City-building strategy games have typically put you in the shoes of a virtual mayor as you build out your little town and try to make your little citizens happy by not putting too many air-polluting factories near their apartment buildings. Monte Cristo's Cities XL will attempt to take the concept to an entirely new level and bring it to an absolutely massive scale by combining a full-featured city-building strategy game, a robust 3D graphics engine, online multiplayer, online social networking, and postrelease updates via subscription. The idea is one of the most ambitious designs that we've ever seen for a game of this sort.
Out of the box, Cities XL will be a fully contained city-building strategy game that will let you build massive, sprawling cities with an easy-to-use click-and-drag "paintbrush" interface. This aspect of the game will have plenty to offer, including more than 500 different buildings and more than 25 different possible map layouts right out of the box. A new session of the game will begin at a planet-view splash screen that will broadcast any news updates from the online portion of the game, such as new buildings or mission packs being made available, as well as community announcements.
You can choose to build your city on just about any part of the planet, and although your exact location on the globe isn't all that important, the general area around your city will be. Cities in different global areas and in different climates will have different resources made available to them; for example, if you're in the market to build an oil empire, you might consider building closer to a coastal region. Resources will be a key part of your city's development, given that they can not only be used as material components to develop your own homestead, but they can also be traded to other players or sold on the open market. In the interest of keeping the game accessible to a wide audience, Monte Cristo apparently does not have plans to institute resource rarity or random events that might change resource supplies, but in any case, this gameplay nuance is definitely intended to get players to work together.
Even though the game's impressive-looking 3D engine can quickly build huge cities and roadways with a quick drag of the mouse, what's perhaps even more impressive is the potential for player interaction that Monte Cristo is building into Cities XL. While you're playing the actual game, you'll be able to communicate with other players to negotiate trades, as well as to take the form of a single character avatar to explore each other's cities on foot. However, when you're not playing the game, you'll be able to monitor your city's progress on a Web site that Monte Cristo will host for your city. The site will have an info ticker that keeps track of what's going on while you're not able to play, as well as any orders that you might have outstanding on the in-game market.
But this site will also have just about all of the functionality of a modern blog site, including a written journal with comments allowed, photo sharing (which works with screenshots that you can capture from the game), and friends lists. Essentially, the idea is to integrate the game fully onto the Web so that you can partake in the experience even when you can't hunker down with the game client itself. Maybe you can't jump into the game in that 15 minutes on your lunch break, but you can still stay connected to the goings-on in the world, as well as to all your in-game friends and partners who can message you, leave you comments, or share photos with you.
We're told that although the game will emphasize online play and interaction, it'll require only a brief Internet check on startup for antipiracy purposes, and can otherwise be played more or less as a single-player game. Solo players can choose to ignore the online community entirely and focus on meticulously building the city of their dreams with the substantial amount of content that will ship with the game at launch. However, Monte Cristo will also support the game postlaunch with additional content, which will include not only new buildings and other structures that can be added to your cities, but also additional content packs that include objective-based missions. One mission that we watched required us to run a successful winter ski resort, either by building an affordable, family-friendly spot or a pricey, highbrow resort for ski connoisseurs reminiscent of the lodges in Aspen, Colorado. Monte Cristo currently plans to release such content updates on a regular basis to keep the game experience fresh.
You might not expect online multiplayer or such a strong integration of Internet-based community elements from a city-building strategy game, but that's just what Monte Cristo is planning to deliver with its ambitious new project. Cities XL is scheduled to ship in early 2009.