There are two competing schools of city-building mechanics. It's not like PC vs. Mac, but each city-builder falls into one of these camps, and has since time immemorial.
In one corner is SimCity and its buddies. Over here the important thing is zoning. The enterprising city planner pays money to zone plots on the map. Eventually, little people will build their houses and businesses in these plots. City services such as fire houses and police stations work by extending their influence over vaguely circular areas.
In the other corner is Caesar and its buddies. In this paradigm the important thing is walking distance. The king plops don houses and businesses, and the people who live and work in the city walk from place to place in order to get things done. City services work by dispatching officials to trouble spots.
Cities XL is definitely in the first camp. There is nothing wrong with this, it just means that one shouldn't expect any revolutions in the genre from this game.
So how does it all work out? Reasonably well, actually. The gamer starts with a patch of land, a bunch of money, some zoning laws, and a song in his heart. The first thing he must do is build a road, then zone for some industry and housing. Nothing new for the hardened SimCity mayor.
But wait! This is where things start to get different. The zoning tool allows for three different zoning shapes. Square zones allow you to specify a square area to zone. and it will lay down the required roads. The freestyle tool lets you lay out the zone as an irregular n-gon by using multiple clicks (again auto-placing roads). The single-plot placement tool allows you to lay down a single plot, but does not build the required road.
This brings up the first oddity of Cities XL – infrastructure. There are no water pipes or electric lines or the usual utilities, at least not in the usual manner. You can build them, but they serve as export commodities – your citizens don't need them. On the one hand, this spares you a lot of micromanagement, on the other hand it takes away some of the “planning” aspect of “city “planner”. This is a persistent feature of the design decisions that went into Cities XL – like SimCity, but with the complexity turned down. At least bridges are still a pain to lay out.
The developer, Monte Cristo, is headquartered in Paris (I envision guys in turtlenecks sitting in a loft smoking clove cigarettes; the secretary is a babe) so that means a European class system. There are 4 separate classes of housing you can zone – Unqualified, Qualified, Executive and Elite (and three densities – low, medium and high). Each type has different demands – basically, higher classes require more (and more expensive) city services. With all these classes, why is there never a revolution? SimFrenchRevolution would rock.
So why zone for those expensive elites? Well, different types of business require different types of citizens. Simple, low-density heavy industry can get by with just unqualified workers, but more profitable, less polluting high tech industry will need and elite workers. Since the city makes money from business taxes (which more profitable businesses pay more of) and personal taxes (which better-earning citizens pay more of) you will definitely want these high-maintenance, high-productivity, highly-paid citizens in your town.
There is one other way to make money. Trade. After some time your heavy industry (or other industry type) will make more stuff than your local economy can absorb. This can hurt profitability unless you open up the possibility of trading with the outside world. In single-player this is easy – there is only one company “outside” to trade with. It pays lousy, but it's better than nothing.
Of course it's not just a matter of sitting back and letting the money roll in. The city needs to provide services – police stations, fire stations, schools, and ferris wheels. Yup, ferris wheels. One would think entertainment buildings would be a profit center, but they are an expense. I guess the game designer needed to suck some money out of the player for balance reasons, or maybe carnies are paid better in Europe. I know mimes are.
Information about your thriving metropolis is laid out clearly. Each building, house or business, has a list of demands. Clicking on the building tells you what that building wants and whether it is getting it. Some buildings even have flashing “help me” icons over them to help you know which ones are in trouble. This is not a game where a problem will sneak up on you.
Although Cities XL plays in many ways like a simplified SimCity, it has a few novel features. The big banana is online play. Monte Cristo is really pushing this, hoping to build an online community of city-builders. The main advantage seems to be inter-player trade. Players are able to trade stuff with each other in a similar manner to the single-player game, but can make their own contracts. The interface for doing this is clunky (some transactions can involve leaving the game and going to a website) and the monthly subscription fee is, IMHO, steep. Still, there may be merit in the idea. Apparently one can also walk around in other people's cities, if that sounds like fun.
There is also the idea called GEMs (Gameplay Extension Modules). The idea is: downloadable content. One would pay a little extra to build, say, a ski resort in your city. The resort itself would be a sort of mini-game where you set prices, make money, and generally manage stuff. The resort would also produce a specific ski-resort type of stuff that you could trade. Many of these are still under development.
This is not unusual for the game as a whole, however. It is still somewhat buggy, and some features don't appear to work at all. While this is par for the course for an online game it can be jarring in single-player.
Graphics are clear, informative and pleasant. The ability to zoom to street level is nice, but ultimately not that useful. Cities look good, especially with the ability to draw non-straight roads.
Overall this is just a standard city-builder. There is nothing wrong with it, but nothing really makes you want to play it rather than, say, one of the SimCity games. The mechanics are basic and the graphics are functional. The new features that are intended to set it apart are not fully-baked yet. This would be a good first game for somebody new to the genre but cannot be recommended to the experienced city planner.
This is a solid city builder in the SimCity line with a clean interface and good underlying mechanics. The online parts, which the developer hopes to use to set it apart, require more work and thought.