This city-builder is more about politics than plopping down buildings.
By Leif Johnson
There’s a case to be made that Urban Empire is a perfect city sim for our times. Many traditional city sims grant us autocratic control, and the whims and wants of the populace largely remain abstractions and jumbles of figures. Urban Empire, though, focuses on the grim reality of the bickering, backstabbing, and befriending that goes on in a mayor’s relationship with multiple political parties before any proposal becomes a reality. It’s an approach that’s commendable for its realism, but in this case, it’s one that quickly grows predictable and occasionally dull.
It starts out promisingly enough. Urban Empire keeps its ambitions manageable by limiting the gameplay to the two-century span between 1820 and 2020, and it injects some volatility by mirroring the economic effects of events like the recession of the 1840s and the First World War. It drives home its focus on people by making you not a detached puppet master, but rather a member of one of four dynasties with different histories and ambitions. There are the starkly conservative Von Pflizens, for example, and the Sant’Elias clan who believes good technology can fix everything.
We want to hear it.
The approach adds a welcome dose of roleplay to the main campaign, as events pop up demanding decisions that can affect the heirs that become the new heads of the family as one era gives up to the next. These dynasties also grant bonuses for their mayors from each era, which can help them push through controversial edicts through smart use of the goodwill stat. Likely as a means of softening the challenge of the first hectic years, Urban Empire presents each mayor as appointed by the Austrian emperor, making them impossible to remove. When a wider embrace of democracy comes along toward the end of the 19th century, their positions depend on the favor of the city council.
One roughly six-hour playthrough doesn’t differ terribly from the next.
In practice, though, one roughly six-hour playthrough doesn’t differ terribly from the next, regardless of whether you’re playing the working class-oriented Kilgannons or the posh Shuyskys family. History as we know it marches on regardless of what decisions each mayor makes, and the cities grow almost identically, thus removing a great deal of possible “What If?” scenarios that could have rewarded (or punished) you if you take a different view of European life than the one we’re familiar with today. There are three compact scenarios that allow a for a more focused playthrough (including one that actually asks you to lower your population), but even there the overtures remain the same.
That’s partially because strictly speaking, Urban Empire isn’t a city builder in the traditional SimCity sense. You can guide the graphically attractive towns through choices on a sprawling technology tree that lets you go down paths including everything from refrigeration to internet development, and you can place unlocked buildings like clinics and railroad stations, but for the most part they grow on their own. Yet Urban Empire doesn’t even let you map out the positions of industrial, residential, and mixed zones aside from tinkering with a slider that randomizes their placement. You can allocate funds for management, but you can forget about laying down your own creative roads. This isn’t that kind of game.
That’s where Urban Empire’s true nature as a city-based political sim comes in. To do almost anything, whether it’s placing a new building or banning pornography, you need to run it by the city council, who will then vote on whether it passes. Unfortunately, for all the focus on the playable family, these council meetings and their political parties always remain abstract. The council supports more political parties as time moves on, involving almost constant use of prompts to demand or threaten them, or to just have a friendly chat in order to sway them to vote a certain way. Later, you can even blackmail parties by sending agents to spy on them (although, as with most actions, this is never more visually interesting than clicking on prompts in a menu). Most of Urban Empire’s action consists of watching these guys vote in their crowded semicircular room, and the work outside in the visual world tends to chiefly involve waiting for them to get ready for the next vote. Early on in a campaign, this makes for many nail-biting moments when cash is scarce and your prestige stat hasn’t built up.
Yet as your power consolidates, this dance rapidly grows dull. It certainly doesn’t help that the parties don’t always act as you might expect them to based on political alignment, as even the conservatives will usually eagerly warm to the idea of taxing everyone into the poorhouse if there’s a deficit. Through only moderately careful maneuvering, I could usually generate enough prestige to override their stubborn votes if necessary in the late game. And once I fell into this rhythm, I found it difficult to lose.
It’s possible to artificially make Urban Empire harder by doggedly pursuing a right-wing agenda, as its clear desire to follow the general trends of European history until now amounts to progressive ideals being favored at almost every decision. The challenge to maintain rule by championing child labor and such can be fun at first, but when elections start to matter as the world enters more modern eras, this leftward tendency makes it almost certain you’ll get the boot. Finding the necessary rhythm can also be a challenge at first, as Urban Empire’s tutorial enjoys relaying the basics but almost nothing about the specifics. Tooltip use is unfortunately sporadic as well, and sometimes it asks you questions like how you’d like your train station’s interior designed with zero hints as to the resulting effects that pop up after you click.
Urban Empire‘s premise of focusing on the political tumult that’s usually behind city planning is a good one, and the emphasis on four families allows for some lightweight roleplay in how you guide your city to greatness. Unfortunately, the personal approach tends to stumble as each game more or less plays out like the last, and the constant juggle of votes makes for an experience that’s more exasperating than exciting.