Cities XL vs Sim City 4

I’m a huge casual Sim City fan. By that I mean I’ll play it for a few days at a time, then take a break for a few months, then come back to it. The Sim City franchise has been great – I could go into details about the joys of everything from Sim City for SNES all the way up to Sim City 4, but I’ll spare the details.

Unfortunately, Sim City 4 is effectively where the franchise died. It’s odd because usually a franchise dies after a horrible game, not after an amazing one. And SC4 was definitely an epic success. EA tried to play off of the name with Sim City Societies, but everyone knows that Societies was never a true Sim City successor.

Years went by, and rumors of “the next Sim City” came and went. Finally, a real competitor came about, and was finally released earlier this month: Cities XL.

So, without further ado, let’s compare Cities XL and  Sim City 4.

The short version first:

Sim City 4 has been around for ages, and the graphics show it. It still remains a very complex yet fun game. There’s plenty of mass transit available, you can set up ordinances, and for the most part, it was well developed, and is a solid game. Solid that is, until your cities get large and the entire traffic/mass transit system breaks down. Custom addons/mods are the saving grace for SC4, but there are just too many things to fault with the game for them to fix them all. In some cases, an addon will make the game playable at the expense of removing all sense of realism/challenge in a certain area. You can get a fairly large well-functioning city without addons, but I guarantee you it won’t look anything like a real city.

Cities XL on the other hand grants a much better/smoother experience when growing into a large city. That said, the game isn’t quite as developed yet. It still seems like a beta (despite being released earlier this month) – there are bugs everywhere from one of the tutorials to various minor issues in the game itself. That said, the game is still being worked on, and will be constantly improved for the foreseeable future. The graphics are a huge improvement. It both looks better and operates more smoothly than SC4. You’re not in a locked grid system – you can build roads that curve every which way if you’d like, and traffic is handled a lot better. However, Cities XL has more of a subscription/online/multi-player focus to it – we’ll get into more details about that later though.


Now the long version:

I’ll start by noting that Cities XL does NOT have mass transit in any way, shape, or form yet (although apparently it’s coming).


Sim City 4 has a pretty fair amount of road types available. It’s a grid-based system, so each section’s got to be in a square, and you’re limited in the amount of curvature you can have. Unfortunately, as your city grows, you’ll be forced to eliminate streets resulting in complaints every month about endangered streets. Even the roads won’t handle the traffic for long if you’ve got any more than 1 block of high-density connected to the road. To add insult to injury, your Sims are also a bunch of dumb lemmings. They take the shortest route from point A to point B, which usually involves driving through every single side-street to get across the city, rather than taking a nearby highway. They also won’t walk backwards half a block to hop on mass transit – if mass transit’s not on the way, they don’t take it.

Cities XL has fairly similar road types to SC4, although you’re not locked to a grid system – the roads are very fluid, and you can create very pleasant-looking curved streets and avenues along rivers, and throughout your city. By clicking on a road, you can upgrade it – in particular you can change it’s traffic flow. For some avenues you can change it to 3 lanes east and 2 lanes west for example. Or make them multi-lane 1-way. Or more. Your roads also don’t become over-burdened as quickly. You tend to have general areas of slower traffic if your roads aren’t keeping up in capacity. Replacing a road isn’t quite as simple as building a road over the old one. Similar to real-life, traffic will be diverted to other roads while you demolish it, and if the other roads can’t hold the new traffic, you may want to build a temporary detour to help out. Finally, in Cities XL, road types are opened up slowly. You can’t pump a highway through the center of town until you have the population to support it. You’ll be limited to regular roads for the first little bit of the game. This may frustrate those looking to make the perfect megalopolis right from the start, but it’s much more realistic.


In Sim City 4, you can build high-density right off the hop if you’d like. However, you can’t choose what type of residential/commercial/industrial will pop up in your zone (poor, medium, or rich). There’s nothing worse than having a nice residential utopia, zoning an industry for a high-tech, and having a dirty factory pop up there instead.

