It’s almost ironic that it would take the desire to create an MMO for the last survivor of the city-builder genre to come to life. The latest incarnation of that survivor is Cities XL 2012. It’s not an MMO, but rather a traditional city-builder sim that tries to cater to old-school SimCity fans. Does this game do enough to fill that void?
Cities XL 2012 is starting to show its age. This is a game which has a graphical engine that has remained pretty much unchanged since Monte Cristo introduced us to Cities XL in 2009. The graphics are still packed with eye candy, but a more cursory look reveals an obvious small polygon count that is just not customary these days.
That said, the game graphics need to be understood in context. Aside from the terrain, everything else in this game is dynamically generated at runtime. There has to be an economy of graphical fidelity so a game like Cities XL 2012 can function. And even then we do experience minute delays between zoom levels. With very large cities, this problem could become unmanageable.
If the graphics are good enough to give players a pleasant experience, the game sound and music seems to have been specifically tailored to counter that. The game musical score is what you’d expect to hear inside an elevator after management decided everyone should use the stairs. The high key repetitive tune gets into the brain in strange ways and it is not long before one either mutes it or hurriedly leaves the game in what I can only classify as mental asphyxiation.
Similarly, if you zoom in close to street level you will gasp at the endless loop of a very short sample of low quality and high pitched street sound, complete with crowded pavement steps and cars passing by. After a few minutes that sample will probably drive you crazy.
So, in all truth, past a certain point the game is best experienced by just muting its sounds and putting your MP3 collection to a good use.
The Cities XL game engine is already well-known among its players for a large memory leak that has plagued the previous game. When Focus Home Interactive took hold of the game, it chose to not make any significant changes to the game engine. And as such, the leak persisted through Cities XL 2011 and now Cities XL 2012.
The memory leak is tied to the graphics engine and seems to seep in mostly when players change zoom levels. This is an unavoidable and recurrent task during gameplay. So to see a company being so callous about this issue raises questions.
Focus Home Interactive is a publisher of computer and console games. Not a developer. Likewise, the company seems to have not commissioned outside game development studios to handle the Cities XL franchise, choosing to name itself as the developer and releasing what are essentially just content add-ons – despite the game gaining a fresh version number each year.
It has become obvious with this last game version, for anyone that still had any doubts, that Focus Home Interactive simply doesn’t have the skilled manpower to maintain the game code, improve it or even fix it. The fact the company does provide us with a version of Cities XL should be respected. But it’s also very likely this memory leak will never be solved. It’s just not possible to trust them to do this anymore.
Thankfully, the leak can be solved without having to leave the game. If we leave our city after saving it, but not exit the game, this successfully clears the memory associated with the graphical engine and clears the leak. From there it is just a matter of loading the city again. For very large cities, I suggest players do this every couple of hours.
Another big problem with the game engine is the fact it runs on a single thread. That’s right – a modern sim that runs on a single thread; hard to believe. For the most part this doesn’t become a problem until the player starts to build very large cities. Depending on processor speed, sooner or later performance issues will appear.
For anyone with a multiple core processor (dual and quad-cores are the absolute norm on gaming machines these days) this just becomes frustrating. A game that starts to operate slowly while half or more of the processor isn’t being utilized.
Aside from these two major recurrent issues, Cities XL 2012 is actually a much better game now than it was in the past. Many bugs have been cleared, while some still exist like graphical glitches or buildings that can occasionally lose their connection to the road. But overall the game behaves well on most machines and most issues are easily solved or worked around.
Cities XL 2012 is a good and fun game. It’s an entertaining city builder that doesn’t become confusing or frustrating and doesn’t require a university degree to play. But it’s not an easy game to recommend. The city building genre is not for everyone. Some people find it boring, others love every square meter of their carefully delineated cities.
If you do like the genre, be mindful that Cities XL 2012 has a few issues. It’s not a perfect game, and some of it can be downright ugly to a player that expects companies to fulfill their obligation of providing top quality products. Fortunately, the ugly bits aren’t damaging to the experience and don’t get in the way of the game’s enjoyment.
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