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City Builder

Score: 85%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Virtual Play Games
Developer: Collision Studios
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Simulation/ Family/ Strategy

Graphics & Sound:

City Builder is designed to satisfy the concern that most casual gamers usually run into with traditional Simulation and Strategy titles. After you've been steeped in the likes of Bejeweled and Farmville, games like SimCity are too much, too often, too quickly. Younger players also have the occasional challenge ramping up on Sim games, not because there is too much information (the success of Pokemon demonstrates that kids are more than capable of retaining and recalling vast amounts of data), but because there are more complex strategies behind design and mission objectives. More pieces have to come together successfully in games like Civilization to achieve a successful outcome than in most games. City Builder aims to simplify this part of the genre, and does so brilliantly. The interface is dumbed-down, and we don't mean that in a harsh way. People have been trying to adapt Sim games to consoles with varying degrees of success for a long time. City Builder is the best natural fit for the genre on a console that we've ever seen. It retains the flavor of the overall genre, but simplifies things in a way that matches the intuitive controls and gaming philosophy of the Wii, in this case.

Keeping with the idea of attracting casual gamers to a genre that doesn't traditionally appeal to them, City Builder keeps its interface uncluttered. As you build the cityscapes in each level, the decisions you'll make are defined by selecting one of several items along a horizontal bar. If you don't find the exact item you need, pressing the (A) button creates a slot-machine effect that scrambles the items, so you can hopefully select the right one for the task at hand. Each city is built in layers, so you are never shown more than the one layer you can build in at that exact moment. The combined effects of your efforts are revealed at the end of each segment, which is fun because each person will end up with a slightly different city, depending on the decisions made within each layer. The design palette leans toward big, bright, and bouncy. It's familiar territory for young gamers especially, many of whom won't even recognize City Builder as being derivative material; the kids of the kids that used to play SimCity will find City Builder fits their Saturday-morning cartoon aesthetic perfectly.


Gameplay:

City Builder doesn't fuss with a lot of story or setup. You are plunked down with a god's-eye view of the world, that you'll need to develop. The premise is similar to most simulation/building types of games, but there's a crucial difference. The cluttered toolbox that confronts users in most simulation-style games doesn't exist in City Builder. Your choices are few, but that's the saving grace of this "Sim-With-Training-Wheels" concept. Starting a city is as simple as choosing a site and selecting the overall style from one of three options. Homes, Shops, and Factories will pop up to complete your city, but you'll need to do a little civic planning up front. The defining moment on your first run-through is just to lay down a roadway. Once you successfully connect a starting and ending point in the grid-shaped playing field, you'll see buildings magically pop up along the side of the road. This seems a bit too easy, but there are successively deeper layers of gameplay.

After a few practice runs with cities, you'll be given a two-stage construction project. Once the roadway is settled, you'll return to your city and work underground with water pipes. If you manage to lay out water lines in proximity to previously erected buildings, you'll see those buildings sprout up and become something bigger, more sophisticated. A few more iterations, and you'll be asked to set up power lines, allowing electricity to flow through the city grid you've established. Each layer is a bit more challenging, and further along, you'll be faced with more design challenges, more obstacles, and tighter timelines in which to work. Even though there isn't a competitive or co-op, or online element within City Builder, it's a darn fun experience. Players looking for a true simulation won't find it here, but it takes the essence of a game like SimCity and boils it down to something that younger and less experienced fans of that genre will appreciate. At the very least, it provides a more casual setting to fans of complex strategy games, who want the feel of building something, without braving an extended play session.


Difficulty:

What makes City Builder a challenging game has to do more with self-imposed challenges than anything else. The gist of it is that as you are laying down road, there's a timer ticking down. Once time runs out for planning and construction, a car will start chugging down the road. You can continue to lay down road while this is happening, but if that car reaching the end of the road before you map out the connecting points between the designated Start and End tiles, you're starting over. As you play through, you realize that the car doesn't move very quickly, and that you can rig some delays by building in more elbows and curvy bits along the way. When you first are introduced to the water/pipe portion of the gameplay, you notice immediately that the water runs more quickly through those pipes. It doesn't pay to dilly-dally as you are placing those pipes! Once things get to the electrical work, you'll have to move at a breakneck speed to avoid running out of time. Players can always tap the (A) button to pull up necessary pieces, but it can be hard to view the connections on the field once it becomes littered with items and obstacles. The obstacles create a significant challenge, forcing you to go around spots that would otherwise be ideal. The game also forces you to work through some specific patterns, and throws in objects that block your building. For these obstacles, there are power-ups that help you clear the way, such as TNT for rocks and cameras for shy creatures. There's a good sense of humor and light quality to City Builder that makes replays fun, and the level of challenge is modest enough to prevent one from having to replay anything too often.

Game Mechanics:

As you would expect and want from a game that is trying to build a casual simulation experience on the Wii, controls are dead simple. The controller is held NES-style, and you cycle through available pieces by tapping left and right. Selections are made with the (2) button while the (A) button pulls out that Vegas slot move and shuffles some new pieces into the mix. The catch with this shuffling is that it takes time, and time isn't something you have much of once you get into the more advanced levels. The other constraint imposed by the game on this shuffling is that your slot-machine gets overheated and needs to rest. The morale of this story from a tactical perspective is to be sure you've exhausted all the possible piece combos before tapping that (A) button. Nothing is worse that being behind the curve and listening to that dead-battery sound the slot-machine makes when it refuses to shuffle. The larger strategy even than that is to not go overboard with your construction. A counter shows the minimum number of buildings required to complete the level, and you don't get big rewards for beating that number.

This type of flexibility - to play as hard or as simple as you prefer - is one of the primary selling points of City Builder. It missed a chance to pull out multiplayer, and there are plenty of things we could see this game doing online that never happened. Those shortcomings aside, it's a solid title that delivers on its mission. There may not be a huge market for simulation gamers interested in a dumbed-down experience, but there are certainly lots of Casual gamers looking for a more stimulating experience on their PCs and consoles. For the latter camp, and some younger gamers, City Builder is a clear win.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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