Picked up this game during the 5 day sale, and figured I'd give it a shot. So here's my thoughts so far.
First off, the game is packaged as a city-building game a la SimCity, but one of the first things you realize when you load it up is that it's an MMO with a free, single player mode. This latter version lacks some of the bells and whistles, but it's still playable. Meanwhile the MMO version offers DLC and the ability to interact with other players' cities. Apparently there's been one outlay of DLC and it's largely been hit or miss. I skipped that version to stick with the single player content.
To start, Cities XL is visually different from most games in that the login splash page is not a box- it foregoes the standard Windows style in favor of something more cloud-like. It also suggests that English is not the developers' first language, due to some minor conjugation errors. But otherwise, not that big a deal.
The tutorials are vaguely informative, but more importantly, they expect you to be precise. The first tutorial teaches you the camera controls, and if you don't perform the steps exactly the way they want you to, it will refuse to move on. Similarly, a later introduction to street view camera controls seems to leave you stranded, but at least in my case it eventually moved on. On some of the tutorials I couldn't perform the actions expected or couldn't identify exactly what they wanted me to do; fortunately these came at about the point the game assumed you did everything right and lets you move to the next step regardless of if you're following along or not.
There's also an avatar you get to make; it appears to be entirely there for the MMO part of things and is otherwise pointless. So it's worth about half the space I'm devoting to it.
Picking A Location
Once you decide to make a city you get to pick a locale for it. There's five different terrains to pick from, each of which has a selection of areas where you can put a city. If you pay the extra $10 for the Limited version of the game (apparently limited in that it's limited to people willing to pay an extra $10) there's another five locations which each appear to conform to the previous five types- canyons, mountains, plains, tropical, and something I've managed to forget. In any case, each one has its own attributes including a difficulty percentage; as best I can tell the lower the percentage the easier it is to set up there. The plains area where I set up had a difficulty of 20%, a plains area in the limited part was at 40%, by comparison mountainous terrain clocked in at 70%. It's worth noting that apparently the mountainous areas offer snow, which I assume comes into play with the ski resort 'GEM' (paid expansion), whereas shoreline areas may offer 'holidays' which seems to translate into tourist attraction areas.
First thing you need to do to get going is build a road to the edge of the map. This connects you to the outside world. This is also one of the first places where the game will make you :dry: because this road has to be on flat ground. Even the 'flat plains' have large hills, forcing you to dodge around them. Theoretically the end of the road equals the place where your city center will be. Or something like that.
In any case, once you have the road, you can then set up your City Hall and a basic Utilities Office, which gives you enough resources to start building. Unfortunately this is also about the point where the complaints start coming in.
There's four qualities of residential area: Unqualified, Qualified, Executive, and Elite. Different types of business requires employees in different categories, but you immediately need Unqualified workers- which I take to translate into unskilled labor. Or, in the game, 'the people who bitch the least.' There's various ways to zone areas for construction but in my mind the easiest and most straightforward is 'square' mode, which is interesting because it's a 3x2 group of buildings. Apparently square is more to do with square corners. This, along with 'free' adds roads along with the buildings. Free being 'draw a shape and we'll fill it with houses. There's also the option to add individual plots with no roads. This is generally foolish, unless, say, you bulldozed one plot and are adding a different one.
Beyond this there's Industry, Retail, Utilities, City Services, Decorations, Roads, and the bulldozer. Industry covers quite a bit, and in rather blurry categories to my mind: agricultural industry, heavy industry, manufacturing (then what's heavy industry doing?), high tech, and offices. Retail breaks down into shopping, hotels, and leisure. Utilities are electricity, water, fuel, and waste management. City Services handles health, education, fire rescue, security, and city hall. Roads cover roads, more roads, bridges/tunnels, and inter-city transit, which seems to mean harbors or airports.
You immediately want to build residential areas, followed by some heavy industry, agriculture, offices, and shopping. Which pretty much is all you can build. And you'll almost immediately get yelled at about how much is going wrong. As you proceed to try and juggle all the competing requirements, some of which are counterproductive (Retail constantly complained that they both had more goods than they could sell, and didn't have areas for more stores), your population will go up, people will complain about new things, and you'll find new buildings available to construct.
Balancing Things Out
Here's the basic breakdown of how it works: you need enough workers to operate the industry, leisure, utilities, city services, retail, and pretty much anything that isn't a house. These workers have their own needs, which translate into jobs, leisure, utilities, city services, retail, and houses. Furthermore, they can get upset if they're all employed- things go downhill because you don't have places for new workers to live. Even if you don't need them.
While you're balancing all of this, along with things like traffic congestion and pollution, there's the issue of resources. There are many resources, and you need all of them- and you can build up a surprising number of them. For instance, it's not terribly difficult to dig for oil and provide it to your city to reduce the cost of fuel. Similarly, you'll hit a point where you need water, which will require you to set up pumps, and fertile ground is required for farming. Alternatively you can trade for resources. Not always ideal.
For added fun, as the population grows and wealthier people show up, you need bigger and better versions of things. Elementary schools need to be augmented with middle and high schools. Those basketball courts need to be replaced with bowling alleys. And so on.
What's wrong with the game is the way it handles some things. For instance, almost immediately you'll get dinged for not having any high tech industry, and a bad reputation for agricultural industry. This despite the fact you can't build high tech industry to start with, and you may not have any agricultural elements to get a bad rap about. At the same time you'll routinely get dinged for not having enough unqualified workers for the farms, even if you just put in new rows of houses.
And then there's the hydrophobic bridge. I tried building a road across water. I got it to the edge of the river. Then I picked bridge. I was told I could not build a bridge. Why not? Because bridges cannot be built in water.
Similarly there's a lot of vague information that can be hard to deal with. The retail shops saying they couldn't sell their stuff didn't benefit from quadrupling the amount of homes or destroying industry- it finally got fixed when I eliminated areas set aside for retail. Similarly you can be told that there's a lack of housing available, even though you've got lots of empty plots of the specified type. And some things there's just no fix for, like discovering that for some reason everyone's using one particular small street, when you've got four alternatives that should get people to their destination faster. It's also difficult to translate things like a need for 'medium' amounts of workers into zoning.
Another problem is that apparently there's parts of the game that are simply unavailable, and may never be available without subscribing- even if those elements are basic components that the game expects you to have, like public transportation.
Cities XL is a game that's somewhere between frustratingly difficult and mind-numbingly boring. You're constantly beset by an array of rapidly changing information, and it's not difficult to find yourself suffering from problems you have no good way of fixing, such as people not building homes on available plots, causing industries to fail from lack of workers, which gives you a bad rep in that industry which lowers the rate of population growth. At the same time the game unlocks things at certain population numbers, so you can find yourself mindlessly boosting the size of residential areas and industry in the hopes of getting that next milestone and something new.
This is a game that has the potential to look and play really well, but at least for the time being I'd say that it falls far short of that potential and instead just makes you long for SimCity's various disaster buttons.