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Urban Empire Review

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Urban Empire is a new type of city builder; or more accurately, a city ruler. It’s main focus is about one thing, preserving a gubernatorial dynasty. That may sound like an insanely niche concept, and it is, but oh boy is it fun. Urban Empire operates like any other deep strategy game in the city simulation genre at first, then wildly diverges from cliche and expectation in the best ways.

In other games, the core of the experience relies on an omnipotent player attempting to make the best choices for the city under their control, and having total power to succeed or fail at their finger tips. The core of Urban Empire relies instead on the political skill of the player, as well as trying to balance what is best for the city overall. So in Urban Empire, the new district and resulting tax base that can save your city from bankruptcy may well depend on a city council that you’ve treated too poorly to gain much support from. This means that the vote to build the new district will probably fail to pass. That scenario represents how a player will most often fail in Urban Empire, but the frequency at which this could occur will make your eventual success that much sweeter.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “How does the game actually work?”. Well, it’s actually rather clever. A player starts in the First Age, set in a fictional Imperial land in the early 19th century, That means the Industrial Revolution is in full swing, and your task as mayor is to bring your new town into the golden light of progress and beyond, building a dynasty that will last two hundred years. The game lasts from 1820 to 2020, and you can keep playing after 2020, you just won’t unlock any new technology. The time periods themselves are split into five Eras that define technological advancement and political climate for your city.

Your first choice as a player is to select a starting dynasty from one of four choices. The aristocratic Von Pfilzens who resist progress and prefer to rule with a firm right-wing grasp on power. The technocratic Sant’ Elias who fetishize inventive solutions to problems and will fight hard to preserve progress and freedom of expression, although the poorer classes will be often left behind under their rule. The Kilgannons are the stalwart defenders of the working class as they recognize that progress is built from the bottom up. They have built political power up from nothing, and will use their extensive experience to hold on to power at all costs. Finally, the Shuyskys are a heavily cultured family that specializes in art and dramatic expression. Their talents lie with entertainment more than politics, but there is certainly something to be said about the convincing power of a stiff drink and fine shows.

Each of these families will have different starting traits and negatives. These differences will affect the overall tone of their gameplay, as well as various factors of the mechanics. For example, the Sant’ Elias will unlock technology at the fastest pace, but will likely struggle to gain goodwill politically.

Once you load into your first game, you’ll notice that you can’t just start throwing down districts and city services. Once you try, you’ll be hit with a prompt asking to put your proposed city changes to a vote, or you can bypass the vote by paying for the expansion out of personal funds. The real core of this game isn’t in building your city, it’s in maintaining it by navigating a quagmire that is council politics. And as any angry older gentleman will tell you, the bloody council is useless. The frustration and elation that the council will cause you over the course of your time with Urban Empire is the real joy of the game, and it’s worth it just for the singular successes you might enjoy when you finally oust the pesky Liberal party from power after they’ve screwed the workers one too many times.

Design

The idea of governing a city in a more realistic setting has always intrigued me. I’ve enjoyed the endless creativity and customization of Cities: Skylines, but I’ve always felt like it was a bit too lacking in realism in some sense. Urban Empire allowed me to point to exactly what other city sims were missing. That missing component is actual politics. And that’s both the appeal and ultimate shortcoming that should be primarily noted. The challenge of playing various political parties off of one another is going to appeal to a very select group of people. And there is very little of the endless creativity in terms of city design like that found in Cities: Skylines. So buyer beware if you’re looking for the next complex engine for your creative urban design endeavors.

Planning districts and placing services in Urban Empire is a simple drag-and-drop affair. You can vary the grid layout of your roads, as well as how they connect to the main highway; but once the roads are proposed, they’re stuck that way until the vote to implement the changes passes or fails.

Once you’ve planned your first district, your next job is to place various services. Everything from fire and police to entertainment must be unlocked through either semi-random events or research on the tech tree. So Urban Empire doesn’t throw too much complexity at you at first, which is nice.

You’ll spend most of your time deciding when and how to operate your city by balancing new laws or edicts, mostly unlocked by the passage of time and discovery of new technology, and then fighting the political machine in your city. This is one of the points where the game both succeeds and faults in it’s simplicity. The overall presentation of the effects of your various laws and edicts can be  a bit confusing, and the political parties are ultimately reduced to a question of “Who do I want to anger less in the short-term in order to pass the most vital laws and expansions?”.

