City-building games got complicated really fast after SimCity 2000 released nearly 20 years ago. They remain a joy to play, but the best ones tend to come with steep learning curves.
Not so for the Virtual City series, however, as it adopts a more casual tilt on the genre. Virtual City 2: Paradise Resort offers a compact city-building experience and a lengthy scenario-based campaign to dig your mouse into. Whether you’re waiting for the new SimCity to drop on OS X or looking for an alternative city builder with a different approach, it’s worth a closer look.
Cities and Supply Chains
Virtual City 2 has a different emphasis to SimCity; it’s mostly about building and managing transit routes for people and industry. Some of you might recognize this as a hallmark of the Transport Tycoon and Railroad Tycoon games, but Virtual City is both far less complicated than these and confined to a smaller scope.
You complete missions — 52 of them, to be precise, spread over four picturesque regions — by meeting a set of goals. Usually these goals are to build certain industries, deliver a set number of goods to a given destination, and reach milestones for population, tourism, office workers, income, or environment.
You don’t often get much say in shaping your cities, with large chunks of the layout being preordained; the appeal lies in keeping the wheels turning. Your cities usually progress from broken to well-oiled machines over the course of a scenario, building up a smooth supply chain and tourist racket, with the best missions requiring you to then shift gears and refocus on a different industry.
There are three types of transport vehicle — bus, truck, and dump truck. All need a source and a destination to establish a route, although both buses and dump trucks can travel to multiple stops. Buses collect (and sometimes drop off) people at bus stops, airports, railway stations, and from out of town, then drop them at entertainment buildings (boosting happiness), offices (boosting the number of workers), and hotels (boosting tourism).
Trucks transport a single material from one building to another. Each manufacturing industry is composed of several buildings. Some, like a Steel Mill or Oil Derrick, simply produce a material, while others, such as a Plastic Factory or Fabric Factory, both consume and produce materials. You end up with a lot of trucks.
But you have to be careful, because there are only a limited number of vehicle slots. You can upgrade the garage, allowing more vehicles, but it has a hard limit on its maximum capacity. Some scenarios actually require more vehicles than this capacity, requiring a constant juggling of assignments for trucks ferrying materials around the city.
Manage More, Build Less
Virtual City 2 is a game of resource management as much as it is one of city building. You can plonk down all the buildings you want, but your city will stand still until you set up transport routes and you’ll find yourself broke. Money is one of your most precious resources — it may be infinitely replenish-able, but you’re boned if it disappears before you build the infrastructure you need to have an income.
There are four locales in all, each with a different visual aesthetic and type of tourist attraction. Despite the Paradise Resort part of the name, you don’t always work toward a resort town — many scenarios are totally focused on industry, while several others ask you to raise the number of permanent residences.
Success hinges on upgrading buildings and vehicles. You can find yourself stuck in a level if you choose the wrong upgrades at the wrong time (don’t worry, it’s easy to restart, and a typical level takes 10-30 minutes). Virtual City is far more strategic than it at first seems, and you can sink hours into tweaking your supply chains and finding inefficiencies.
I had one city in which I was a few hundred dollars in income and around a dozen happiness points short of the goals. There was no room to build new things — buildings or vehicles — and everything was fully upgraded. But it turned out I had major inefficiencies in my supply chain. I needed to bulldoze and rebuild several buildings in different locations, so that buses and trucks had less distance to travel on critical routes.
This kind of thing pops up often in the latter stages of the game, if you don’t think carefully about not only the distance related buildings are away from each other but also the layout of roads. In most cases, buses, trucks, and dump trucks all block a lane in the road when doing pickups and drop-offs.
If you don’t create double-width roads in the busy thoroughfares, you get regular backups in traffic — which hurts your supply chain and consequently the local economy. If your entertainment/work/tourist destinations are far away from population hotspots, or if the parts needed for one element of a product chain have to travel across town, your economy will slow down and happiness decreases.
It’s not the most sophisticated simulation, but Virtual City taps into the essence of urban planning and traffic theory. And it gets you thinking about all sorts of little things you’d never considered before. Don’t be surprised if you end up asking questions about the world around you based on the lessons you learn while playing.
Performance struggles when there are a lot of things happening in your city — even my quad-core late-2012 iMac struggles to keep the frame rate smooth, and the simulation slows to a crawl at times. Virtual City 2 isn’t a new game, nor is it especially demanding from either a processing or graphical perspective. This should be fixed by now, and it’s frustrating to see that it isn’t.
Players of the first Virtual City game will be pleased that Paradise Resort is a deeper, more complex, and more satisfying experience than its predecessor, but it’s a bit of a head-scratcher why G5 left out the freeplay/sandbox mode — for building a city from scratch and making your own goals, a la classic SimCity titles. (You can at least play on indefinitely after achieving the goals for a mission.)
You get far more freedom for city building in the newer Virtual City Playground, but I’d advise you to steer clear of that game’s broken economy and free-to-play money grubbing.
As it is, Virtual City 2 represents the best in Mac city-building and management outside of hardcore series SimCity and Cities In Motion (and perhaps Tropico, if you consider its delightful simulation of a banana republic relevant). If you want a deep simulation, look elsewhere. But if you’re happy to click away at a more “gamey” take on the genre, you could do a lot worse. Virtual City 2 should be challenging and fun for all ages, and, performance troubles aside, it’s an improvement on the original.