These days, it's easy to let political frustration well up a bit. We like to think that, given the keys to the city, we'd do better than a real politician. "It's so simple!" you might say. "Give people what they ask for, take care of them, and there won't be any problems."
For better and worse, Urban Empire lets you explore that idea–or, at least, more than some of its iconic cousins. SimCity, for example, lets you take the reins of a nascent city, but it came with some huge limitations in terms of what sorts of decision-making powers you can wield. Urban Empire unshackles you, but in so doing gives you a sobering dose of reality. As the leader of your city, you can push for women's rights or abolish child-labor laws–but you're always at the behest of a fickle city council. That addition makes Urban Empire one of the most realistic (and, at times, most frustrating) city-building simulators around.
When the game starts, you'll have unchecked power, taking control of a political family with blessings from the emperor of the fictional country Swarelia. You can't be removed from office, and you can't run dry on money, either. If you get into trouble, you can run to the emperor and get a fat check and an easy bailout–though you'll lose a bit of political clout. Beyond that, you're free to push for whatever improvements and projects you'd like. Along the way, however, you'll also be making decisions about how you, personally, live your life. You may choose to send your eldest child (and your future successor) to a boarding school abroad, which could affect their reputation years down the line. That gives you a strong tie not only to the city you build, but also to the narrative of your family across many generations.
You'll also be in charge of zoning and organizing new districts, as well as deciding which types of technologies to bring to your fine city. As you progress, you can unlock sewage, electricity, and new types of roads, all the way up to robotics and sci-fi-inspired gizmos. Each new district will have an up-front cost to build out the necessary infrastructure, and then monthly maintenance that you'll have to keep in check as you turn on more and more services. That tension between the cost of different services and infrastructure upgrades, your own goals, and the capriciousness of the council members (each of whom have their own constituents to appease) is an excellent, sturdy foundation for this management sim.
Running water for all sounds nice, but unless your city is packed tight, it's a tough expenditure to justify. And even if you do have the money, you'll first have to propose whatever change you want to make, and then wait a few months as the city council deliberates on the change. As they bicker, you can spend political goodwill, call in favors, or make sweeping threats to sway the parties–each of which comes with consequences. It's a complex (albeit exhausting) system that reflects the struggles of politicians at almost every level of government.
As political parties evolve, their core values will twist and morph, until they've splintered into their component factions. While these shifts are unfortunately the same for each campaign, limiting replayability, they do provide an engaging challenge and an organic system for ramping up difficulty. To ram through critical legislation, you may need to play one group off another, making and breaking alliances as you go. This goes double for controversial social policies where you can't always make an easy-to-grasp economic case. As a general rule, though, if the city is prospering and you're well liked, you won't have much trouble getting your work done. The issue is that as you play, you're repeatedly reminded that understanding the city's well-being can be so difficult as to seem random–at least at first.
Most of your time with Urban Empire will be spent monitoring your cash flow. At first, these numbers will be pretty easy to manage–a few grand each month, slotted straight into the city's coffers. But Urban Empire begins during the industrial revolution, an era notorious for political and economic instability, and shocks to your municipal economy will come fast and hit hard, often jarring your income substantially in either direction. Those fluctuations appear random–and, to be sure, some are–but if you dig a bit, you'll often find some sort of economic bottleneck. A district you built early on might be struggling to cope with excessive traffic, limiting productivity, or an industrial sector may need a power plant and electrical grid to stay competitive.
Urban Empire supplies you with all the data you need to find these hiccups–or, rather, it tries to. You can (and should) drill down to individual businesses and homes to see everything from the area's political makeup to its business climate. Different edicts and ordinances will cause shifts in supply and demand, and that works in concert with your city's external connections–like rail stations and ports–to generate the simulation of your city's economic performance. That data can be tedious to sort through, and there's not much in the way of tools to monitor broad sections of the city. Everything gets organized by district, and that can make it tough to determine how different areas are working together or what's driving different types of demand.
Making matters worse is a nebulous, unpredictable blob of bugs that will, at some point, obfuscate critical information. Many edicts and technologies will show you a summary of their costs and effects if you hover the mouse over them, but that information won't appear at unpredictable points. Sometimes you can close the game and restart to get it back on screen, but once in a while, Urban Empire will crash at the main menu. These issues aren't killers, but they're annoying and have no place in a retail game.
Bugs aside, one solution to overabundance of information is actually simple, and it's something Urban Empire already does–but only for some of its features. Different tools are gated off based on your technological progress. For example, you cannot start with differential taxation. You're stuck raising or lowering taxes on businesses and citizens until you've done the social research needed to tax industry–for example–at a higher rate than corporations. That keeps parts of the game hidden away until you've developed more familiarity with how things work. The problem is that not everything in the game works like this, and as you move through time, you'll be saddled with an enormous amount of management that doesn't get a proper introduction or a safe means of experimenting with different effects. This tendency causes some major difficulty spikes that take far too long to overcome.
At the same time, many of these features come across as intentional. Playing the game doesn't quite feel fatalistic, but it does seem to bludgeon players with the idea that politicking is harder than most of us will admit. To that end, Urban Empire is quite the achievement. It's incredible to watch your own political empire collapse or thrive based on the butterfly effect of decisions both big and small.
Urban Empire is a trying game, but there's beauty in how it captures the many obstacles that plague political life, but it’s still marred by instances of poor execution and an unwieldy user interface. Still, if you've ever wanted to know what a more realistic, less tongue-in-cheek rendition of SimCity would be like, you could do a lot worse. If you're willing to spend the time, Urban Empire has a lot to show you, but it comes with its share of annoyances.