Game Reviews

Virtual City Playground

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Virtual City Playground

The history, economics, and psychology of game pricing are fascinating. With the rise of smartphone apps, people are rightly dismissive of £40 games, but as competition forces prices beyond rock bottom, anything more than 10p per hour of engrossing entertainment is often seen as a rip-off.

As more apps are given away, developers have realised they need other ways of making up the costs. Cue the rise of the freemium game, funded by micro-transactions.

Play (if you've got) dough

And so we have Virtual City Playground. Using the touchscreen for building and road placement, you gradually kit out your new settlement with all the amenities it'll need: shopping centres, hospitals, and the like.

You even micro-manage the bus routes and bin collection in the city, following a tutorial/mission list that requires you to build things in a structured fashion for rewards and achievements.

An early example sees you building a pie factory to supply the shopping centre, which means you need a farm and dairy before you crimp your first pastry.

You can go off-piste and build what the hell you like, but only if you either repeatedly post to Facebook like an obsessive socially-unaware fiend or stump up real money for extra in-game credits to buy the out-of-bounds buildings.

Currency comes in three forms: energy, money, and invest points. All are either paid for, accumulated over time, or given as blood money for Facebook spam.

For the most part you can trundle along without paying for or sharing the game, but there comes a point when you'll have to pay one way or another, because expanding your play area requires more investment points than you can achieve through hard graft. Bundles of these cost between £1.33 and £63.89.

Freemium tedium

This would be forgivable if the game left Sim City for dust, but Virtual City Playground doesn't really care how you complete an objective, just so long as you do it.

If you're asked to build a bus route to get people from A to B, the game won't object if both stops are next door to each other. You get a pop-up cheerfully celebrating your ability to follow instructions, and the opportunity to share your brilliance on Facebook.

Selecting buildings is quite fiddly on the small screen, too, often causing you to select the wrong thing. And for an objective-driven game, Virtual City Playgrounds is surprisingly reluctant to tell you how it works in the first place.

Despite, and possibly because of, the way it's been designed in terms of pacing, it's undeniably an addictive game. Building up your city and watching income and population skyrocket over time is rewarding, and the enforced slow pace makes returning to it a frequent guilty pleasure.

On top of this, the graphics are sharp and detailed, with real distinction between early buildings and the later structures that dominate your landscape.

In short, it's brilliantly designed to extract payment and spread itself, but in doing so has killed off any real challenge.

Your mileage will vary depending on how much you enjoy building things and ticking objectives off lists, and whether you can live with the nagging feeling that your brain's reward centre is being cynically tickled.

Virtual City Playground

An undeniably polished product, but the main focus seems to be on extracting payment and the viral Facebook loop, rather than the gameplay
Alan Martin
Alan Martin
Having left the metropolitan paradise of Derby for the barren wasteland of London, Alan now produces flash games by day and reviews Android ones by night. It's safe to say he's really putting that English Literature degree to good use