Cities XXL Review: Serviceable But Dull, This City-Builder Proves To Be Nothing More Than A Re-Release

By Matthew Buzzi , Updated Apr 01, 2015 01:42 PM EDT
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Cities XXL remains a curious release from Focus Home Interactive. Cities XL was a well-enough received, though not a groundbreaking city builder--but neither myself (nor, it seems, much of the market) knows what exactly to make of Cities XXL.

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Pitched as a confusing mix between a new game and a re-release, Cities XXL is perhaps a sleight of hand on the part of the developers. Not much at all has changed from the original game, and though the developers offer a discount to owners of Cities XL to push the idea of an 'upgrade', it's unclear what Cities XXL was ever meant to be.

The idea of a polished, improved version of a game that originally launched in 2011 is not bad in concept--how many remasterings have we seen in the industry, especially recently? The issue here is that very little is actually upgraded: an improved engine was supposed to make the experience smoother, but Cities XXL remains a bit of a memory hog with occasional hangups. The interface is slightly changed as promised (though, in my experience, still far from ideal), and many of the frustrating bugs and inconsistencies remain. At the end of the day, Cities XXL comes across as a moderate patch for Cities XL that players must pay for. You don't need me to tell you how unexciting that prospect is.

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So what about the game itself, apart from its nature as a failed repackaging of an extant title? I did have some fun with Cities XXL, and building your city is a worthy challenge. Understanding the systems and seeing them work--from balancing the amount of residents you allow in against the number of jobs available to planning the traffic routes--is satisfying, and you can definitely feel yourself learning what works and what doesn't. The tutorial is filled with failed humor and teaches the game piecemeal--I wish I could have gotten a bigger picture, as I didn't understand how everything worked together at first when trying my own city--but it mostly gets the job done in teaching how to use the game's menus.

Generally speaking, players will know what the problems are in their city due to useful general notifications as well as specific status reports on each type of citizen. Your unskilled workers, skilled workers, executives, and elites will have different needs and wants from your city, and balancing these while maintaining a positive cash flow is a challenge that requires focus and planning. The game is fun when you understand why certain plans work and why other layouts are failing--only a few issues such as dissatisfaction with 'nearby freight' are vague enough (and not explained by the game) to be frustrating.

One of the most impressive aspects is the large variety of maps, presented across a globe on which you can pick your location. The different areas represent different types of terrain, resources, and difficulty. Your cities will all be interconnected as you add more, allowing you to trade resources between them--there was a short-lived subscription-based mutliplayer service as part of the original Cities XL that attempted a similar concept. Like that mode, the attempt to be always connected doesn't feel that necessary or robust, but there's no harm in resource trading among your own cities. The use of the globe to represent your cities and choose your map remains an interesting and useful format.

Cities XXL looks decent graphically, though most of your time will be spent zoomed out rather than appreciating the finer details that load in (which, annoyingly you can see happen) when you get in close. The UI has been reworked, but I found the incredibly small font and imagery very irritating. At a high resolution, text is all but illegible without getting really close to the screen, and only through familiarity with where buildings are located does this problem dissipate. The game's music is neat, with a few pretty catchy songs you'll be content to listen to, but the small selection of tracks might mean you're pumping in your own songs soon.

The issue with Cities XXL is a lack of originality. This applies to the gameplay and mechanics of the game itself, as well as the cities that result from your hard work. Cities XXL doesn't do anything wrong fundamentally: it's a solid enough city-builder with clear progression goals, a large variety of maps, and challenging gameplay. The experience just feels very basic on the whole--Cities XXL doesn't have much personality or flair, and the UI and gameplay are not streamlined or enjoyable enough on their own to make up for it. Growing your city feels a bit like going through the required motions from the start--it's not particularly inspiring, and the game is just a bit dull. It will scratch your obsessive planning itch, but constantly dealing with roads that somehow slightly shifted their angles, plots that don't quite line up, and several systems you can't yet access but need to improve your city has a dragging effect.

This bleeds into my other complaint about originality--the cities themselves. The essential buildings are a repeating cycle of the same plots, none of which are visually exciting or varied. Building a city that looks and feels unique requires a lot of planning, and the game's UI and construction mechanics feel actively at odds with getting too creative. It's far easier to just keep dragging out squares of land, as the finicky road and plot system will likely get in the way of anything too intricate. The more unique-looking buildings are only unlocked when you have a much larger city, and even then, there aren't many of them. Your city will be very repetitive, and only a brazen style or road layout will make an aesthetic impact.

Many of the overall complaints and features alike were applicable to Cities XL, but this is of course a better point to jump in for series beginners. Slight performance upgrades and a few other additions make this the best version to purchase if you're starting from scratch, but Cities XXL does itself no favors to fans considering an upgrade. There's little here to warrant your money if you already own its predecessor, and even with Sim City faltering, Cities XXL is not the best city-builder available.

Focus Home had an opportunity to capitalize on a market with clear interest among PC gamers, but the attention (and positive reception) has all been on the unrelated Cities: Skylines. Cities XXL is merely a decent city-builder, and that's without considering its questionable release as re-launch partially disguised as a new game. Cities XXL had a chance to make a case for itself in a market with an EA-sized void to fill, but given the popular new kid on the block and a lackluster offering, that opportunity has been missed.

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