In Cities XL, you choose the population type – Unqualified, Qualified, Executive, or Elite (the new poor to rich range). You then choose the density. Like with roads, you’re locked out of some to begin with. At first you can only build Unqualified low-density buildings. Soon after you can build Qualified low-density as well. As time goes on, other densities and types open up. The same holds true for the different types of industry and commercial buildings. As a bonus, each type tells you what types of workers it employsEdit: There is a setting to unlock all the standard densities. Things are a little more expansive here in some cases – for example with Commercial buildings you get the options of shops, hotels, or leisure. For farms, you get the option of building 1 silo for every 10 farms you have (with another option available later). With Cities XL there’s basically a little more depth in the zoning area.


Services for both are very similar, although the effects are different.

In Sim City 4, no fire station means out of control fires. You’ve also got to dispatch the fire department when a fire breaks out. Health and Education also directly affect the further generations of Sims – good health and education result in rich sims as time goes by and the new generation comes into play. You can see how many students/patients/prisoners a building has, and adjust how much money it’s getting, etc.

In Cities XL, none of the services seem to have a very large impact, except on happiness. You’ll want the services to keep your approval up (particularly with Executives and Elites), but you won’t have to go fighting fires, or planning for (or worrying about) future generations. You also can’t see how many students/patients/prisoners you’ve got plugging up a building, or tweak it’s budget. It’s much more of a “plop it down and forget about it” scenario.


Both games have somewhat similar utilities.

In Sim City 4, electricity is integral. If a line goes down, power goes out, people leave, etc. The power plants also break down over time and need to be replaced – realistic in that they break down more quickly if over-loaded, but unrealistic (and annoying) that they’ve got to be replaced when they get old. Water production is pretty simple, but again you’ve got to run lines throughout the city, and worry about water pollution on top of that. Garbage/waste is another concept that’s simple and grows over time.

In Cities XL, electricity, water, and garbage all exist – however they’re not implemented in the same way. You don’t need to run power lines anywhere for electricity – you just build the windmill/plant/etc anywhere, and it produces power tokens. Your city will use a certain amount (tokens) of power. More in the “Supply and Demand” section later. For water, your map needs to have a water-bed available somewhere, and you simply pop down towers/etc to tap them for supply. Again, it follows the token model we’ll go into later. Garbage works the same as Sim City, but with the token model. Finally, there’s also “fuel” which is obtained by drilling for oil in an area with oil. Again, follows the token model.

Parks, Special Buildings, Recreation, Blueprints, Areas

A bit of a long title, but it packs in a few things where both games vary.

In Sim City 4, you’ve got Parks. There’s no way to know what effect each has (unless you read the Prima guide), but you place them, and they generally help improve the land value. Special reward buildings are… well rewards that come up when you meet a certain goal. Again, it doesn’t always give an indication where you should place it (near residential or near commercial), but that’s the way it is.

In Cities XL, most recreation is part of the “Commercial” section called “Leisure”. You can build bowling alleys, ferris wheels, etc. If you’re looking to lower pollution though, you can use “decoration”, and place grass/park area, which will show an area of effect where it reduces pollution. There are other “decorations”, but I haven’t been able to tell yet how much of an effect they have (or if they’re really just decoration). Rather than Rewards, you’ll tend to either unlock higher items, or get specific items in the Landmarks section. Blueprints are also possible, which presumably are a large venture to get built.

Supply and Demand

This is a VERY key area where both of these games differ.

In Sim City 4, it really boils down to the RCI (residential, commercial, industrial) demand levels. Those break down further into poor/medium/rich style levels, but that’s really what it comes down to. You don’t directly determine what level of wealth is high in demand – you do it indirectly through various means – raising (or lowering) land value, educating, providing services, etc. It’s generally easy to meet a demand too. High tech in demand? Build some industrial zones near high-value residential areas. Need water? Build a water tower/pump.

The other side of it in Sim City 4 is in other cities across the map. You can build agricultural cities, industrial cities, commercial cities, and all the demand will pool together. You can trade/sell resources between your cities, bringing the game to another level. Want a clean rich city? Make a neighboring city take all the polluting power plants & landfills and just sell those resources to your “clean” one.

