City Management From The Inside
Developed by Reborn Games, Urban Empire is the latest entry to try and stamp it's name across the city simulation genre, and is the newest in a long line of simulation and strategy games to be published by industry veteran, Kalypso Games.
The game puts you into the political seat of power over a small town in the 1820's. After choosing one of 4 family dynasties to lead the rest of your campaign, it is then up to you to develop and manage your town into a bustling city over the course of 200 years and 5 distinctive eras, whilst divulging in political intrigue and diplomatic stand-offs along the way. Each of the 4 families have their own perks and de-buffs, and offer a slight variation on how the game can be played out for the duration of your ruling. During that time, you will birth 'heirs' to your family, and choices and development can be made to their character as they grow, which will effect the bonuses they will receive once they step into office.
What Urban Empire isn't
The most important thing to understand about Urban Empire, is that game has a central focus on city management , not city building. Most of the gameplay is carried out through a series of choices and menu management, with the overlay of your city offering a visual representation of the choices, as opposed to a physical playground for which you can interact with. It's important to understand this fundamental difference from the get-go, as fans of games such as Sim City or Cities: Skylines may not necessarily take to this game by default. This doesn't exactly drag Urban Empire down a peg purely on principle, as the game does offer a similar experience to some extent, albeit the meat and bones of how it is executed is vastly different.
The games 200 year timeline is populated by a variation of choices that you as mayor must make, ranging from public funding, district expansion, tax increases and even research. However, where this title differs from other city simulation games, is that instead of simply clicking a few buttons and exacting your unquestionable rule on the denizens of your city, the majority of these choices must be proposed to an AI controlled council in order to vote on them. The council hall is where you will spend a good portion of your time playing this game, as it is here that you'll put forward your proposals for change, and will have to plead with, order or threaten the other political parties in an attempt to sway the vote in your favour.
"...the idea of effectively waiting to 'roll a dice and see what happens' may not be entertaining for others"
While this offers a unique and very different spin on the genre, most of these interactions will be played out by choosing from one of three actions, with each providing a further 3 statements that you can choose from in order to lure party members over to your way of reasoning. This can sometimes lead to regular periods of time where you will be using the in-game speed tools to move time forward quickly, simply in order to select your statement from a list of three actions. While this may not prove unappealing to some, the idea of effectively waiting to 'roll a dice and see what happens' may not be entertaining for others, and as the game seems to focus very heavily on these political engagements, it's easy to see why some may be put off. However, this particular scenario is arguably not completely different from other management type games, which can often lead to long periods of 'stale air' as the player simply speeds up time until the next event happens. So this particular gripe could be down to nothing more than a core shortcoming of the genre as a whole, and not a direct fault with this game.
The game does offer a break from the conventional physical planning that can sometimes weigh other city simulators down. Instead of micro-managing road and traffic systems, and placing what feels like the fifth school in one area just to keep your residents satisfied, you are instead engaging on a a deeper level of political management, which hasn't often been utilised in other games. It can also be incredibly rewarding to watch your city grow and change as a direct result of your triumphs in council, which offers a very different alternative to the go to method of "I want to put this here, therefore it shall be so".
However, there are also times where the game doesn't seem to take multiple, yet important factors into the AI's voting system. While your city may be thriving and making a very steady income, the council may heavily vote against building a new port or train station, with little to no consideration for any of the factors that should contribute to those choices. As the central mechanics of this game are executed within the city hall, it does come across as a huge under-sight to not have the game react more naturally to the current state of your city, and can in some instances come very close to removing a sense of accomplishment from the game, with your choices and development weighing in so little at the most critical of times. The game also suffers from a few unfortunate UI choices, with important events being displayed as small, round circles in the corner of your screen, which are sometimes easy to miss. The game will also occasionally throw objects of curiosity into the center of your screen, such as newspaper articles or events, which while enjoyable to read, will disappear instantly if you attempt to slow down time in order to read them.
Urban Empire has managed to create a very thoughtful and sometimes intuitive spin on an already established and questionably dominated genre. Despite some of the games shortcomings, it is still enjoyable to play for part of the time, provided that you are engaged by it's style of city management in the first place. Much like the dynasty the game encourages you to establish; Urban Empire has laid in place a foundation which should be built-upon. It offers a comparatively different experience from that of it's peers, but requires an extra level of polish and love that could develop it into something a lot more distinctive that is able to stand on it's own merit. There's work to do, but if Kalypso and Reborn Games decide to alter some of the Urban Empire's unfortunate, but fixable failings, then it could be a strong candidate to spear-head the genre into a different, yet much needed direction.
Urban Empire is now available on Steam and can be found here - http://store.steampowered.com/app/352550/