Games are remarkable in that they can make repetition enjoyable. Whether it’s jumping in Mario or running missions in XCOM, games are capable of warping tedious activities into engaging ones. Urban Empire, however, somehow makes the exciting world of administrative approval so mundane tha- eh, frak the dramatic intro, this game is astonishingly dull. There are some unique ideas, but there’s so little to keep you interested that you may as well ram a constitution through your neck. Frustrating delays, an inability to be creative and poorly explained mechanics make Urban Empire one of the most boring games I’ve ever played.
Let’s start with the abysmal tutorial. Calling it a tutorial would imply you learn how to play the game, which it fails to do, so, let’s call it an intro instead. Anywho, the intro sucks. You’ll be introduced to various screens and be asked to complete a few simple tasks, but why you’re doing what you’re doing is never actually explained. Moreover, how to modify anything isn’t explained either. You know that buildings will improve security or increase brainpower, but it’s never explained how to make more money. How the city’s needs shift is cryptic too, but this problem extends into the rest of the game.
The game seems intent on keeping you in the dark at every turn. Events will pop up involving what architecture the new train station will be or how you respond to your daughter’s new-found independence. The problem is that you have no idea what impact those choices will have because there’s no tooltip or numeric comparison to judge the choices by. Nothing’s impact is clearly stated, and this is true for placing down services, appealing to other political parties, even figuring out the data screen is an exercise in cryptology. This is, in large part, thanks to the terrible UI.
Say what you will about Total War’s form-over-function UI, it’s better than this shit. The text is smaller than my life savings, so you’ll be needing glasses before the first world war Era even begins. The phrase ‘Boosts companies’ is thrown around like a famous quote in an English essay, but I still don’t know what it means mechanically. Best of all, as you age in the game, you can develop traits like cynicism or optimism, but it’s never explained what they do. Events will pop up that don’t even tell you those traits will be modified, which is a bit like waiting until someone’s done eating to reveal that they just ate their best friend, Gareth. Almost every screen is either confusing or downright unhelpful, but considering what’s going on, it’s not like you’ll be able to decipher anything either.
Small confession: I still don’t know how the hell this game works. My ignorance is different to the kind I suffered in Hearts of Iron IV, though, since that was due to the breadth of content available. This game isn’t nearly as impressive in scope, but if you asked me how to make money, the best I could do would be to point you in the direction of the nearest mental asylum. There’s no clear cause and effect to follow, and even after I give the people what they want, whether that’s a school or a park, they respond with stoic indifference. There’s nothing to let me read the game, but it’s perfectly easy to game the political system anyway.
To do just about anything, you’ll have to get approval from other political parties. There are three problems with this system. First of all, you can overrule a decision if you have enough prestige or bypass the full vote with personal funding. Second, you can appeal parties to make them do what you want with goodwill so easily that I never lost a vote the whole time I played. Third, it takes months for a vote to happen, so you’ll be waiting for something as simple as building a park to be approved even though you know the vote will go through. All in all, it’s more tiresome to engage with than it is rewarding, and it feels pointless to go through the voting process if you can swing it your way so easily. The whole voting system just adds to the amount of waiting in the game, of which there is too much.
My number one gripe with the game is how little there is to do actively. Events will pop up now and then, but these are shallow distractions from the core mechanics. Normally, you won’t be able to make a new district or build a new building because you have to wait for something else to happen first. So, you just end up sitting there, clicking on resolutions to events in the hopes that you picked something useful but doing nothing interesting. Although, this is an unavoidable problem considering how strict the game is.
If you were wondering how creative you could be with your city designs, the answer is no. Urban Empire won’t let you build districts that aren’t vaguely square, so whatever creative freedom you’d be afforded in, say, Cities: Skylines is gone. You can’t overextend because the mechanics don’t allow you to, nor can you play it safe because, well, you have to build districts to a certain size. It’s disheartening to see the one part of the game that could let you have any control over what happens strip you of any agency. Oh, and you have to go through the voting process too, and all this just happens over and over again.
The longer you play Urban Empire, the more it becomes apparent that nothing changes. I got up to the third Era of the game, and there was nothing new being introduced. The shallow events still were there, the voting process was the same, the district creation was unchanged, nothing was explained, the repetition was unending… There was just nothing to engage me. I wanted a hook, something that grabbed me and didn’t let go, but instead, I have this gelatinous malaise that slides off every time XCOM comes to mind. I could go on, but much like my desire to play the game, I’m done talking about it any longer.
Urban Empire is as dull as they get. The tedium of always waiting is compounded by frustrating mechanics and an inability to be creative with how you create your city. While the focus of the game isn’t in how the city is designed, the game doesn’t offer much as a replacement for games like Cities: Skylines. There are certainly unique ideas, but none of them work well together, not to mention that I still have no idea how anything affects anything else. It’s a cryptic mess that’s straight up dull. I don’t know what else to say other than not to bother with this game. Just don’t.