Reviewed On: PC
Review copy supplied free of charge by the publisher.
From the screen shots Urban Empire presents itself as a city builder in the vein of Cities Skylines, but in reality it’s more a political game infused with the story of your chosen family through their decades of rule. The actual city construction and management is quite light compared to other games, and thus a lot of Urban Empire is waiting around for your city to grow. Arguably it’s too simple, its lack of precise control and more in-depth options making it feel as though you’re merely poking the city from time to time with a large stick from a great distance while arguing with a bunch of people about poking it again.
So here’s how it works: you’re the mayor of a new city waiting to be founded. First of all you must choose which family you’ll be controlling over the course of 200-years, each with their own personality traits that you will add to and alter over time thanks to random events. You’ll plop down the first district using the irritatingly fussy system which constantly complains that you’re attempting an illegal shape and then expand from there, adding more districts as you go. With extra cash in the bank you can add better infrastructure to these districts like telephone lines and electricity, along with important services such as theaters and clinics that all go toward fulfilling the demands of the citizens. Depending on the research you opt to do you’ll slowly gain access to more types of industry, new buildings and a variety of edicts that can be passed, ranging from free fire service to voting rights for women and much more.
As the mayor, however, you can’t just do what you like, instead almost every decision you make must first go through the council who will vote on whether not to go through with your plans. Want to raise tax? Council. Cut school funding? Council. Build a new clinic? Council. Sneeze? Council. So, naturally that means you have to keep the different parties somewhat happy with your handling of the city or else not only face proposals being rejected but also losing your seat as mayor. Provided you manage to keep the budget strong and money in the coffers they are usually happy enough to side with proposals for new services, districts and the like while having a negative balance typically means they’ll support a tax rise, something that is easily abused in Urban Empire, but little else. Edicts tend to be trickier as certain parties will oppose some ideas based on their political stance and beliefs.
That’s where goodwill comes in, which is essentially your political clout used to sway parties to vote the way you want. By default this will return to a certain standing depending on how a party feels about you, but more can be gained by issuing edicts that parties approve of, building certain things and by going through the events that pop up where you’re given the chance to pick between a few options that typically increase your goodwill with one part at the cost of another. During the run-up to voting you can spend this goodwill to plead, demand or outright threaten a party, swaying its members to vote with you. Later on you can even set someone to spy on parties and then blackmail them because politics is nasty business.
It sounds pretty awesome, a system wherein you have to choose your battles in regards to edicts and services, perhaps even occasionally having to begrudgingly keep something like child labor because outlawing it would bankrupt the system or because it’s simply too progressive for the time, a true political battle for the city. Sadly it never goes that far, though, with the developers seemingly content to create a shallow political system where you click a few buttons and wait for an outcome. You may fail to successfully plead for enough votes to pass an edict, wait five minutes and then get it approved. There’s very little strategy involved.
In fairness to the game things do become a tad more challenging when mayoral elections get introduced because in the run-up to voting time you may be unwilling to spend goodwill to pass an edict that a party has proposed, even when it’s something like removing punishments for homosexuality or providing free running water to homes. Even this, though, feels like the developers didn’t want to give their game any bit because provided you have not run the city into the ground getting re-elected isn’t difficult. The parties will remain happy enough with your service.
Ultimately it never feels like you’re trying to politically outmaneuver parties with their own agendas and ideas about how the city should be run. No, it plays like a game is attempting to simulate politics using just a couple of very basic systems. It’s not engaging, it’s not strategic and even worse arguably feels pointless at times because of how simple the council is to manipulate in order to get your way, like they’re just a small hurdle you must constantly hop over in order to get back to making the city better. It lacks any sense of being a dynamic system. Perhaps most frustrating at all is that parties will seemingly forget your antics over a short period of time, which can be laughable when you’ve just blackmailed them into submission.
Attempting to culturally advance your city through edicts also feels completely lacking as there is usually very little negative consequences to your choices. You or a party might put forth an edict that results in a +3 demand for social life from the population, for example, but that very same edict also grants a +6 bonus to social life, so there’s absolutely no downside to supporting it. Indeed, you get a large boost by doing so. There are so few moments where you need to make a difficult choice. The only reason not to push for progressive new laws almost all the time is that based on the era the parties may not side with you or because you maybe don’t want to spend the goodwill just before an election. There are so few moments when I had to genuinely think about what to do.
In short, the political side of the game feels underdeveloped and very, very simple. So what of the city building? Now, it’s not fair to directly compare Urban Empire to something like Cities Skylines since Urban Empire isn’t quite a city-builder, rather in its own words it’s a city-ruler. The same level of depth isn’t expected, then, but….well, Urban Empire is simple even without comparing it to other games. For example, with a certain bit of research done you can select the zoning for a district, which is to say you can set how much of it should be residential, how much should be businesses and how much should be set aside for industrial use. You can’t, however, actually select where to place those areas, which is a pain because industrial areas decrease the surrounding area’s beauty which in turn makes citizens unhappier. To compensate you have a selection of buildings to pop down, and since these tend to cost a lot to run and take up space that could otherwise be occupied by tax-paying businesses or citizens a lot of Urban Empire is about trying to give the city the least amount of stuff possible.
