Kalypso seems to have a fondness for subverting the omniscient role of the player in strategy games. Their latest game, Urban Empire, dispenses with it almost entirely, forcing you to bend to the will of the most powerful force of all - the almighty voter.
Developed by Finland-based Fragment productions (Note: We originally incorrectly listed the developer as Haemimont Games), Urban Empire puts you in charge of a new city circa the 19th century with the goal of growing and becoming prosperous. It begins much like SimCity - you slowly build up a town with clearly defined residential, industrial, and commercial districts along with the attendant infrastructure. Unlike SimCity, though, you don't have carte blanche to build whatever you want. Rather, if you plan to use public funds, you need to get approval from a body resembling the British Parliament.
In the early going, getting approval from the various interests - liberal, conservative, and the rest - is fairly easy. Building up a new district, for example, isn't terribly controversial, and you can carry off an early vote without a problem. The politics come into play when divisive proposals begin to crop up, particularly the onerous issue of taxes.
As in real life, getting controversial bills passed means working the floor and building coalitions. You can plead with, demand, and threaten the different blocs to get what you want, the latter two at the risk of hurting your relationship with them. And if all else fails, you can overrule a decision, though that comes at the expense of 380 points of prestige - the currency that you need to get reelected so that you can continue the game.
This being a game based around politics, dirt is naturally also a currency. If you so desire, you can spy on an intransigent politician, unearth a few skeletons in their closet, and use the gathered dirt to influence their party's support. Of course, such dirty tactics can carry with them a heavy price. You have to be judicious about the enemies you make.
Beyond the give and take of politics, you have control over what technologies get researched, which will in turn open up new innovations and put you one step closer to the next historical era. Urban Empire's timeline runs from the early 19th century all the way through to the 21st century, where innovations like social media begin to open up. This timeline provides Urban Empire with a loose narrative, which is bolstered by the ability to represent particular families, each with their own backstory. You can continue playing beyond the main timeline, but the set period gives you a timeframe in which to accomplish some concrete goals.
In many respects, Urban Empire resembles Tropico, with parliamentary politics standing in for the nasty fun of being a dictator. Urban Empire benefits from starting from a clean slate, though, with one consquence being that it's considerably more attractive than its counterpart. While still relatively early, it's already possible to pick out a bunch of a nice little details, such as the house lights indicating how many people occupy a particular building. Roads are also pre-defined, making it easier to create an attractive and functional city.
Fragment Productions and Kalypso don't have quite as fervent a following as, say, Paradox, but over the years Kalypso has been able to maintain a solid track record in the strategy genre. Urban Empire fits in nicely with their other sims as an experimental city builder, exhibiting a flair for the experimental while also being more polished than Tropico. I look forward to seeing more of it when it launches this fall.