such a way that different groups are close enough to commute to their respective place of employment, but not so close that they get lynched on the way.
In addition, the different classes have different needs. The Have-nots are simple folk who yearn only for a job while attracting Elites to your city will mean building and staffing parks, schools, hospitals, police stations and retail centers. When it comes to balancing your budget, you’ll find the low-maintenance low-cost Have-nots generate a lot less income than your high-maintenance expensive Elites. The usual city-builder concerns of managing waste, electricity, pollution and traffic are given an added level of challenge through these sorts of economic planning considerations.
The juggling of finances, balancing of groups and expansion of your city can be an overwhelming task and one you’ll probably end up starting over quite a few times before you even begin to get a grasp of where the game wants you to go. It can be a frustrating endeavor, but also hugely rewarding when you get it right. There is a healthy range of charts and graphs to let you know how things are ticking along behind the scenes but the game lacks a comprehensive tutorial instead featuring only a limited selection of screenshots with explanations. Tooltips are available if you hover over certain icons but the advice is written in a miniature font that will give you a headache long before it gives you help. The game becomes even more challenging when you start trying to attract the upper-tier social classes to your city and have to manage the resulting rise in social tension between six different groups.
In the end, building a successful city requires a lot of planning and forethought. Of course, half of the fun is in the failure and if your city is large enough to have a television station, you’ll receive news reports showing the different class groups going Muhammad Ali on each other. It makes for a great spectator sport but if you leave it to fester, you’ll soon find that arson is the only way your citizens can express their frustration at living so close to an intolerable group of people. Hopefully you’ve built a fire station and SWAT facility nearby.
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 stuck with me for far too long after I’d left my PC. Unfortunately, there are only a few tunes, they start to get old very quickly and there is no way to stop the noise short of muting your speakers.
While the game’s impressive 3D 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 Elites, 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 healthcare is lacking, a pedestrian will engage in a prolonged coughing fit before keeling over. Concerned by-passers will rush to his side frantically waving their arms, and before long an ambulance will turn up, 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 taking 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. Although the graphics really shine at closer levels, I found I spent a lot of time building my city from a distance where the graphics tend to look generic and blocky. After a while you’ll find that there isn’t enough graphical variety in the residential and business areas and although buildings do evolve, the city can end up looking pretty homogenous.
That said, City Life is overall a good looking city sim that lays down a great challenge by throwing in a real world concern. It possesses the sort of open-ended gameplay structure that will nurture your addictive tendencies and have you tweaking and expanding your city way beyond the time you promised yourself you would stop. While it may be an extremely time-consuming and a challenging, planning-focused experience, City Life is the best city building simulation game to grace gaming shelves in a long while and is the perfect shape to plug the gap while you wait for the next installment of Sim City.
Score : 7.6/10
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