In Cities XL however, things are drastically different. Some of your cities will have finite resources. You can pick a map that doesn’t have water for example (or doesn’t have much). What this means is that you have to pay to import it when you need it. Same with oil. No map is rich in everything – you can typically get either get a lot of 1 thing, or a little of everything.

The rest has to be done through trading in Cities XL. In the single-player mode, you can sell to a computer corporation that always rips you off (although you have little choice). In the online version, you can still buy/sell through the computer corporation with it’s less-than-stellar-deals, or trade on the open market. The way trading is done is like this – you generally have a certain supply of tokens for many areas (mostly resources). Things like food, dirty industry, water, oil, power, garbage, etc. Your city also tends to have some demand as well.

In Cities XL, this demand is measured in “tokens”. If the end number is 0, your supply is meeting your demand. If the end supply is -2, you have demand for that item (and businesses that use it are probably suffering). If the end supply is +5, then you have an abundance. You can buy/sell on the open market (or trade with friends). In the online version, each contract lasts 5 days (although you can cancel early). If you’re selling something and you run out of the resource you’re selling, it’ll automatically cancel. In any case, you typically need to log into the game (or on the website) periodically to maintain your contracts and develop new ones.

How it all boils down

Sim City 4 is very much a single-player game. Play whenever you want, however you want, and you’ll never miss out on anything the game has to offer. The biggest upside is the community-developed content/addons, with the largest down-side being that the game itself stopped being developed long ago. It’s never going to get much better than it is now.

In Cities XL, the big idea is that it will continue to grow and be developed, with the cost being a monthly fee.  The game is designed to essentially “force” you to trade tokens based on your supply/demand, and you’re really only going to get good deals if you play online. Yes, Cities XL has a single-player mode, but trading with the computer who’s out to take your money doesn’t make for the best single-player experience.  The downside to online play is that you’ve got to pay to play. You’re looking at roughly $9 per month, although you’ll get free content for that. If you pay for 3 months at a time the price will drop down to around $6/month. What you do get for your subscription is constant content updates. So the game should get better and better as time goes on.

So which comes out ahead?

I have no doubt that Cities XL will tromp Sim City 4 as time goes by. It’s already a very close toss-up, with player preference in different areas being the determining factor. Each has strengths over the other, but Cities XL is the only one still being developed. That’s all there is to it.

The big issue for Cities XL is the cost. Think about it – SC4 fans were fans of a single-player game that only cost you money once. Cities XL is an online game, where you have to put in time to maintain trade contracts, and pay monthly to get the full benefit as it improves.

Cities XL is getting a lot of flak for the monthly fee, and it’s not surprising. The only people who don’t mind online fees are those who play a game EVERY DAY. Really, if you think about it, there are 2 major camps of SimCity-style fans:

  • Those who play every day. Generally the type to be more accepting of a game they spend most of their free time playing. Problem is, most have probably been playing SC4 already, and won’t be thrilled about some of the complexities SC4 has that Cities XL doesn’t – a huge example being Mass Transit (which Cities XL doesn’t have yet, although it’s supposedly coming).
  • Those who play casually. Generally, people who like to play a game for a few days, then “put it on the shelf” until they feel like playing it again either weeks or months later. These people won’t be fond of “needing” to come on to check up on their contracts every few days, and will be less impressed that they need to pay monthly to do so.

Hopefully (for Monte Cristo), there will be a subset of the hard core players that like the change of scenery enough to hop over to Cities XL, and perhaps a few MMO players that always liked Sim City will be willing to jump on board too. It would be nice if there was a little more catering to the single-player’s out there (ala Sims content packs), but the game is still young, and we’ll have to wait and see where it goes.



Cities XL can be found at

Sim City 4 can be found at

11 Comments | Leave a Comment

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  1. nicholas on March 24, 2010 - click here to reply
    Do you know whether Simcity 4 will work on Parallels 5 or VMware Fusion 3?
  2. Matt on October 2, 2010 - click here to reply
    Thank you very much for this comprehensive comparison. Having played Simcity from Simcity 1 to 4 with great joy, I was very curious about this game. But the fact that Cities XL is realistically only worthwhile when played in mutliplayer mode and the latter being a monthly financial commitment means I'll not get involved in it.
    • Matt Gadient on October 2, 2010 - click here to reply

      Cities XL actually fell apart fairly quickly, and I certainly wouldn't recommend buying it at this point. Basically, the developer went broke and shut the servers down. IIRC, the game had a final single-player update so that people could at least keep playing in single player mode. As it turned out, not enough people were keen on paying a subscription. I myself only played for about a month, and let the remaining 2 months of my subscription just die out (hoping that future updates might peak my interest again, but they never came to pass).

