The city-building genre has suffered in recent years. With the release of 2013’s SimCity urban planning aficionados found themselves hampered by performance issues and a strange reliance on other players, as opposed to their own skill and innovation. With Cities XXL, players were gifted a budget version of SimCity with little to no improvements, and sold at full retail price. Colossal Order themselves have only made the Cities in Motion games in the past, and as thus, this is their first foray into building an entire city. Does Cities: Skylines have what it takes to be the next megalopolis, or will it find itself turning into a ghost town?
It’s been quite a number of years since I last played SimCity 4: Deluxe, and with what I can remember, I do so fondly. There’s something cathartic about growing your small farming village into this towering testament to technology and civilization, and of course, sending it burning to the ground with meteor strikes. It was all good fun of course, but I can’t say I ever really grew attached to the cities I built.
In that regard, there is simply nothing subtle about city-building games. Taking a small hamlet to a burgeoning metropolis requires quite a bit of forward thinking, compromising the health and sometimes the living spaces of your civilians, and above all else, patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your city in Cities: Skylines won’t be built in a year or two. It’s a lumbering behemoth of a simulator, and when taking into account the sheer complexity and involvement that you have to do to expand your city, it may well rival that of some grand strategy games.
Because of the complexity that Cities: Skylines prioritizes, it is quite easy to grow attached to your towns. Almost as if you were raising a small child, there’s something magical about seeing the web of roads, industry, and housing spread from the arteries of the highways into this sprawling landscape. From the humble beginnings where you’re left hoping that enough people will move into your town to turn a profit to strategically placing and ordering railways and roads so that you can continue your export outflow, growth is slow, but always promoted.
The building mechanics are simple: you place roads, which have small squares off to the side which you “zone” as either high or low density commercial, residential, low-tech industry, or office space. Low-tech industry can eventually be specialized towards farming, mining, oil drilling, forestry, or just basic goods production, which becomes more important as time progresses. You only place important services such as landfills, power stations, fire and police services, and other special buildings, all in an attempt to keep your civilians happy.
Over time, your population will demand more residential or commercial areas, and that demand is noted by three color-coded bars at the bottom of the UI. There’s no numerical value for how much land you should zone, but there’s no cost to zoning either, and you’ll most likely need the land at some point in the future, so you can zone as much as you’d like and wait. What does cost money is roads, so there is at least some disadvantage to preparing yourself a ton of land to expand into.
Money and zoning in general are going to be your first large hurdles in the game as well, too. Early on, with only a few thousand residents, cash flow is limited, and you’ll find yourself waiting to unlock “milestones,” population amounts that unlock more services and options to you, and also come with a cash bonus. If anything, I found myself just staring at the screen, watching my funds tick slowly upwards, waiting to place yet another wind turbine. Once you get to a reasonably sized city, you’re going to want to start taking into account traffic and noise pollution issues, in addition to managing an aging population and the need for more and more land.
This sort of slow progression of difficulty eases you into the game, and while it’s punishing towards serious mistakes regarding traffic and your citizen’s health, you can only learn to rectify these issues with more and more playtime. Indeed, in the first city I made, and poured probably 10 or so hours in, I reached a population of over 10,000, but because I had botched the road placement and traffic flow so badly, even with the number of clinics and hospitals rising, I simply couldn’t get everyone to a sick bed, and thus, called it quits.
In starting another city, I was aware of how slow the game progressed as well. Though this isn’t necessarily a detraction, it takes quite a large amount of in-game and real-life time to create something astoundingly massive. Families grow, expand, live, work, and die over the course of several in-game years, and it’s quite some time before you’re going to need services for the dead. If anything, this builds a sense of attachment to your city, and even though I’d essentially doomed my city to a slow death by ruptured eardrums, I still felt a pang of guilt at deleting the save, and knowing that even though it was a failed attempt, it still was my first try at building a city.
The clear influences from the earlier Cities in Motion games show through expertly, too. Bus lines are intricate, and you must manually draw lines for people to use, with subways functioning similarly. Footpaths for your citizens can go over four-lane roads and underneath overpasses, and while building ramps on and off highways is a bit wonky at times, sometimes, a bit of pavement spaghetti is necessary for growth. Experiments in both curved roads and the endless grid can yield different results, and it all depends on how you’d like your city to develop; endless rows of houses and shops, or places for parks and relaxation areas.
The game also ships with an asset and map editor, the latter of which can import “heightmaps,” or essentially the topographical data of any location in the world. So, if players wanted to try your hand at running a city based off of their local geography, it’s certainly possible. The asset editor is also a worthy introduction, and as the team at Colossal Order is somewhere around 12 people, quite a bit of the art is re-used. With the modern addition of the Steam Workshop, even prior to release, cathedrals, parking lots, universities, and even a few mods were already available for download, ready to add in more variety to the game. If anything, the inclusion of the Workshop will serve as a way for the game to get nearly infinite longevity from user-created content, something that is always welcome in this day and age of prevalent DLC.
