These are ‘early access’ impressions of ‘Soviet City’ as of the date of publication
‘Soviet City’ brings tension and oppression to the city builder by throwing the genre into an alternative history where a brutal socialist regime is in control of a scorched and dying Earth; the last chance of the population is to build a rocket to harvest energy from the sun. The player steps into the roll of some mid-level government bureaucrat charged with the unquestioning execution of a series of five-year plans dictated by the higher powers which all involve the development of a new ‘Soviet City’.
‘Soviet City’ is a new title from Polish developer ‘Chicken in the Corn’ and from the outset it is clear that this is no ‘Sim-City’ clone; I’d even struggle to call it a city builder. Building roads, government facilities, farms etc. is one aspect of the game, however the challenge is in resource management, population management and meeting specific goals. The strategic placement of buildings acts as one way to ensure that everything runs efficiently but this isn’t about creating a nice living environment for your growing population.
Sticking with the theme of a cold & clinical bureaucratic machine I’m going to dispassionately look at how the game is structured and played. The player’s path toward the launch of the glorious-solar-harvesting rocket is segmented into a series of ‘five year plans’ each one with a specific resource related goal; whatever else happens, however much rioting there is and however disruptive other events may be to your progress, so long as you achieve the goal by the time the clock ticks down to zero you have been successful and shuffle one step closer to the ‘sun rocket’. Each success is accompanied with a reward whereas each failure just marches you onto the next plan without fanfare but one step closer to failure. The goals are straightforward; for example the first is always increase population by 3K soviets however, in the following rounds, can relate to any of the resources; for example wood, coal, electricity… slaves… Selling slaves is one of the nicer things that you can do to the population; you can also harvest bodies for fuel or food, brutally have the KGB interrogate them, monitor their confessionals or simply just kill some randomly in the street to keep the others in check. So although there are no gory graphics, the setting and actions are about as brutal as they come, and unlike ‘Papers Please’, there is no moral choice aspect; do the job or fail.
The resource management aspect is reminiscent of certain boardgames where different resources feed into different facilities to make other resources. There is usually more than one way to gain the resources you require so you’re given a good amount of wiggle room in terms of how you approach a level. For example, given the task of generating X electricity, you could open up a coal-mine or simply harvest and burn bodies to produce fuel to feed the power station. Likewise, in order to increase the population by X you could build more housing or forge hospital records to ‘increase’ the number of births.
The second management aspect is the ‘terror level’ of the people; your population needs to be kept in a state of slight terror (you only have their best interests at heart), represented by a gauge in the lower left hand corner of the screen. Actions can influence the mood of the population and specific buildings have a continual positive or negative effect on the terror of the populous. If the terror amongst the people get’s too low then they will, become less compliant, rise up, and it’s game over; the same is true of making your loyal subjects an absolute quivering heap of fear. This tightrope walk seems to dictate many of my gameplay decisions.
The final plate to keep spinning is the physical planning of the city layout. Buildings can have an effect on the population (for example pollution from the power station making citizens ill, not always a bad thing) and poor road layout can cost you victory as the trucks moving goods to and from the warehouse crawl along at a slow walking pace. The map is a simple grid with each tile comprising of flat land (suitable for building), water, or forest with most buildings requiring placement within one square of a road.
Early access niggles aside (I’ll mumble about them later), the different aspects of the game mesh nicely to provide a challenging, but rewarding experience. The visual style is suitably grounded in cold war imagery and the soundtrack consists of, what I’m guessing are, heavy electronic mixes of traditional Russian folk tunes. This presentation, combined with the time limits, succeed in creating a sense of tension which I can’t say was ever an element to SimCity. The setting is unsettling, and possibly the intent is to show players how easy it is to emotionally detach yourself from the reality of a situation if done from a remote enough standpoint. The Steam forums have a few angry accusations flying around that this game is politically motivated; I can’t say that I know enough about the current politics of Poland and Russia to make any kind of meaningful comment, other that there is undoubtedly a satirical edge which is impossible to miss.
As an early access review I don’t want to dwell unduly on negatives (graphical glitches etc.) that will likely be fixed before final release. In its current state there are a short handful of tutorials preceding the main event. These scratch the surface of the gameplay, but other than that it is only detective work and the few words of ‘hover-over’ text there to hold your hand. The exact behaviour of some buildings can be puzzling and some of the resources (specifically the unrelated elements: ‘terror level’ and ‘terror points’) are confusing. Additionally the terrain generation is currently nonsensical, with no notion of rivers or forests, just randomly placed tiles of water and trees. I’m hopeful that all the developer (who has already presented something surprisingly complete for early access) picks up on these points and buffs them out.
Early access is always a mixed bag. ‘Soviet City’ comes off as an interesting title which will hopefully grow into a solid final release. Even in early access the random objectives keep the player guessing and encourage a diverse and robust strategy.
‘Soviet City’ is currently available on Steam here: it’s worth clicking just for the music!