“There is plenty of potential for Urban Empires to be great with a little work down the line.”
Urban Empire is a city-builder-cross-political-simulator from the development team at Reborn Interactive; supported by the game’s publishers and genre veterans, Kalypso Media. An inspired game which meshes together ideas from a number of sources, Urban Empire sees you build a city from the ground up, from construction to research to management and more. Taking on the unique role of Mayor, Urban Empire attempts to offer a genuine experience of what city management might actually be like. It’s something a little different created from a lot of different features that we have seen before. In some ways that works. In others however, the system is easily beaten…
The inspirations behind certain aspects of the game are clearly drawn from other successful titles. The research system is straight out of Civ. The city building is like a simplified Cities Skylines or Sim City. The political decision making draws a lot from Tropico, and even a little bit from games like Democracy. The political processes however are the feature which stands out as the most original in the game. It is also the feature which takes the most time to figure out and master. There is one problem with Urban Empire though, and that is that none of these systems have been perfected.
Research in Urban Empire involves picking a technology to look into based on the merits it brings and the later tech it leads to; your pretty standard video game system. Although it draws its design from sources like Civ, and that as ever is easy to read and make decisions within, it does little to improve upon it. This seems to be a theme that flows throughout the game. The city building aspects are nothing special either,with fine tuning this feature having been overruled by by other areas. You simply drag and drop new districts, and decide which services to locate within them. It is a system which is neither new, nor is it better than things that we have seen before. For the game’s price tag, this is rather disappointing. The political systems in the game are the only truly new and interesting feature on offer, and even these have their issues.
The political processes of Urban Empire are intriguing and clever in theory, but more often than not become either a bureaucratic nightmare or senseless chaos in practice. What appears on the face of things to be an intelligent system based on each party’s moral values and beliefs, or as the game describes it their “political compass”, evolves into a flawed AI. People start disagreeing with you on matters that genuinely only have a positive outcome. You can’t get a sewer system past the AI, but if you want taxes to go up to 95% in a struggling moment then that works just fine, despite whether they are left wing, right wing, liberal or conservative. The decisions just don’t make sense, and it’s unfortunate that this is the case, because the mechanics of this part of the game are genuinely unique and interesting.
As opposed to the absolute decision making power that other city builders or political sims will offer you, Urban Empire presents you with a party-based political system to deal with as Mayor. This means that any idea you wish to enact as Mayor must go through a vote first, and each party tends to vote differently. Convincing others to follow your cause can be a difficult albeit impossible task at times, which is probably a fair representation of a true democratic system. This can be frustrating, but it urges you to learn, not only how to play the system, but also how to accept your losses and move on. The system itself is very smart as an idea, and the game’s developers deserve credit for that. What pulls the game down is the illogical math that seems to go on in the background to it.
The deepest problem that really makes Urban Empire confusing however is far simpler than any of these systems and their flaws. It is the fact that the game lacks direction. You start a campaign, anticipating some sort of missions or end goal to complete. Instead, you are are just left to carry on however you want, and it makes the game complicated to play. As welcome as the freedom to build truly is, a campaign without purpose is hardly a campaign at all. Even the tutorials don’t really set you going in any given direction. They teach you the features relatively well and show you how to find things, but they don’t inform you of your goals. If you plan to follow their teachings, you had better gear up for a whole lot of reading as well, as the textual elements won’t read themselves!
All of this sounds very critical of a title which, honestly, isn’t entirely bad. I kept playing for several hours before calling it a night. That too was only down to the fact that elections appear out of nowhere in the mid game, and as a result everything I had done for about 4 hours turned out to be pointless anyway. But truly, the game has some merits which are worthy of mention. It looks fantastic for example, from buildings and landscapes to the remarkable day-night cycle. The tools in place to monitor citizen satisfaction, informing you of their needs and desires, are also a great feature. The issue being with this that it barely matters anyway, as your people are generally happy as long as you develop with some common sense. Convincing political parties to support you is the real challenge and often it seems impossible to make friends. This just highlights the true underlying issue with Urban Empire though. It is a game filled with excellent ideas, but it struggles to manifest those into the interconnected map or working features that it needs to succeed. That is why the game ultimately falls short of expectations.
There is plenty of potential for Urban Empires to be great with a little work down the line. As it stands, it is going to have a hard time convincing gamers that it is worth their time or money. The ideas are absolutely all there, but the execution, at least at this stage, is lacking. A little direction and more time spent on tweaking the almost-but-not-quite working mechanics of the game will a go a long way towards making it special. Right now though, it isn’t everything that it is capable of being.
This game was reviewed on PC