I confess a name can sell me on a title. One such example is any city builder published by Kalypso Media conjures up sweet warm memories of Tropico. Aahhh, what a charismatic wonderful series that is. While simple and accessible, it had a thick dose of variety of approach, a variety of mission expectations and a variety of maps. Sure it began to sag by the 5th entry compared to the tight and toned 3rd game, but it was still an easy recommendation to city builder fans who wanted something charismatic or those who wanted an introduction into the genre. So I was cautiously excited for Urban Empire. Yet, was it meant to be?
Urban Empire is a city-building game by Reborn Games, who previously operated under the name Fragment Productions. A new city is being made in 1820 as funded by the Austria-Hungary Empire, and one of four families as picked by you were called in to mayor the city. First you build it by building a district or three, with the option to build as many as you like as the game goes on. You must then run it through the eras to one of five victory conditions. A simple task, right?
Let me just click one final piece of the puzzle into place. Every move you want to do has to be approved by the City Council: Made up of 61 elected officials from whatever political parties exist in the era. Naturally, these political parties have their own agendas that will influence if they are inclined to vote in favour or against you on issues such as taxing based on their political alignment (left vs right wing and libertarian vs authoritarian). Although while once or twice I did notice some strange mishaps, like The Communist Party voting against a very left wing ideal, it was generally reliable.
However, sometimes you’re just going to have to do something unpopular. You may want to introduce a new district to increase income, increase taxes to help fend off debt or even push equal rights laws past to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. So it’s time to get the political machine rolling. You have two approaches: The main approach is to simply speak with them. You pick a tone, pick a conversation option between 2 or 3 choices and see how much it affects the vote against/for slide. Although the heavier the tone you use with the party, the more their goodwill will diminish upon use with the upside being a greater potential shift in voting approach.
“So what is stopping me from reaching into the bag and getting the biggest hammer in the box?”. In theory, if all the goodwill disappears then they’ll simply not listen to you and even purposely vote against you, which is worrisome when re-election rolls around. The reality is I found even at the most hated point of -10, they’d still listen to me enough that with enough harassment I could force anything through. Although I could only recreate this with the Russian family.
Maybe I should feel like the cheating swine I likely was for pounding everything through gleefully through the subtle technique of “constantly screaming”. However it almost felt like the only way to last and do something at all, as all that goodwill you have will disappear through your fingertips fast even with just simple laws you’ll need to pass to survive (e.g. taxes, elections and districts). Something that would be fine, if it wasn’t for how there seems to be no good way to replenish goodwill.
There is also the option of blackmailing. Where you pay for someone to root-out some blackmail material and at some point perhaps you may hear of some evidence. I would have tried it out but it was as reliable as Simcity‘s EA servers on launch and it is possible for the parties you put a blackmail hit out on to not exist by the time you get some results potentially next era.
Which you will have 5 eras to get through to hit an end, as each era demands more on you with regards to the six life areas across the districts: fun, social life, security, health, physical environment and personal growth. Which the average, called “satisfaction rating”, determines your income. Income you will then likely use to improve the satisfaction rating, which loops and loops and loops forever and ever. Sadly the game never gets out of this rut. It never progresses anywhere nor shifts in playstyle, still expecting you to continue the cycle from 1820 to up to 2018. It just gets tiresome and dull not having an objective you have to strive for at each tier or some form of twist to help trip you.
That isn’t to say there are no objections at all. There are in total 5 victory conditions within Urban Empire. However, 4 of them have 10 characteristics that require you to really buckle up and really steer development in a particular style towards it due to how specific some demands get. That is putting aside how some of the demands are incredibly vague, such as “Have the city economy flourishing”. There is no reason to strive for these four when the End of Time condition exists that requires you to just survive, which as mentioned above can be easy when you get in an economic/satisfaction loop. The technical term for this problem is “Dominant Strategy” or “Strategic Dominance”, with needlessly complex conditions thrown in for good measure. It just renders the other conditions a waste of time only to the most hardened, rather than as an interesting alternative.
“Well, that means there’s a large variation in play styles then!”. Not from what I can see. Everything is focused on the satisfaction/income loop so heavily that to deviate is to doom yourself. Your choice of family may shift things, but only slightly as the game favours a moderate amount of developed districts. So once you find a path to that, success is assured. Sure you can try the “spread your districts thin” approach, but by Era 3 the demands on your life areas will be too heavy to keep your districts undeveloped and improving them enough to increase the average will cost so much money it would bankrupt the world.
Something that brings me to a side note: Global event awareness. It still boggles my mind you have a game set in Europe that remains unaffected by World War 1 and 2.This is especially as the Austria-Hungary Empire was so noticeably affected by World War 1 it dissolved. So to let such a significant event slip-by while hiding in a country controlled by the empire still astounds me. There’s also confusion in terms of how little your country’s politics affects your city, as in not at all. Anyway, let’s keep moving.
There is also a tech tree, which I do enjoy. It was an interesting idea to have an era system to technology, especially as it allowed you to know what level of research you were expected to be performing at by a particular date. I also enjoyed finding ways to sneak more brain points, which buffed the research speed. I’m just confused how Representative Rights lead to Combustion, or how you don’t need the Internet to access the Internet of Things (i.e. everything connected online). There are various other examples of bizarre “this leads to that” or “this doesn’t need this”. It feels as though the developer knew the era tech should be in, but couldn’t work out a good way to place it on the technology grid.
There is also a nit-picking part where I also would have liked bonuses to research speed depending on the amount of surrounding technology I had investigated. As there are multiple branches on the tree showing connection, it could have created greater tactics to invoke these connections in a meaningful way. Overall though, I do enjoy the technology tree, as long as I didn’t think too hard on it.
Sadly, there is also a content quantity problem. Three maps and three scenarios (where you’re given a very particular objective) feels rather lousy for a game lugging about a £34.99 price-tag. This is especially as the maps never really test you to play the game hugely different, besides just simply being wary of district placement for maximum quantity. The scenarios do a good amount to mix things up, but it is a strong case of way too little for all too much.
Finally, we get into charisma. I confess normally I wouldn’t mention this as Urban Empires neither does it well nor blunders it. It has characters, but they never feel central enough to the development of the city to matter. There are character-specific events but they are disappointingly far-and-few and with very little room (if any) for consequence for your choices. I simply mention this to help back up my conclusion.
The final score of Urban Empire is a 4.5/10. It was really hard to decide between a 4.5 and 5, as it fits the mediocre label like a glove. It drones on without any meaningful progression (with hour 1 having a concerning amount of similarities with hour 8 or 9), it has core mechanics that should be brute-forced through to avoid frustrating mechanics and it sags along without any real charisma. Even compared to more serious city builders like Cities: Skylines, SimCity series and Anno series, there’s no room for doing silly things for fun. That’s ignoring more comical and charismatic ones that exist like the Tropico series and Dwarf Fortress. It is just pretty boring to play.
However, I then looked at the price. Then I glanced back at my measly 3 maps, 3 scenarios and 4 families (who only slightly tweak the gameplay approach). This ended up tipping the incredibly fragile balance straight onto the 4.5 Urban Empire is getting. As someone always on the hunt for a new time sink next to Europa IV and Stellaris, something akin to how Tropico 3, 4 and 5 were back in the day for me, I really wanted Urban Empire to be something special. So I’m genuinely let down about the state it is in. I can only hope that Reborn Gamers gives their title some much needed post-release love.
A PC Review Code for Urban Empire was provided by Kalypso Media Digital for the purpose of this review