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Massively hands-on with Cities XL

Shawn Schuster

As the Cities XL closed beta continues to run strong, we got word that the beta's NDA has lifted [Edit: for press] and we can spill the beans on our first impressions of the game so far. Now, two very important points to be made here include the fact that this is not a review (MMO reviews are bad, mmkay), and this is still in early closed beta stage.

With that in mind, we're here to give you some facts on how the game stands now, with a bit of healthy opinion thrown in for good measure. If you're at all curious about how this city-builder MMO can possibly work, follow along below.

Cities XL is a game that had a few of us on the Massively team a bit skeptical, I must admit. You find yourself asking the same questions concerning the validity of any game being labeled as an MMO (especially since everything wants to adopt that label lately). But I stuck that slight skepticism deep into the recesses of my mind and fired up the beta client.

The character -- I'm sorry, avatar -- creation process didn't help keep that skepticism fenced in any, as I worked my way through some choices that looked fairly cartoonish and simplistic at first. But then I discovered this whole world of sliders that could customize my avatar in ways very similar to something like Sims 3. As you can see from these screenshots, mostly everything is adjustable, from facial and body features to clothing, hair and more - right down to the muscle tone.

Not wanting to spend too much more time refining my avatar's looks (because I could have seriously spent hours doing that), I was anxious to get into some genuine city building. Besides, I knew that at any time I could go back to the main menu and change my avatar if I liked. So I clicked the green check mark, picked an English server and off I went.

This is what I saw next, and it honestly got me pretty pumped for what I had in store. Now I admit, I did skip the tutorial at first. Yes, I know, not a great idea, but I did this based on the assumption that many players would do the same, expecting to come back if they found themselves stuck. I think this is pretty typical. I did return to the tutorial later to discover what I was doing wrong in a few areas, but I suggest at least going through the 'Basics' part of the tutorial before you build your first city.

I was pleased to discover that the learning curve is pretty tame, and I would venture a guess that most city-builder fans would pick up on this game in just a few minutes.

That's not to say it's easy though. I would say I scrapped my first four or five cities before sticking with a method that worked for awhile. Part of that stems from the fact that I haven't played a city builder since SimCity 3000, which is a testament to how even an amateur like me can get the hang of it.

Getting started with your city

The first thing you'll need to do is figure out where you want to put your city, depending on what type of city you want to play. Do you want to make a tourist attraction? Then you should probably build near the beaches. Want a city that is heavy into exporting fuel? Take up residence on a fuel field. Want to be a farmer? Grab a spot in the fertile grasslands. After you get the hang of a few of the basics, like adding a City Hall, building houses, factories, retail and offices, you can immediately see the progress of your city take shape.

In the picture above, you can see that I opted to grab some beachfront property that also has some access to flat grasslands for some farming, too. Realizing the scale of the buildings in that screenshot, you may be thinking that it's nice to have so much land to play with, but that's not even scratching the surface of how much land you're given.

This screenshot shows the complete area I was given for my plot of land. See my tiny little town over there in the lower left-hand side? As you can see (through the realistic atmospheric haze), I was still afforded quite a variety of land types in my beach zone. I totally should have started in the other corner. Oh well.

Once your city starts progressing, there are some fairly powerful tools in place to track the economy, population, budget and general level of content that the citizens have for what you've created. You'll find yourself constantly watching your population vs. unemployment rate to find that perfect middle ground, while still tending to the budget, to make sure you're bringing in enough money to eventually grow your city. In fact, we can't stress it enough, but Cities XL really does have all of the best features you'd expect from any popular city-building game.

Addressing the issue of 'loot drops' that we're so used to in our MMOs, Cities XL has a random Blueprint Lottery where lucky players can get their hands on a rare blueprint to build something monumental. These structures require tons of resources, so you can either opt to build them, or sell them to other players.

So what makes this massively multiplayer? Well, two main components of the game contribute to its MMO status: trade and socialization.


Unfortunately, the trade part of the tutorial was grayed-out in the beta, but we learned enough to get a basic understanding. Trade in Cities XL works much as the typical MMO's auction house works, except you really are trading. Your city earns what are known as Trade Tokens by producing certain resources. In my city, I had quickly earned a token for Qualified Workers, one for Heavy Industry and one for Offices, but I was in dire need of High Tech. That's where the trade system comes in. I can trade the tokens I have earned to other players for the token I need. In Planet mode, you can easily click on the Token Panel to see which cities are more abundant in which resources. You can also click on other cities to see what resources they have or need. If you can't find a player to bargain with, you also have the option to trade with OmniCorp, which is sort of like an NPC trader.

Those red lines and arrows in the screenshot above show the trade routes between cities. Interestingly enough, the trade routes to and from OmniCorp are quite a jumble, considering the fact that OmniCorp is housed on a small island. These trade routes also let you see which player cities are the most popular producers, and probably the richest!


There is a social aspect to Cities XL, although I would say it's not as enticing as the rest of the game currently. You can visit any other city on your planet (server) at any time by simply clicking on the city and then the enter icon. This will allow you to walk around inside their city and see how well or poorly they've done themselves. The movement controls are a little clunky with a click-to-move option, or you can right-click to instantly warp around any point on the landmass. Then scroll your mouse wheel to zoom in to an avatar-eye's view of the city, which includes the normal hustle and bustle you'd expect. There are other NPC avatars walking and driving around the city, going on with their normal NPC lives.

While in this avatar mode, you can meet up and walk around with other avatars (although we're not sure of any limit to the number of avatars in one space). This is strictly a social feature currently, as you only have a handful of emotes and some chat functions available at this stage.

Speaking of chat, there is a global chat across your server (planet) or all servers of a particular language. This is where you can advertise resources for sale, invite people to your city for a party, or whatever else you'd like to chat about.

In all, Cities XL definitely has promise to a niche market. Integrating a virtual avatar-based social world into a city-builder is a bold move on Monte Cristo's part, but judging from what I've experienced in my 15+ hours in the game, and what other players are saying, it works.

Be sure to check out our extended gallery below for more screenshots of the game, and look for more coverage and news as Cities XL progresses through its beta stages into launch later this year.

Gallery: Hands on with Cities XL | 16 Photos

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