Though the only thing that isn’t magnificent about the game is the graphics, I’m willing to overlook it, as issues with anti-aliasing aren’t particularly egregious to my eyes. Depth of field effects work well to provide a sense of scale, and the cinematic camera angle gives the feeling of a benevolent god looking down and tinkering with their creation. Fluid dynamics are equally enthralling, and while I never did this myself, one must be careful about where they put dams, as it may cause sections of your city to flood and be abandoned. The music and art style are equally welcoming, and almost immediately it was comforting and soothing.
Even with the difficulty and complexity, everything about the game seems designed to welcome the player and relax them. Though player input is frequent and mistakes can be punishing, you’re always learning, and working to build a better city for all. With the inclusion of the Steam Workshop, this feels as though it were a true successor to the giant that SimCity 4 was. Simply put, this is the best city-builder on the market today, and quite possibly one of the best of all time.
Birth of a Nation: Cities grow, expand, and have the same problems that real cities do.
Catharsis: Nothing is ever so frustrating that a game will end in rage.
A Mile Wide and Deep: Though daunting at first, the complexity of the game is engrossing.
Timesink: Constant progression makes it hard to put down.
Failure is an Option: Every mistake teaches you something new, and it rewards experimentation.
Gridlock: Traffic management has a steep learning curve.
Cardboard City: Buildings are often repeated and some graphical issues can appear.
Building cities is not an easy task and it turns out that making city building into a good game is also a very hard. Fortunately, Cities: Skylines manages to do it right and challenges you to build your own large city inhabited with actual citizens. While seeing a 2×2 km plot for a fist time might bring up the painful memories about the latest SimCity, things are much better here. That plot is just the first of nine, which you will be able to purchase as your city grows. The map itself is even larger, with 25 plots in total, giving you choice how to expand the city. If you feel that you really need them all, there is a mod for that. Furthermore, buildings and roads take less space in C:S, compared to SimCity, providing the feeling of even larger environment.
Each city starts from minimal requirements of outside roads, water and waste management, electricity. As your city grows, more issues like health, education and crime come into play and you can build the necessary buildings to tackle them. The agent-based model works and your city can grow up to a million cims living, working or vising from outside. Making sure they can live their lives properly becomes a major task, naturally increasing in difficulty as the city grows. While a small city requires little attention, a megapolis can die from the extreme traffic jams and gridlock. Cities: Skylines also has a unique feature – physically simulated water. If you limit yourself to a simple and safe task of getting drinking water upstream and flushing sewage far away downstream, you may not notice the feature at all. However, if you start placing dams, the water will flood properly and you can even drain parts of the river for additional land using several dams.
When it comes to mod support, Cities: Skylines does a lot and even more. Among expected features there is a map editor with the ability to import and export height maps. There also is an ingame editor to create new buildings, cars and cims. The most powerful and dangerous modding tool is the C# API allowing modifying nearly anything in the game. This allows very drastic modifications, but can also be used to create malicious viruses disguised as mods. Be careful and avoid installing any random mod you may find for this game. The game is not perfect in some other ways as well. Simulating a million agents is hard and some of their driving shortcuts make jams more common than the proper use of roads may suggest. The terrain is immutable during gameplay, which feels somewhat limited when improving large cities. Fortunately, developers are listening to feedback and improving the game based on it already. The cim driving has been slowly improving and while terrain modification during building is not among the planned features, tunnels should be patched in the near future. Overall, Cities: Skylines is an excellent city-building game and a must buy for the fans of the genre.
I don’t have much time for you, I am afraid. This morning, we’ve got to look into the water distribution network and after lunch the old district has to make way for a few new factories. We are relocating the residential area down river you see and that also means that we’ve got to raze the sewage facility and place it somewhere else. After that, I’ve got to order new buses and bring all these pesky peasants, my voters, to their work place. And because I am off the caring type, I also need to build them a new school and a hospital. So, really, how important can your intrusion be? I’m in the middle of building up a city that – eventually – will be of enormous proportions eclipsing anything you have seen thus far. That’s the plan anyway. What’s that you ask? Is it fun? Of course it’s fun, do you think I’d be wasting my time on this otherwise. Silly question.
Yes, it is fun. Bloody good fun if I am brutally honest. But then again, I have OCD and an overall drive for straight lines, perfect proportional building and symmetry so I’ve been building, razing and rebuilding to the extreme these last few days and that doesn’t give much time to analyze every nut and cranny of this title. I’ll say this, from 5 minutes into the city building business, I lost track of time. Nothing I could do about that. I loved building a city and Cities: Skylines rekindled those fires that I thought long extinguished. There is not much more to say. Want a modern city builder? Get Cities: Skylines.