      Another developer now has the rights to the game and is releasing "Cities XL 2011" at some point in the near future. I haven't checked much into it, but it may be worth a look when it comes out.
  3. X on December 6, 2010 - click here to reply
    Cities XL 2011 is out. I never played the original XL but from what I read XL 2011 is a much improved version. I have been playing Cities XL 2011 and it's a very fun game and easy to learn. There's tutorial within the game if you don't understand something but for the most part you can play the game at your own speed and learn it as you go. I really recommend giving it a try so we can keep the dying City Building genre alive.
  4. mitch hendy on April 18, 2011 - click here to reply
    im curious if i should buy sim city 4, or cities xl 2011, or both? i like the disaster effects and the use of city buildings such as police fire and hospitals, however im curious if cities xl 2011 will be worth buying if all you do is build the city and trade within your own cities, you dont have to constantly pay a subscription fee to play it do you? plese respond to my email address (address snipped to avoid spam scrapers)
    • Mitch: I haven't tried CXL 2011 (it was the original Cities XL I'd played back when I wrote this). However, I don't believe there's a subscription with the 2011 version (as there's no online play IIRC). Sim City 4 is visually quite dated, but it's still a really good game. There are plenty of mods as well that help to make up for a few of it's inadequacies.

      It's really hard for me to make a recommendation. Been considering another run with a city-building game, and have been wondering myself whether to fire up SC4 again, or to shell out the money for CXL 2011. I suppose I'd suggest giving both a try if money's not an issue. Otherwise, Sim City 4 is currently $20 through Steam. I believe CXL 2011 is somewhere around $40 ($20 if you own the original Cities XL).

      Best of luck in whatever you decide.
  5. Jay on July 17, 2011 - click here to reply
    I enjoyed SC4 immensely but with the the third party addons, somehow the game feels easy and not more fun. I wish they'd make a successor to SC4. CXL was not popular while SC4 was an epic success.
  6. Lee on June 27, 2012 - click here to reply
    Thank you, that's a very good article!
  7. John Gilmore on September 15, 2012 - click here to reply
    I am sure you heard but the new Sim City is coming out early 2013!
  8. IluvID on April 20, 2013 - click here to reply
    Hey, CXL 2012/platinum is pretty modern, and is better than both SC4 and SC5! If you say that there aren't mass transit in CXL, you're right, but that's only for 2009 (original) version of the game. In 2012/plat, there are buses, metro, trams and ferries (both using mods), and the ability to set routes, a feature that is not available in all SC series.

    And if anyone asked, "how about mods?" Although CXL has fewer MODS than SC4, things rapidly change since the release of 2012. And XL Nation, the best and biggest CXL fansite, can be considered a smaller, but not worse equivalent of ST. And too many mods will cause confusion when choosing mods.

    Multiplayer is no longer supported on CXL, and is now a fully single player offline game (except for activation). As a replacement, a de facto unofficial indirect way to share cities is not using multiplayer/planet offer, but using CJ's.

    About realistism, CXL is 100 times more realistic, curved roads, hand selecting buildings mode, and hundreds of mods to make your cities more beautiful. If you don't believe, see cities made by CXL players and fans. I recommend CXL 2012/plat highly!

    But it's good to have both, if you can buy. If you don't just buy CXL plat. The price is $29.99 or only $4.99 if you have 2011 or 2012, while SC5 is $60-70 I think.
  9. IluvID on April 20, 2013 - click here to reply
    EDIT to post #10: SC4 = Best Simulator (but for me irrealistic) ; CXL12/plat = Best Sandbox City Builder (but poor simulation)
    I prefer realistism than simulation

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