AdvertCity is an oddity. It was an oddity back in 2014 when I previewed the advertising tycoon simulator’s Kickstarter pre-alpha build, and it’s an oddity now, having been released in full on Steam. It’s a game with a really strong conceptual hook: you’re an advertising executive in a cold, cyberpunk city dominated by power hungry corporations. By choosing clients and adverts wisely, you are tasked with rising up through the ranks in a ruthless world of marketing conglomerates. In execution, AdvertCity perfectly blends its gameplay and aesthetics with its bleak, corporate-dystopian tone, but remains somewhat rough around the edges when it comes to providing satisfying player feeedback or a clear, coherent sense of strategic direction. Like I said, it’s an oddity.
The city itself is overwhelming. It’s a dark, overbearing monstrosity, one that perfectly encapsulates the desired feeling of unstoppable corporate control, but can also be a bit of a nightmare to navigate. Since everything blends together into homogeneous conformity (again, this works really well tonally), it can be a chore to click the correct buildings to place ads, or even to get your bearings to begin with.
After your initially hefty bank loan, debt begins to pile up, therefore ads must be place to counteract rising costs. Each ad – be it flyers placed by robots, blimps or billboards – costs money, and only ads placed in buildings with a reasonable amount of inhabitants will pay off. Corporate rivalries must also be taken into account: placing several ads for $MUSIC$ might negatively impact your influence with “The Construct”, which could reduce the amount of advertisements at your company’s disposal. It’s a clever system, one that has you balancing your need for survival against your lust for financial power. It’s a shame that it can be rather difficult to pick up, at least to begin with.
There’s no way of pausing to take a breath and survey your surrounds, so debt is constantly climbing with no respite. Once that initial loan comes through, it becomes a constant battle to place ad after ad until you can pay off your debt, which means an awful lot of the game’s strategy is thrown out of the window. The strategic stuff is all there, but it soon becomes a necessity to simply click away at buildings and place ads seemingly at random, rather than smartly and efficiently in optimal positions.
There’s also a distinct lack of useful feedback in the UI logs. After each ad placement, stats pop-up in the game’s log which inform you of the ad’s cost, effectiveness, revenue, and potentially harmful effects on rival companies. It’s all useful information, but in the time it takes to read and digest it all, your debt will have climbed to unreachable heights. It’s a fairly barebones UI, but it struggles to portray required information to a sufficient degree, particularly when the game becomes such a frantic race against time.
Your company’s area of influence is highlighted by a bright green circle, and any operations attempted outside this circle are impossible to complete. It is never clear, however, if this circle is increasing in size incrementally, or if it simply stays as it is. New advertising technologies are unlocked, and new companies can offer contracts, but there never seems to be a strong sense of progress in AdvertCity.
Having said all that, once you finally come to terms with these slightly wonky feedback systems, and learn to game the cold, unfeeling world of AdvertCity, there’s a really neat sim game underneath some initially turbulent tutorializing. If you can make good with certain companies and place cheap ads in big areas, it’s fairly easy to pay off your debts early on in the game. From there, more avenues open up for buying out other MegaCorporations, expanding your company’s presence in the world, and experimenting with different combinations of adverts.
Since ads can be placed in “Meatspace” (for physical ads) and “Cyberspace” (for online ads), there’s plenty of room in AdvertCity to mess around with different ads, and eventually learn to master each “space”. Again, “Cyberspace” is an odd, initially unfathomable thing to behold, but being able to work your marketing wizardy on two planes of existence is a really nice system.
AdvertCity would be more difficult to get into were it not for its infectious sense of humour and groove-driven cyber-jazz soundtrack. Each evil MegaCorporation is christened with some silly, albeit believable moniker like “Domestic Edible Deliveries” or “256 Shades of Hats”, and text pop-ups are usually funny enough to offset the rest of the game’s bleak, overbearing tone.
There are really only two outcomes in AdvertCity: utter failure or total world domination. Both of these outcomes generally involve ensuring one column of numbers doesn’t climb too high or doesn’t sink too low. Still, there’s something addictive to the city’s box-ticking and number crunching. Though it never really feels like the game goes anywhere, it’s quite easy to glean a sense of personal satisfaction with your money grubbing exploits. There’s something quite appealing about the city’s cold, harsh nature, and although it can be a rather unwieldy and turbulent strategy game at time, this all contributes towards a cold, unfeeling atmosphere of the best kind.
I’d really like to love AdvertCity, because its concept is so strong, and it tackles the tycoon genre in an interesting new way. But too much of its systems require guesswork, luck and/or trial and error – it’s a visually striking piece of interactive entertainment, but not one that lends itself to playability. Ultimately, AdvertCity feels more like a quirky playground than a real, flourishing cityscape.