by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Figuring it out
Playing Urban Empire, I am reminded of the first few days after the launch of Sim City back in 2013. The game had some truly mystifying gameplay mechanics that took the community a while to figure out. The most prominent of them involved building skyscrapers - a nigh impossible task until someone figured out that draping highways around every plot did the trick every time. Urban Empire seems to champion such mystifying gameplay mechanics and the community is still figuring them out. I enjoy that kind of challenge but not everyone does.
A mayor simulator
First, though, I suspect many players will have a bit of a struggle with the concept that they are not actually playing a city builder. Urban Empire certainly looks like a city builder and it does share many of the core concepts of one. You are the ambitious new mayor of a small town and have your sights set on creating a bustling, sprawling city that is the envy of the nation. But where a city builder gives you control over every aspect of what is happening in your city, Urban Empire gives you politics.
Your role as a mayor is to give direction to your city. You propose changes to the city rather than take implement them directly. It is the city’s politicians who decide whether your proposal makes the cut or goes to the shredder. That sounds more black and white than it actually is - you do have considerable influence over the eventual vote. Say you want to increase safety by building a fire station in one of the city’s districts. You propose the change and then have several months to influence the voting behaviour of each of the ruling parties by pleading, bullying or just threatening them to comply. Some parties will fight tooth and nail and may even campaign against your decision but if a party has safety featuring high on their own political agenda they will probably try and help you achieve your goals. The same is true for edicts, creating new districts, upgrading infrastructure and pretty much everything else in the game.
To make the outcome a little more unpredictable, elections may change the council composition completely. A vote that seems to be going your way may turn sour after its largest supporting party loses half its councilmen. If you’re lucky you have some dirt on someone that you can use to blackmail him and salvage the proposal in the very last minute. When the vote is close and the need for it to succeed is high, voting can be an exhilarating and nervy affair even after many hours of play.
Simulate a mayor
When the game starts it is 1820, a time where the elite ruled over cities and the working man was expected to show up for work and shut up. One of your goals is to have your family remain in the driver's seat throughout each of the five eras that follow. The first two eras the emperor has your back - you’ll have to work with the local parties but they cannot vote you out of power. Each era brings a new member of your family into power and his or her traits affect the wheel of life, a range of indicators that keep track of the levels of happiness, room for personal growth, security, **** in your city. These can be influenced in a variety of ways, and most directly by providing services such as theaters, hospitals etc.
As your successor is groomed, events present themselves that give you a tiny bit of influence over his or her traits when they take over. Similar events apply to your current character as well, causing tiny fluctuations in the wheel of life indicators. As time passes, people will demand ever higher levels for each of the wheel of life areas and it becomes harder to keep up with those. It is not uncommon to have an era change coincide with major upheaval. Such events can require a lot of adjustments to be made quickly before everything will calm down again. Managing the budget can be especially taxing then.
When you’ve come to grips with the fact that you are not all powerful, the game mostly delivers on its promise. You are a mayor and you need to work within the system for things to happen. If your coffers are full, money is pouring in and your citizens have their needs met then most of your proposals will be ratified by the council. Fail to balance the budget and the council will start to oppose you and eventually kick you out - game over.
A major pain point is that the game’s tooltips and descriptions can be incredibly hard to decipher, downright wrong or even not working at all. One party proposed a tax cut for students. With plenty of cash coming in I thought it was a good idea so I supported it. I looked at the details to see the tooltip say “tax rate for student” and, puzzlingly so, the proposed change to be +5% which sounds like a raise to me. Businesses show something called sales demand, which - seems - to mean that they demand that amount in minimum sales but the wording suggests that it represents the demand for their products. Companies get a boost from expensive infrastructure upgrades such as water and electricity - their company info screen shows you what they require - but when you connect those, more often than not you don’t actually see any increase in sales, income or employment without the game telling you why. A notification would tell me the global economy is booming but the newspaper that appeared seconds later tells me that there is a global recession. The game is rife with little mysteries like these and I can’t blame people for dropping out because of them.
A gutsy game
A glutton for punishment, I spent the weekend breaking my head over the Urban Empire puzzle - and enjoyed it - but it is not for everyone. Launching a game featuring political wheeling and dealing on Trump’s inauguration was a fine marketing move but it is clear the game could have used a few more weeks of user testing. The tooltips and descriptions especially cause a lot of confusion and frustration. The game is just very unclear and my score needs to reflect that.
Still, Kalypso made a gutsy decision when they started work on Urban Empire. It is not your run of the mill city builder and it is hard to market something so different from the norm. That difference is not just a weakness, though, it is also a strength. I can guarantee you that you’ve not played anything like this before and the community - is - figuring it out, slowly. Urban Empire is a breath of fresh air and for that reason alone it is worth checking out.
One of a kind gameplay, challenging
Poor descriptions and tooltips hold the game back