The 1980's were for the most part entirely unremarkable. Rock music had declined from its giddy heights, when being a rebel was still cool. It was not yet determined if Boy George was actually a boy. People had started wearing unhealthy levels of clothing in garish colours, Lycra and shoulders pads; all of which we now know cause cancer (not really, but they were bloody awful).

Fortunately, near the end of that awful decade something interesting happened. A bloke named Will Wright and Maxis produced a game that turned out to be something of a gaming revolution. That game was SimCity and it was remarkable in itself given that for the most part it took away the objective and let you spend time just doing what you wanted. I've personally always been far more interested in playing games the way I want to rather than following a linear storyline. So many of the great modern games have that freedom factor incorporated. At the time however it was new and scary.

"But, how do I win?" the confused gamer would say. "Who says you have to win." a cocksure Will Wright would reply, or so I imagine anyway.

And from these humble origins a legacy of some fantastic and some fairly terrible related titles was spawned. I'm sure if you looked hard enough you could find a copy of Sim[insert any topic here]. Even the original working title for Spore (another Will Wright project) was SimEverything, a name presumably suggested by the same genius who thought it would be a good idea to rename Vegemite as i-Snack 2.0.

Having never being a fan of painstakingly reading manuals, doing step-by-step tutorials or knowing the rules in general I leapt straight into my first solo game without so much as a tiny amount of ado. Those of you who are less reckless than I will be glad to know that there is both a comprehensive manual and tutorial included, but I found the interface reasonably easy to navigate around without too much fuss. In moments I had founded the proud and hopeful township of FinancialDisaster. This quickly proved to be an apt name as before long my gross mismanagement of the city planning and trade dealings led to imminant financial disaster. This is exactly what I expect would happen if I was to be placed in charge of a real city for a few hours, and so was suitably impressed with the realism.

It's easy to spend a great deal of time zoomed in at the maximum level exploring your voyeuristic side, neglecting mayoral responsibilities just like a real politician, and watching e-citizens play e-basketball and get e-suntans bathing at their e-homes by their little e-pools.

First impressions of the game tend to revolve around just how pretty it all is, given that it's essentially a strategy game. It wasn't long before I found myself ignoring the actual game while I hitched a ride on a petrol tanker to take a ride down the coastal road or across my newly commissioned bridge just to see what it looked like from ground level. Just renovated the down-town precinct into a new plaza/park area amongst the highrise offices a short stroll from City Hall? Well, now you can wander down and spend a few minutes there while you contemplate your next use of the taxpayer dollars - or pretend to anyway. Fun little details.

Undeterred from the poor first attempt, I steeled my resolve and tackled a snowy and mountainous corner of the world to build a eco-friendly, tourist focussed alpine resort town. This notion changed as swiftly as Hone Harewira's travel plans when I discovered that oil wells were rather profitable, and that I had ample oil reserves in my no-longer-quite-so-much-eco-friendly oil rich paradise.

Some aspects certainly are a lot more entertaining that others. You can be constantly fussing about your town, checking satisfaction levels and tweaking settings here and there as you please. Or, you can kick your feet up from the micro-management and spend some serious time considering the forward planning and how you want the city to look when it's twice the size. Town planning will play a vital role in general satisfaction. Your traffic problems will be much reduced if you place major arterial roads with some forethought. Where are you going to build your industry? It will have to grow to provide jobs but no one is going to want to live next door to the tannery.

And the not so good.

No matter how hard I tried it was so hard to become engaged and engrossed in what I was doing. After the first few sessions of playing, if it wasn't for the fact I had to play the game in order to write a review on it, I most likely wouldn't have bothered. That sounds more harsh than I intend, but there wasn't anything that was particularly challenging about playing Cities XL. Oh, I'm low on such-and-such. Gee, I had better build that next. Hmm, I require additional [whatever]. I'll build some of that when I have the cash to do so. And so on goes the endless balancing act.

Solo play trade was limited and uninspired. It was so limited and uninspired that I can't think of anything else to say about it. There's enough tools for creating exactly the shapes and angles you want as far as roading and zoning is concerned, which is great. I was however occasionally completely frustrated when demolishing a few blocks and suddenly being unable to fit the same sized zones into the area properly. Irritating.

There is a multi-player aspect to this game if you feel excited enough about it to outlay USD 10 per month. This will give you access to the The Planet, where you found your city on a virtual world populated by other players also building their legacy. It adds a social aspect to the game, communing and engaging with trade with other actual players rather than the AI.

The multiplayer aspect adds a much needed level of depth to Cities XL, but Monte Cristo have really missed an opportunity here to create a great game. It would have been great to see some of the other aspects of running a city included, such as dealing with crises and other special events, perhaps arranging contracts or deals to buy or sell services (in a more interesting and in-depth way than the uninspired trade screen), possibly even managing relationships with parts of the local government and other groups. Those interesting things that break up to "day-to-day" of sectioning off areas for housing/commerce and building roads.

There's no need to criticise Cities XL too badly. It is what it is - a perfectly reasonable but unremarkable city-builder with an MMO aspect for the paying punter. The problem is it's all show and no go. It's very pretty but where's the gritty and engaging gameplay which is so vital in this kind of game?

If it's your gaming ambition to hit new heights of mayoral megalomania, if you love creating spectacular cityscapes or if you just like fun without a lot of fuss then you'll probably enjoy killing some time with Cities XL. If a city-builder isn't your idea of entertainment or if you need the feel of the grey matter burning during your leisure time then steer well clear of this one, you have no business here.