City builder. These two words make me both excited and nervous. I grew up in the dark ages of city building and planning games, where the Sim City franchise was somewhat outdated and the exceptional games of today had not been released. Now I’m a bit older and wiser I love playing around with old and new gems, but back then I was a little more picky. Insight into my young life aside Urban Empire, a city builder with political elements, is an exciting game but it falls just short of being truly a world beater.
So what is a political city builder? In more traditional games, like Sim City (Boo!) or Cities: Skylines (Yay!) you have the power to do pretty much what you want with your city. Assuming you have the money and space to build that school or sewage plant you can. However, in Urban Empire you can’t just follow your own agenda. The town you build has factions, with you playing as one, that all want their own aims achieved while not wanting others. The conservatives don’t want new age schooling or social progression while the left party love equality. This makes the whole situation a lot more complicated and leads to decisions being harder to make and execute. If you can’t get the support of a high enough portion of the council you don’t get funding or you lose the ability to perform the tasks you want to. This creates a delicate balancing act that had me compelled right from the get go. The game also features a technology system that lets you tailor the evolution of your town, but it never really drew me in and seemed insignificant in the long run. While it’s nice to have and in no way subtracts from the game it isn’t as well implemented as could’ve been hoped for.
Outside of this we have to ask what Urban Empire brings to the table in terms of city builder itself. As with the other games made by Kalypso Media Digital, such as the Tropico series, you’ll only build a smallish town. There won’t be any sprawling cities or great metropolitan areas in this one, but that’s not to say you can’t make impressive stuff. The game takes you through several periods of time, with each having a distinct feel and visual flavour that is great to play around with. There feels like real evolution is taking place in your game and that makes someone like me, who loves progression, this is great and keeps me playing long after the game tails off. Sadly, the game does tail off. The mechanics in building the city are pretty bare bones and not anything to write home about, leaving a lot of the core building up to a slider and random chance. This one is heavily about district management and placing of key buildings so if you’re looking for a more hands on approach this may disappoint. This means that while there is stuff to keep me in the game there may not be for everyone, and if you’re looking for pure gameplay it isn’t to be found here, so I’d have a good think before picking this one up.
Let’s talk replay ability. The game lets you play as any of the four factions and each has different benefits and drawbacks, meaning that you can try your hand as each for a slightly different feel. However, the key word there is slightly. The game lets your believe that you have lots of choice over the direction you lead your city, with different technological paths and the family bonuses, but after several attempts my town always feels the same. This makes the game feel repetitive at points and that’s a shame for a game that had such promise.
Visually the game is pretty good. The art style is similar to that of Tropico, but less Copa Cabana and more European, and you can tell effort and money has been put in. The sound assets are also surprisingly good, keeping me from muting the game in favour of my own music for quite some time. The games aesthetics may not be for everyone, as many people prefer a more modern feel to their city building experience, but for me it really keeps me involved.
Overall Urban Empire is a pretty enjoyable game. The trouble here is that there’s so much potential that seems to have been missed. The game adds systems and ideas that are fascinating but never seems to go anywhere with them. With a little work and some DLC to shape up the technologies, building aspect and more factions (and if that could all be free that’d be great guys) the game could really shine. There is a solid façade and the game is certainly fun, but there is lots more to do to drag me away from my precious Tropico.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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