|Publisher||Kalypso Media Digital|
|Release Date||January 20, 2017|
Review code provided
Urban Empire is a strategy game that combines political simulation with city building, casting players as the Mayor of a new town installed by the Emperor of the fictional country of Swarelia. You’ll need to expand the city and take care of its citizens, all while navigating tricky political waters and societal upheavals through five different eras and 200 years of history.
In its opening moments, Urban Empire shows a lot of promise, suggesting a deeper experience than the one it ultimately delivers. On paper, it sounds incredibly interesting (and more than a little prescient given our current political climate) – you need to build your city up to allow it to prosper. But you’re not an autocratic ruler. Everything you try to do, from instituting new policies to building a single park, must be put to a council vote.
This adds an interesting new dynamic to the city-building gameplay. You can plan a new district or a new institution, but it won’t actually be built unless the council votes in favour of it. The game populates its city council with members of parties that run the range of the political spectrum. Whenever you attempt to do something that requires a vote, you’ll be shown roughly where each party will fall on the matter, allowing you to see how big a job you’ll have on your hands to get something to pass.
Urban Empire gives you a rudimentary ability to affect votes and sway members of parties who were otherwise going to torpedo your plans. Each month leading to a vote you can attempt to win votes by pleading, demanding or threatening members of these political parties. Later you can even blackmail parties with dirt dug up by your spies. This gameplay loop of proposal, negotiation and voting can be quite engaging at first, but repetition slowly sucks the fun out of it the further into the game you get.
A single playthrough of Urban Empire can be quite fun, but it’s a game that has seriously limited replay value thanks to its design. Political parties rise and fall the same way each time you play. As you move through the various Eras you’ll be pressured into adopting the policies of the times – equality for women, ending child labour. Getting these policies passed is simple enough when they come up, most of the time I didn’t need to bother swaying any votes to enact socially progressive policies with ease.
The trouble comes if you try to fight them. If you choose not to enact these policies for whatever reason, you’ll get shafted later in the game by Mayoral elections. Continuing to uphold inequality or child labour will eventually see you kicked out of office as the world moves on. This might be historically accurate, but it kills replay value and makes the game feel like it’s on rails, presenting you with decisions that truly don’t matter.
This isn’t helped by the shallow city-building mechanics that Urban Empire is built on. You’re not actually building cities in the game, so much as you simply watch them expand whenever you have the political capital available. To build a new district you simply draw a grid attached to either a road or a neighbouring district and decide what percentage of it will be used for residential, industrial and commercial zoning. The game fills in the rest.
You can choose to place certain buildings (police stations, schools, etc.) and whether or not it has things like electricity or sewage or gas infrastructure. But there’s very little leeway for you to truly create your own city. Once districts are approved by the council, the buildings start appearing of their own accord. There’s nothing for you to do but sit and watch, occasionally promoting a business to try and keep your economy going.
Urban Empire’s biggest problem is that you never really feel like you’ve got a handle on what you’re doing. After a few playthroughs and scouring the Steam forums for the game, I still don’t really know how the economy works. The game starts with a very basic tutorial that shows you how to play the game, but it never really goes into detail about how everything in the game connects together.
Take gas infrastructure, for example. It’s a district improvement you can unlock with research, but I’ll be damned if I know what it does other than cost money and let me build gaslamp streetlights. Hovering over the option when building a district simply tells me it “boosts businesses” without actually telling me how or why. It’s the same with just about everything. Urban Empire is a very complex game, but it never takes the time to teach me how it works, beyond basic controls.
I had assumed that the Circle of Life, a set of stats that measure things like citizen happiness, health, fun and more, played a big role in the game. Until I was handily voted out of office (which is an instant game over) despite having a huge population happiness bonus and all of the Circle of Life stats in the positive. It’s simply mystifying. There is so much about Urban Empire that I can’t figure out, nor can I find explanations within the game itself.
The one thing Urban Empire nails is its light roleplaying mechanics. Rather than create an immortal ruler, here you must choose a family from a pool of four, each with their own values. As you play through the game you’ll make visual novel-style choices that affect your reputation. At the end of each era the character you’re playing will be succeeded by an heir, probably a character you already know, whose development your choices will have had a hand in. It’s a neat system that gives you a strong tie to your family across generations.
Urban Empire is a game with a lot of promise that ultimately lets itself down due to a lack of depth in its core mechanics. While there are probably hundreds of ways each mechanic connects with each other, these connections are never explained to players, making the whole game feel inconsistent. This is compounded by a lack of replay value as the games events and eras play out mostly the same each time you play, and screw you over in the latter stages if you choose to try and go against socially progressive policies. A great deal of Urban Empire feels like it’s running on autopilot as you essentially stare at buildings and stats between council votes, occasionally making decisions that seemingly have little impact on the direction of your city.
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