City Life

Before its fourth quarter blitz of strategy titles, CDV hopes you’ll spend the summer creating cities rather than destroying them with City Life. A refreshing departure from the publisher’s stable of war games, City Life focuses on the challenges of urban planning and management with a bit of social experimentation. Expanding beyond previous city simulations, while at the same time borrowing elements from them, the game offers a remarkably engaging experience that pushes expectations of the genre. While there is certainly room for improvement, City Life is an enjoyable game that deserves attention from simulation fans and casual gamers alike.
City Life elects you as mayor to raise a fictitious city from the ground up. Once City Hall has been built, you’re responsible for zoning residential and commercial areas, as well as setting up basic infrastructure with electricity, waste management, law enforcement, fire response, health services, and educational facilities. You’ll have to meet these basic needs in order to attract residents; moreover, as your city grows you must address advanced requests for recreational areas, public transportation, and parks. Unique to City Life is the concept of subcultures that inhabit your city. Six different subcultures can reside within a city ranging from the destitute Have-Nots to the affluent Elite. Successfully managing your city means not just meeting basic needs, but also addressing the diverse wants of competing subcultures.

With two modes of play, free and scenario, there’s plenty of opportunity to tackle the complex challenges of building and managing a city. Free mode lets you design a city without any restrictions or specified goals, whereas scenario mode requires you to meet specific objectives in order to complete the scenario. Both modes begin with map selection of which scenario mode possesses nearly twice as many maps. Diversity among what few maps are included is nice, ranging from tropical archipelagoes, green valleys, and watery estuaries. The maps are quite large consisting of several zones, which can be purchased and developed. You’ll start with one zone which you can expand by purchasing new zones or unlocking by earning city keys awarded for meeting certain gameplay requirements.
Unfortunately, City Life doesn’t include any terrain editing features meaning whatever terrain is rendered on the pre-set maps is what you have to work with. Not only does this limit your building palate, it also becomes problematic during construction. When faced with a steep hill or an oddly cut shoreline, the game provides no means of reshaping the terrain. In most situations, you can simply work with the terrain, but in a few cases the lack of editing tools is acutely missed.
Once you’ve selected a map and settled on a starting zone, you can begin building your city by laying down City Hall. From this point, you’re free to designate residential areas to attract citizens and businesses for their employment. Fundamental services including electricity and waste management must be established early on to deal with the basic needs of your new city. Since these are a drain on your monthly revenue, you have to be mindful of how much you’re spending in the early stages of building your city. City Life is realistic in requiring deliberate planning and consideration of monthly finances necessary to the growth of your city. Hastily constructing a bunch of houses or businesses can dip your income into the red. It is difficult to recover from initial losses if you’ve overextended with too much housing, empty businesses, or a bloated infrastructure; heretofore, you’ll need to be careful not to rush your city’s growth.

One feature missing from City Life is the ability to adjust taxes rates to avoid debt; instead, the game automatically regulates taxes for each of the subcultures. If you do incur debt or need cash for construction, you can take out a loan repayable over sixty months. Repayments start immediately, so taking out a large loan can further drop your monthly revenue due to large payments. While loans are a quick way of generating cash for development, you can cut losses from unproductive businesses or unnecessary housing via demolition. For half the cost of construction, you can demolish a structure and eliminate its monthly drain on your city’s finances. Oddly enough, the game doesn’t really put a penalty on demolishing buildings aside from the cost. Unless you demolish a structure integral to the city’s infrastructure such as a police department or waste facility, your residents aren’t likely to complain. In the later stages of city development, demolishing older areas actually paves the way for improvements that can generate more income.
Revitalizing older sections of your city will prove desirable once you develop substantial populations of each subculture. Have Nots, Blue Collars, and Fringe citizens will populate your city in its early years, but as it grows individuals within these subcultures will advance and form into the higher class Radical Chic, Suits, and Elite. City Life differs from other urban planning simulations in requiring you to address each subculture’s distinct desires and specific needs when expanding or revamping parts of your city. For example, the extremely poor Have Nots have no desire for trendy bars, but the Suits and Elite will demand them. Balancing each subculture’s needs is challenging, particularly given the limitations of space and economy.
Once your city has grown to a population of approximately one million, the relationships between subcultures become exceedingly complex and difficult to manage. Media reports, shown in a small window at the bottom right corner of the screen, document protests from subcultures regarding specific needs and/or desires. While intending to be helpful, it does more to depict the reality of incessantly complaining, never-satisfied urbanites. Further reflecting reality, subcultures experience conflicts that occasionally descend into violence. Subculture wars within your city can cripple the economy and lead to rioting, which can destroy buildings and infrastructure. Learning how to keep subcultures content is an integral part of playing City Life; moreover, it is the game’s most significant feature instilling depth in a game that would otherwise been largely derivative.
Without question, one of the most enjoyable features of City Life is the free range camera. Unlike SimCity, you can fully manipulate the camera in any direction, as well as zoom at multiple levels. What makes this exciting is the ability to access a first-person camera mode in which you walk around your city just like a virtual citizen would. Walking around your city and watching its citizens go about their lives is entertaining. In fact, the game allows you to tag citizens in order to follow their life as a resident of your city. Options for dawn, daytime, dusk, and night let you view your city at different times of day; although, a computer-controller day-night cycle would have been preferable.

Aside from the scope, City Life visually looks good. Buildings are adequately detailed, obviously more so when zoomed in, and convincing numbers of cars and people mill about the streets. Five climate types from tropical to temperate to dry are realistically presented in the game, giving each city a unique look. Sound effects can be heard when zoomed in at street level, but you won’t hear much when you’re zoomed out and planning your city. The music sadly degrades the overall presentation will its cheesy soft jazz tones. Without support for custom tracks, you’re stuck listening to a soundtrack that sounds as though it were pulled from the elevator at Monte Cristo’s office.
Much more than a clone of SimCity, City Life is a deep, realistic urban planning simulation that is both challenging and entertaining. Ample development options ensure that you can create unique cities in several types of climates; although, a limited number of maps and no terrain editing tools reduce the variety. The inclusion of subcultures does much to broaden gameplay, introducing a sociological twist on a genre in need of innovation. Visually, the game easily sets the standard for the genre with full camera controls and the ability to walk through your city in the first-person. While it isn’t perfect, City Life does so much right that it’s hard to pass this game up.

Overall: 8.5
Much more than a clone of SimCity, City Life is a deep, realistic urban planning simulation that is both challenging and entertaining.

– Tracy Erickson