Whenever I fire up a city building simulator, I always wonder how my little citizens feel about living there. Some nameless being keeps erecting random new facilities, letting people die in fires, and generally cares little about their welfare. Maybe it’s time they took a stand. If they had their own council, for example, they could have more control, voting for whether my choices would actually be a benefit to them. Cue Urban Empire, the latest title by Fragment Production.
Other than pleasing the people, your aim in Urban Empire is to keep your family in power through 5 eras – 1820 to 2020. A lot of changes occur within that time, not only in the physical terms of what buildings can be built, but the people’s needs, and political values. It’s a pretty serious representation of events, including having to deal with wars and cultural rights.
Before getting into the main campaign, you have to choose a family to roleplay. Whoever you pick has no real impact on the base gameplay, yet does add a unique flavour to events and strategy. Different story elements and issues come about through their personal backgrounds and beliefs, such as having a particular influence over invention, or a pull in politics. The traits of the current leader also affects certain stats, like the public being happier with a Hero of the People, but staying more in line with a cruel leader.
At the end of an era, leadership moves down to the heir, who has to deal with all the choices made before them. Bits of their personalities are actually changed from how you raise them, like dealing with being a single parent, or school bullies. I got pretty attached to my chosen family and paid particular attention to events that concerned them. They really made me feel like I was a part of the society and history that I was creating.
I went through Urban Empire‘s tutorial twice just to make sure I had a good hang on things. Other than choosing the rough shape and layout of my districts, a lot of the actual building happens on its own. Citizens move in and many industries begin with very little input.
To keep the different areas of my people’s lives (health, fun, security, etc.) up, you research new fields of study through the Progress Cloud. This opens up buildings that have a direct impact on the people (a police station going towards security), an effect on commerce (a train station opening up more trade), or bring up policies that you can accept or oppose (such as whether animals should have rights).
It’s pretty mind-blowing to witness 200 years’ worth of change. Each new era comes with its own new and improved set of progress possibilities, from giving clean water all the way to introducing the internet. Only one new invention can be learned at a time, and since each could take years to complete, unlocking them in the right order is tantamount to success. Pushing progress too quickly always leads to a debt that you can’t crawl out of. So, you need to think ahead, beginning playthroughs by focusing on areas that will add new trades and create more money to play with.
Before any of your decisions became official in Urban Empire, the local council first has to give their consent via vote. Considering where you currently stand politically before placing a building or agreeing to a policy is therefore super important. You can see where each party stood on an issue in the City Council tab once it’s suggested, but thinking ahead and purposefully going with proposals in line with the largest party is the easiest way to get things through.
It’s possible to threaten or demand that others agree with you, but it isn’t guaranteed to work, and a small victory from bullying makes for poor long-term consequences. Since political parties and their numbers changed over time, you never know when you’ll offended the people who hold the key to your future grandchild’s plans.
Over the course of the game, I got a painfully close look at how parties will often lean towards making life easier for themselves, rather than for the general public. Successful policies often came at a literal cost, such as not allowing young children to work leading to less money moving around in the economy. Feeling pressured to oppose ethical movements like this, purely from a lack of funds, made me feel pretty guilty at times.
The only real issue with Urban Empire is that the fundamentals never really change. Sure, the family leader, political parties, and what people want, all grow with the game, but ultimately, I was still doing the same thing. Having to constantly get the council’s vote also got kind of frustrating over time, and the novelty wore off a bit when having to wait so long for each vote to occur, with nothing to really do during the wait.
To be fair, Urban Empire has included some scenarios where I had to aim to fulfill certain criteria. They made for a more concentrated play session while having a more specified goal helped to rebuilt some interest. Only having three of these seemed a tad stingy, but a DLC tab did catch my eye, so I’m sure there will be extra content in the future for those looking for a bit more.
Urban Empire put up a good challenge, as staying in power for 200 years was far from simple. Learning how to play the political system, in an attempt at staying in everyone’s good books, is definitely a necessity. While getting better at the game naturally reaps the rewards of progression, it also comes with the punishment of a repetitive and slow voting process for every single choice.
This review is based off a PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.
Urban Empire's focus on politics and invention through history provides an interesting take on the genre, although it can get a tad repetitive in the later parts of the game.