The gameplay is difficult and vague, but at the very least Urban Empire has gained much needed direction.”
Urban Empire is a city-builder-cross-political-simulator from the development team at Reborn Interactive. Bolstered by the support of industry veterans Kalypso Media, creators most famously, for the Tropico series, the game has had great potential to put a new spin on an already established genre.
When I previewed Urban Empire before its launch, I suggested that it might have a hard time convincing gamers to part with their hard-earned cash. The game presented plenty of good ideas but the execution of these as actual game mechanics was lacking. There was also a distinct lack of direction, resulting in the well-detailed gameplay feeling somewhat mindless. Thankfully, upon the full release of the game, at least some of these elements have changed.
You can check out my preview of Urban Empire here: http://invisioncommunity.co.uk/2017/01/03/urban-empire-preview/
Releasing tactfully, or perhaps ironically, on the inauguration day of the new President of the United States, Urban Empire is all about managing a town and growing it to greatness. Your position as Mayor does not afford you quite the same level of command as the President, but your decisions in the game are arguably just as large and significant to your town as those of the man in the White House to his country. Passing edicts, managing taxation and expenditure and improving your town’s facilities and industries are all jobs on your to-do-list. The politics of getting them done however do not make themselves easy…
To get things done in your growing little town, you must battle through one of gaming’s most painfully realistic bureaucracy simulators. Convincing the members of several conflicting political parties to vote your way on any number of issues can often feel like an impossible task. No matter what you hope to achieve, there is almost certainly a group that is against the idea. Whilst it is possible to attempt to sway their vote to your side, some parties are too hell bent against an issue to be persuaded. At least until things get serious.
There are times where the frustratingly accurate political simulator within Urban Empire decides to get a bit silly; usually when the money starts to run out. Parties that previously voted against a 20% tax will suddenly approve a 95% one, and at that point things start to get a bit unbelievable. The game is a little edgy at times too, for example the struggle of decriminalising homosexual relationships. Playing in the modern-day world, the fact that all parties can be against this idea feels a little uncomfortable, even if for the period of the game it might be accurate. It is the kind of feature that might have been more suitably left out of the final cut.
Difficult and controversial politics aside, city building is an equally significant part of Urban Empire’s gameplay. There are essentially two sides to this; research and district-based city management. Research in Urban Empire is very similar in style to that of Civilization, both in terms of appearance and format. On a larger technology tree, you must choose the base level technologies you want to research, usually based on the longer-term goals you hold for your town. After you reach a certain level of advancement in research, you enter a new age and new opportunities become available. The system is a familiar one, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it fits to the game in quite the same way as the other features. Perhaps the subject of advancements should have been integrated with the wider political features as well.
District-based city management suits the game well. It is a system that I was not all too fond of in my preview, but returning to it revealed how familiar the structure of this feature can feel. To create a district, assuming of course the approval of your political peers, you begin by dragging and dropping the area and selecting it density. Districts can then be divided into residential, commercial and industrial sectors, in a similar way to games like Cities Skylines.
A unique aspect of Urban Empire, given the time period setting which ranges between the 18-1900’s, is that you can choose what basic services to provide to each district once you have researched them. Money can be saved by leaving out gas supplies in a predominantly residential area for example. On the flipside, more services are particularly difficult to get past the political onlookers you have to deal with. The same goes for adding structures in the area such as schools, power plants or workshops. Whilst they may benefit the local community and create happiness amongst the people, the bureaucrats often hold you back to save some pennies. In a game that is so much about building up, this can feel like a real drag to deal with…
That brings me on to a very key point about Urban Empire that prospective players need to know; it is hard. Both in terms of getting things done on the politics side and generally achieving objectives, the game does not make your life easy. When playing through the very open campaign for the first time, I found the tutorial distinctly lacking in helpfulness. It teaches you some basics, but gives you little direction going forwards. When you get as far as a mayoral election then, you are particularly unprepared to succeed, and it is also not easy to follow how these proceedings are going before the final vote happens. This trend carries across to the scenarios of the game as well. These provide the game with some much needed direction in the form of clear objectives, but it is not easy to follow your progress in completing these, which can result in sudden losses. All of these things leave the game feeling less like a healthy challenge at times, instead providing a sense of unnecessary difficulty and vagueness.
If you can see beyond the frustrations and difficulties that Urban Empire puts on the table, you will perceive a game forged in real beauty. The colour pallet, the architecture, the lighting and the tone as a whole perfectly represent the period setting of the game, and the detail is magnificent. Zooming to street level allows you to see a realistic bustle amongst your people, and the day/night cycle provides you with the experience of a living, breathing community. The soundtrack for the game adds to the experience too. The whole experience is like a less upbeat, more serious Tropico, but in its own way it kind of works. Questionable as elements of the game may be, Urban Empire looks fantastic.
On the whole, this game still feels like it needs work, but I am more impressed with it than I was when I previewed it at first. The gameplay is difficult and vague, but at the very least Urban Empire has gained much needed direction. It also looks fantastic, feels familiar to return to and presents some good idea. Once again, the drawbacks largely stem from the execution, and sadly this really brings the house down. Perhaps one to wait for in the sales, I still see Urban Empire’s potential, but it still isn’t there just yet.
Urban Empire was reviewed on PC