The art of shuffling people around cities has been a staple of videogame simulations for decades, from the humble days of DOS and smash-hits like SimCity or Transport Tycoon, to more recent titles like SimCity 4 and Cities XL. Cities in Motion is well and truly intended for the modern age and, unlike the genre’s first sprite-heavy 8-bit games, CiM is rendered in an engine that can produce antialiased, high dynamic range frames that portray cities in swathes of visual splendour. No simulation game is worth its salt without providing some measure of accuracy and fun, so we whipped out our sim-o-meter and got to work.
Movin’ the peeps
The game begins with a simple tutorial, which describes the basic tools needed to get your city going. Movement around the city is done with the WASD keys, and 8-point rotation of the camera can be manipulated with the arrow keys. The scrollwheel allows a zoom range that shows individual citizens and vehicles at an oblique angle, to a more traditional top-down view. Oddly this top-down view doesn’t get particularly high above the city of choice, resulting in almost any action requiring a lot of camera panning.
Every network begins with a simple route, which is easily created by the placement of stops or stations (found in the construction menu) that each have an area of effect over the surrounding buildings; this dictates how many people will use the stop. After the route is pinned out with stops the Line panel is opened and stops are linked together, and vehicles purchased then assigned to the route. Unlike other games, depots are not needed for vehicle purchases. Any vehicles not assigned to a route will be held in a virtual depot until they’re needed. Eventually passengers arrive at the stops, and if the route is somewhere people actually want to travel, people will begin to crowd the stops and get unhappy.
There are three ways to prevent passengers from becoming unhappy with your services: upgrade stops to have additional facilities, add additional vehicles to the routes to lessen their waiting time, or reduce ticket prices. The last option is very often a poor choice. The happier the passengers are, the better; more passengers will flock to the routes you’ve created and money will start to trickle in. Buses alone are hardly enough to keep a busy city flowing, and once into the campaign proper we very sporadically used them.
Instead the transport of people around the city essentially boils down to building a central metro system, with trams feeding passengers to the metro, and buses for the outskirts of the city. Though there are expanses of water that can be crossed by so-called waterbuses (ferries), and helicopters that can cross any distance, these two vehicle types are often unprofitable and are marred by achingly long travel times, leading to passengers becoming unhappy and ultimately reducing profits. Five route types may sound limiting but there is just enough variety in vehicle types to make decisions interesting, with each vehicle differing in passenger capacity, price, resource consumption and likelihood of breakdown. We found the process of covering a city quite engaging and relaxing, aided by the laid-back soundtrack and simple sound effects. We found the experience of actually running a network to be less than perfect.
Though CiM drills down into budgeting and upkeep of vehicles, as well as providing a measure of how reliable vehicles are, in practice it’s a nightmare actually keeping the system flowing properly as neither of these features actually do anything at all. It’s both guaranteed and unavoidable that a vehicle will break down every minute or two once a network is up and running; an event that spews all that vehicle’s passengers out into the network and gives each an extreme case of the shits. Not only does this reduce your overall profitability and make having a good reputation something of a fleeting dream, but the game also automatically deducts a fee to repair the broken vehicles, again hurting profitability.
Each of the four cities available in the game, described as “the world’s greatest cities” by the developers, are separate entities to the player. Available to play are Amsterdam, Berlin, Helsinki and Vienna, which each can be played in from 1920-2020. We say played in and not with for a reason: the player has no effect on how the city changes over time! No matter the coverage of services, the price of the service, or the placement of routes, the proportion of private cars on the road will remain static. These cars plug up routes and most notably affect tram lines, and it’s disappointing to have the game tell you you’re doing great with increasing public transport usage while seeing no actual results. The cities also morph and change independently, with buildings constructed and demolished according to a plan set in stone.
The campaign presents different scenarios in each of the cities that span different time periods, and though most are the usual “make x profit a month by 19xx” or “cover 70% of the city”, some are more challenging, such as the scenario that insists you avoid all metro use. However the requirements to actually pass these scenarios are quite fallible; in every circumstance you’re allowed to merely bypass what the game is asking you to do and go the central metro, tram and bus route. Throughout the scenarios random objectives occur that ask you to link completely arbitrary points together for money, which can be done easily with a throwaway line that is demolished immediately afterwards to recoup most of the cost. As each city follows the same growth plan the central roads and buildings remain the same throughout the playable period, and eventually it became a chore to link up the same routes time and time again.
Though the engine is modern in appearance it is horribly marred by performance issues; on our gaming rig it was commonly running at 20fps, which reduced further if any antialiasing was applied or anything busy occurring on-screen. We’re nitpicking here, but typos are noticeable in descriptions and scenarios throughout the game. These issues can be ignored by diehard transport sim fans, and for those few there might be some interest in CiM. Everyone else will soon find themselves buried underneath CiM’s mountain of flaws that mar this otherwise solid sim.