The thing is this very hands-off approach means that watching your city grow doesn’t feel as rewarding as you might have hoped. Floating above its demanding citizens it’s hard not to just get angry sometimes because you can’t tell people to stop opening bloody cafes since they aren’t making any money, and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself wishing that there was….more, really. More of everything. I believe Kalypso are on to something with this whole city-ruler idea, but Urban Empire doesn’t offer enough depth in either its politics or construction to capture the player’s attention. Basically, the whole game boils down to clicking a button or two every now and then with only a couple of seconds of thought going into it.
At least they do nail the research tree where you can spend the city’s combined brainpower to investigate new technology, advancing through stuff like basic automobiles, establishing general rights, electricity, televisions, satellites and more. With enough brainpower at your disposal you can leap ahead of the era you’re actually in, perhaps providing everyone with electricity far in advance of when it actually became a reality. This is the one area in which Urban Empire feels like it truly succeeds.
Where the game falls apart almost entirely is in its horrendous lack of player feedback which leaves you attempting to make decisions based on little to no information. Vague terms make the problem worse, such as services that say they’ll “boost companies,” whatever that means, and confusion as to whether sales demand is referring to amount a company must sell to make a profit or whether it means the demand for a product from the people. It took me a while to discover it was the former and thus negative sales demand was actually a good thing. This lack of information does at least arguably present a chance for players to learn through experience, and I’d personally be all up for that, but too often there isn’t enough data or clear enough changes to see what the results of your choices were either. It can make the game infuriating to play at times, especially as the economy is prone to huge shifts in either direction seemingly at random so that you can suddenly find your companies going bankrupt one after the other, and attempting to find out what the problem is might just leave you clenching your teeth so hard that dentists around the world shudder in horror.
The point is that to me a good example of this genre needs to nails its information; you don’t want absurd amounts of menus and overlays to navigate in order to find what you need to, nor do you really require things like knowing the name of a family’s dog, but you do need to be able to make reasonably informed decisions or be given enough data to learn from your choices, to see and understand how the underlying mechanics are working and reacting to your decisions. Urban Empire fails in this. Countless times my economy would suddenly crash and I would be unable to find out why, or my cash flow would suddenly increase and the reasons as to why were left unclear. Why is one district’s businesses failing constantly when none of the others are? If you’re like me you’ll comb the menus looking for some potential flaw, but find none. So what do you do? Toss down random services until the problem is fixed? Too expensive. Does an edict need to be issued? Should a port be built which vaguely claims to boost businesses? Is there not enough residents? Are taxes too high? Why is efficiency so low? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s me. Maybe I’m simply missing something or failing to understand the terminology being used. I love strategy games but I certainly don’t claim to be great at them. And yet if I head to Steam and check out the guides most of them resort to spamming a simple tactic; start losing money deliberately by building a new district and then use the deficit to hike up tax. The forums are filled with people trying to figure systems out and failing.
But to be fair to the game with some stubbornness you can begin to work things out. Don’t get me wrong, I still never managed to discover why that one district couldn’t support its businesses, but I did figure out how to boost efficiency, how many pupils schools can hold and a bunch of other things vital to running a successful city and keeping me in control until 2020 when the game ends.
I’m not even touching upon a bunch of the other problems, such as icons that are never explained, weird economy crashes that last for a month when loading up a game and tooltips that appear for some things but not others. And then there are the weird balance problems. Infrastructure is the best example; for a hefty sum you can upgrade a district with things like electricity and a water pipe and telephone lines, which in turn unlock stuff like electric street lights, sewer systems and eventually so much more. These all seem like they would be vital to the growth of your city, but in reality they’re worthless because they are incredibly expensive and other options are simply much better value for money while doing the same job but better. Indeed financially you’re better off leaving districts without these basic amenities and just using buildings like a theater or police station to meet everyone’s demands.
It’s for these reasons that I cannot recommend Urban Empire. There are glimpses of something great that flash by, like when you manage to pass a tricky law that you know will set the city on course for a brighter, better future, or when you get the economy booming and everyone seems happy and thriving. Eventually, despite the game attempting to hide all of its stats under a cloak of secrecy you’ll learn some basic tricks for succeeding, like making one of your priorities a wholly industrial sector where you can slowly build up infrastructure over time, things like electricity and running water being much more worthwhile for companies than it is to regular citizens. It’s too damn simple for its own good, too, and often too easy as well, at least when it doesn’t try to annoy you with its terminology, missing tooltips or desire to simply not tell you about a whole swathe of stuff. It’s annoying, really. I want to like Urban Empire, I really did. It seemed like such a great concept on paper. Ah well, Reborn, you have a good idea here. Maybe next time, yeah?