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It’s the core goal of Urban Empire to build a successful city, and the wider scale that the game attempts to convey leaves little room for interesting minutia that some city sim players might crave. There’s little deep connection with the citizens or political parties in the city, and without the creativity of city-building, there’s very little in terms of personal touch.

Execution

The tutorial for your first game is well-done and easy to understand. The only quibble I have is that it’s a bit too restrictive in the way it railroads the player into certain choices, and I find myself working to undo some of the choices I made to sate the mechanics almost immediately.

The focus of your efforts as a player then shifts to wrangling the various political parties so that you can eventually pass the laws you need to keep your city going. It’s this struggle that is meant to define the game. And it accomplishes this primarily by balancing three key factors that act as your currency in the game.

Money; your city budget and personal income will affect your ability to erect and pay for districts and city services. Get too much debt, and everything grinds to a halt.

Goodwill; this exists as a function of your overall political capital as well as the ability you have to threaten or cajole the various political parties in your city to pass laws and edicts. Make the parties angry or threaten them too much and not only will goodwill shift out of your favor, you may also find that more people vote for your new opposition out of sympathy or spite. Of course, you can use your various technology and statist mechanisms to spy and blackmail party members into cooperating.

Time; the system of Eras in combination with the other systems of limitation make it so that every action the player undertakes is supposed to be important. At very few times does the player find themselves sitting idle waiting for a vote or population growth, assuming they have properly managed their resources in other areas.

Dealing with the other areas of your city such as managing education, healthcare, security and the environment hinge on what essentially a slider system. Each political party has a sphere on the political compass that they’re likely to support, and each proposed policy has effects on the aforementioned areas as well as a sphere of influence on the political compass. Creating synergy with the majority party and your most important policies is the best path to success.

Speaking of success, the ultimate goal as a mayor in Urban Empire is to carry your dynasty through the Eras toward one of multiple victory conditions.
Science victories involve creating an advanced technologically progressive society that exists on the cutting edge of technology, but could actually be quite repressive of class consciousness politically.
Economic victories involve creating trading-focused societies that dominate the economy of the nation, and are thus able to weather major economic storms. These cities often lead the charge of recovery from disastrous events as well.
Political victories involve the passage of key policies and votes that strive to create cities built equality and progressive politics, although the policies that satisfy these conditions are often relative to the Era they occur in. So expect to have to juggle some pretty tame ideas by today’s standards that would be revolutionary two centuries ago.
Remarkable victories are akin to wonder win conditions in Civilization games. Building an advanced and wondrous city that satisfies these conditions relies on being the best of the best in all areas.
Time victories involve simply surviving through all five Eras. It might sound simple, but you’re likely to bankrupt more than a few cities just trying for this win condition.

Dealing with party politics can be a bit of a mess

Overall, the strategy of Urban Empire lies in determining the best path towards achieving your goals while keeping your city afloat. The systems in place work well enough to achieve this in a relatively simple way, which does appeal to more than the most hardcore players. The variance and replay value will most come from the randomization of events and political situations.

Functionality

The game looks good, even for it’s limited environs and what little it does actually showcase of your cities. The impact of politics and economics is usually pretty invisible to the player save for whatever impact it has on finances and political power. There were a few trivial spelling errors highlighted in some press builds, but they seem to have been fixed upon release. No major CTDs or FPS issues were encountered.

Enjoyment

Whether one would enjoy Urban Empire does come down to niche appeal. Those looking for creativity from the likes of Cities: Skylines won’t find that extreme level of customization here. And those looking for an extremely minute and in-depth strategy game won’t find an extreme level of depth. Those who enjoyed the likes of Democracy 3 or economic simulations like Fate of The World or Geopolitical Simulator might find something to like in Urban Empire due to the political machinations and light economic management.

There is certainly some level of re-playability with the multiple factions and Eras, as well as the randomization of how each city will play out politically. Is there enough to justify a $40 USD price? The answer to that lies in a combination of personal preference and raw play time. I’ve spent a few hours in the game at this point and only managed to complete a city with one of the four families.

Value

Given Urban Empires steeper price and limited appeal, it’s hard to gauge exactly how much people will be enthralled by the idea of managing the politics of a city through a period of two hundred years. If you’re the kind of player who loves economy or city sims, then Urban Empire is probably right up your alley. If you’re a more casual strategy or simulation player, wait for this one to go on a discount.


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