Amid the sounds of crackling digital gunfire and roaring mutants on the PAX West show floor, Kalypso Media was showing off a quieter, but no less cutthroat, upcoming title: Urban Empire.
Set in a fictional European nation, it’s a city-builder with a twist: instead of governing by god-like fiat the way you do in most city-builders, in Urban Empire you have to take your plans to city hall – which is full of people who probably don’t like you very much. It’s as much a local politics simulator as it is a city-builder, which is why the team likes to call it a “city ruler” instead.
You’ll do a lot of the usual city-building stuff as you wend your way through two centuries’ worth of alternate history, starting in 1820. There are districts to zone, schools to build, infrastructure to research. But on each step of the way, you have to propose your ideas for the city to the council, which will comprise several political parties, each with their own ideas of how best to govern, and their own ideas of good you are at doing it.
I got to spend about half an hour with the game. You begin by choosing which family you’ll be representing, and each of these has a particular history and ideology. Being the Bernie Sanders type that I am, I picked a working-class hero fellow and set about with the tutorial. From the moment the game opens to the city view, you’ll notice major departures from the city sim genre – you begin by laying out a district, rather than a residential or industrial “zone,” and (in a smart touch, I thought) you can shape districts by adding vertices to your initial rectangle, allowing the area to curve along with a highway or terrain.
Districts begin populating on their own, but it’s up to you to provide civic services, like schools. It’s at this point you meet your city council. A 3D scene from inside the town center shows the members of the council, as well as their party affiliation and how many partisan hardliners (who’ll vote for you or against you on just about any issue) versus how many potential swing votes you have.
There’s much to be done on this screen, because it’s here where you’ll have to decide how to convince opposition party members to come over to your side – do you threaten them with a fiery op-ed in the town newspaper, or take the subtle approach and promise them future support? Depending on how you decide to gain the necessary votes for your measures, parties (including your own) will either gain or lose “goodwill” toward you, and their goodwill level will determine how willing they are to work with you in the future.
During my demo, I had to raise taxes slightly to cover the cost of a new school, and I was looking at a squeaker of a vote. I decided to give a last-minute speech to emphasize the importance of education, and while it did bring one councilmember over to the “aye” side, it managed to sufficiently irritate two others enough to defect.
I had walked up to the Kalypso booth expecting Urban Empire would feature the tongue-in-cheek humor that characterizes the company’s Tropico series, and while there’s a certain visual continuity between the games, what I found was a very detailed local politics simulator. The development team’s rep told me that the middle and late game veer away from plunking down new buildings and roads and lean heavily on the art of coalition building and deft deal-making. They also explained that the game will feature fictionalized versions of historic events that can will shake up your city’s politics just as much as an earthquake could rattle any SimCity.
Urban Empire will be out for PC in January.