CDV taps Monte Cristo in their latest Sim challenger to Electronic Arts. With the larger publisher focusing on extending the life of The Sims 2, Monte Cristo heads to the urban front and delivers City Life, a convincing clone of SimCity with just enough quirks and features to set it apart from the city simulator classic.
At a glance, City Life does not differ much from its spiritual predecessor. You are presented with a blank canvas map divided into territories. From this, you purchase a swath of land and begin developing it. Much of the basic mechanics remain the same. You can set residential and commercial areas through the use of North American style zoning. In order to support your fledgling town, you must also build infrastructure and social services to serve the population.
City Life makes twists and turns by incorporating different classes of citizens; a distinct European touch I'm sure since most North Americans believe the class system is dead. At any rate, initially you will be attracting blue collar workers. Their commercial areas are factories of various shapes and sizes. As the population size grows, more sophisticated buildings will be available to you. Once your city gets to a certain size, you will start to attract other groups, including elite, suits, radicals, fringes and have-nots. I would probably categorize elite and suits into the same category. Radicals seem to be creative types like game developers (yes that's actually a business you can make in the game) or music producers. Fringe is what you would call Greenwich village in New York. And have-not is a better word than calling the place and the people ghetto.
All of the different groups have their own needs. For example, building grocery stores or bars for blue collar workers won't do anything for the suit class. They must have their own facilities too. Basic services, such as fire protection, are universal to all classes though. Each property or building you lay down costs money to maintain. So if no one is staffing the building, you incur a penalty. If no one is giving business to a building, you end up losing money on the building. Usually each class wants to live and work by themselves but some forethought into the design of your city will enable you to mix and match. Some classes, such as the elite, suits and radicals seem to gravitate towards high end urban living and therefore don't have as much a problem getting together.
As different people move into your city, you will begin to gain access to complex buildings that require workers from multiple castes. That is, a large blue collar factory will require a suit to manage it. Even if you want to convert all your blue collar workers into white collar ones, you can't. Only in the early going will you have the luxury of only catering to one group. Eventually, their needs will grow such that you need other people to move in to build the more complex structures. Moreover, subway stops and certain power generating stations require blue collar workers. Even a hospital requires a lowly ghetto person to do what I presume is janitorial work. So the key factor becomes creating space that is usable, jobs that are available and facilities that are amenable to all parties involved.
Although you can't segregate the population into different zones, you can control how they settle through the availability of class specific amenities. If you want Fringes you survive, it is best not to build them around heavily industrial areas or chic downtown condos.
In so far as infrastructure goes, City Life is simpler than SimCity. For one thing, City Life does not require you to pull power lines to distant places to hook places up. On the other hand, City Life does introduce the idea of maintenance costs. Every piece of property or building you lay down incurs some maintenance. If it becomes occupied and is staffed fully with workers, you'll be able to recoup the maintenance costs with taxes. This idea seems more socialist and state controlled as I'm sure municipalities would crumble with the weight of maintaining even commercial properties. But this forces you to be prudent. You can't simply do a “build and they will come strategy”. If you build offices and facilities for suits, radicals or elites, you'll end up incurring a ton of costs if they don't actually show up. There's actually a report that is dedicated to showing you the most profitable and unprofitable pieces.
City Life does have some drawbacks though. Once you have these classes living in relative harmony, there isn't a next level to the game. You can continue buying land and developing them but aside from that, there isn't an overarching goal. SimCity 2000 rewarded you by letting you build acrologies for sustainable high density settlements. SimCity 3000 had some interesting rewards like a spaceport. In City Life, there doesn't appear to be same amount of compelling things to keep you playing.
City Life also lacks subterranean development. You don't have to pull power lines and you don't have to pull sewage or water pipes either. This makes development of things like subways or waste treatment plants rather easy; just place them anywhere you want.
One element that could have extended the game is the concept of inter-municipal co-operation. However, inter-city management is weak in City Life. First, there are no other cities to be seen on the map. The only feature that convinces you there is an outside world beyond your development is the ability to sell off excess electrical and sewage capacity.
While SimCity has its advisors, City Life opts to have an ongoing video news reel to show issues around town. Unfortunately, this means it can only show one issue at a time and you have to switch it back to the index to find out what the previous issue was if you are solving them sequentially. A glaring omission is a timestamp associated with each event. If crime was a problem three events ago, and it appears again, you're not sure if it's the same issue or a new one, especially if you left the game and came back at a later date.
No doubt the video news reel is supposed to encourage you to take a tour of the city yourself. City Life's engine allows you to zoom in to street level and furthermore, take a tour in first person mode. This is more a gimmick than anything as it doesn't add much to the gameplay, just as tracking Sims didn't add a whole lot of gameplay to SimCity. City Life also suffers from a lack of visual variety. Though each social class features its own style of buildings, many motifs tend to repeat and in the end, even if you have a cosmopolitan place, you'll end up thinking what you built was urban sprawl.
Finally, it's clear that City Life has a European influence to it as the game oscillates between formal and colloquial terms for in game references. The game's description of buildings is particularly rife with what must be the result of translated text. Some objects, moreover, do not even have descriptions which suggest some general sloppiness on the developer's part.
City Life is a decent builder strategy title. I found myself playing it well into the night, although its limitations meant I ran into a wall from time to time. SimCity 3000 may have come out years ago but City Life still lacks the depth that game provided. The social class idea is intriguing and no doubt reflects a lot of the segregation you hear about in areas such as France or USA. If you are playing SimCity regularly, City Life is an interesting take on the subject that you should try out. It does not revolutionize any concepts in the genre but it manages to get the basics down right to make an enjoyable urban planning experience.