by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Last week, Kalypso Media celebrated their 10 year anniversary by showcasing their upcoming games to members of the press, as well as their trade partners. It wasn’t hard to distinguish between the two groups. Business people tend to stand out when you dump ‘em in a room of nerdy journalists, and the latter group were the ones occupying the PCs to enjoy hands-on time with the games they were most interested in.
My personal favourite, Urban Empire, was not available for hands-on play but this was more than made up for by the presence of Lead Designer Jussi Autio, whose time we hogged for a full hour as he demonstrated the game. Kalypso calls Urban Empire a ‘City Ruler’, which is a fitting description for a game that sits in between a city builder and a mayor simulator. Actually, it leans more towards being a mayor simulator and that is exactly why I fell in love with the game on the spot: no one has made anything like this, ever.
Set between 1820 and 2020, the game begins a few years before the start of the second industrial revolution. It gives up its appearance of being a city builder almost immediately after drawing the first district on the map. While you influence their borders and outer roads, districts will fill themselves with roads and zones, though the RCI mix within those zones can be adjusted using a set of sliders. So far, so good, people are moving in and it is time to place a school.
It is then that you realize that your actions aren’t as direct as you’d find in your average city builder. You have to propose changes within the districts to the city council and they will have to approve of your plan. The council is divided into political parties and each has a different agenda. Some of the proposed changes will go over well with most parties, but many others are controversial. As in real life, left-wing parties will lean towards higher taxed government-controlled services. Right-wing parties usually want exactly the opposite. Prior to the vote, you can gauge how your proposal flies within the council and attempt to influence parties using threats or promises. Applying any kind of pressure on parties will have an effect on your standing with them, especially when your attempt fails. Piss them off once too often and they’ll start voting against you. Should their popular support grow, they could become big enough to cost you the next election, which means game over. An alternative route to pushing your proposal for new buildings through the council is by simply funding them yourself. It’s expensive but it comes with few complaints.
Proposing to build that new school will likely go over well with all parties. Schools and universities provide brainpower, which is used for research which fits in well with most agendas. Research does more than just unlock a new building or edict, it also influences how a city develops. If you get a specific technology early enough, you could become a dominant power in that industry. Invest in film and you might become the game’s equivalent of Hollywood, reaping the fruits of its cultural influence. It will impact related businesses, aesthetics and how your citizens feel about various topics such as the sexual revolution and sustainability. If you are too late, however, film studios may still show up in your city but they’ll act just like any other business with little to no influence on how your city develops.
You’re not the only one to propose changes to the city and to how it is governed. Other parties will make proposals following their own agenda. Early on, the emperor will come to you with all kinds of suggestions and demands, and keeping him happy often means additional bonuses for your city.
And while your citizens themselves won’t actively get involved in politics, their opinion of how you are doing does affect your decision making and triggers events in relation to that opinion. How you handle these events affects happiness, which is a significant force in the game. If they feel you are doing a bad job, they may end up voting for the party least likely to be supportive of your rule. Happy workers will also increase the efficiency of local industries but also that of civic buildings, increasing their service range and quality as a result.
The depth of the game seemingly has no bounds and almost everything is interconnected. Even time plays a role in the political dynamics. As you approach the third game era, support for right-wing extremists may soar, mimicking the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s. This support peters out in the fourth era but rises up again towards the end of the game to reflect today’s political turmoil. Even the type of school influences how citizens develop their personalities, impacting their social compass and voting behaviour. Companies provide workspaces for middle-class and working-class citizens, each affecting how the business performs in different ways.
It was impossible not to be impressed. Urban Empire is intricate and deep and it is daring in that it is the first of its kind. It aims to entertain and challenge but there is so much history woven into the game that it will educate gamers in the same way Civilization has. A typical game will last some 15 hours and there is so much to do that I am betting these will fly past.
Even though the game looked to be in great shape, Kalypso said they were adding more time to the development schedule to add polish. Keep an eye on the game’s release somewhere in January.