City-building games have been taking a beating over the last few years. With the awful release of SimCity, and the lack of content in Cities XXL there hasn’t been much of worth in the genre for quite a while – perhaps since Sim City 4.
So when the first trailer for Cities: Skylines came out, it filled me with hope. Paradox Interactive is a publisher I trust given how solid (if a little pedestrian, if you’ll excuse the pun) Cities in Motion 2 was, so I expected big things. But the spectre of SimCity loomed large over those hopes, preventing me from becoming too excited.
Luckily for me, however, Cities: Skylines is the best city-building game released in a long time. And while I’m a little bit biased, given that I have an obsession with these types of games which borders on requiring an intervention, it might just be my favorite game of the last few years.
Never before has a game managed to pull me in so early. As soon as I booted up Cities: Skylines, I was a little bit in love with the sleek, almost minimalist, design. Menus are easy and quick to operate, and though this doesn’t affect the gameplay, it put me in a good mood going in. The soundtrack is elevator music, but the kind which has you tapping your feet even as you head to a meeting with the boss at work. It manages to be relaxing, whilst creating the appropriate amount of awe for what you’re about to achieve. Because what you’re about to achieve is spectacular.
The most important part of a city builder is, unsurprisingly, building the city. If those foundations aren’t solid, then the whole game is a total bust and will crumble to the ground. Fortunately, although the base mechanics in Cities: Skylines are simple, they’re remarkably solid: you mark out zones just like how it’s done in SimCity, but placing roads is so much easier, and gridlines help you to get road lengths just how you want them. Additional tools let you create curved roads, and it’s all too easy to wind up spending hours just putting the transport infrastructure in place. Everything just feels so precise and smooth that it’s a pleasure to lay down the basic requirements for your city.
But things get so much better. Once you actually move on to creating the city itself, Skylines reveals a staggering amount of depth.
One of the most complicated things any city builder has to try and achieve is to simulate traffic. It’s a difficult thing to get right, but Cities: Skylines manages to make it work in one of the most simple and yet complex ways, even though it can seem a little bit broken sometimes (though developer Collossal Order is working on a patch). Every person in the city has a house and has to be able to get to and from their job. You know, like in real life. This dictates how you lay out your city, where you place your zones, and how you plan bus routes.
For example: if you put a bus route going from one place to another, no-one will take it if they can’t catch a bus back on an opposite route. Cargo from industrial zones has to find its way out of the city, and all that ferrying of goods can clog up roads with more trucks than you’d believe possible. I once ended up almost clogging every single street with colorful trucks, and while it looked awesome, it wasn’t exactly practical.
But traffic is only one of the features that requires a lot of planning and forethought. Water in Cities: Skylines is a massive asset for your city. You’ll need to to not only supply water to every building but take their waste water away, and you need to take the direcion of the current into account – place your waste pipes in the wrong place, and you’ll end up pumping sewage right back into people’s homes. Yummy. This is a basic system, but easy to mess up if you don’t think ahead. One of my mistakes was pumping ground water from next to an industrial zone to my entire population, which by the time I realized my mistake had killed everyone off. This had a surprisingly negative effect on my city, and isn’t something I would recommend, unless you want to create some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland.
I would also advise not trying to build a new lake in the middle of your city for everyone to enjoy. I didn’t yet know how water worked when I did this, admittedly; but myself and a friend managed to completely flood the entire landscape. Nice for the ducks, not so nice for the poor residents who woke up to find their living room knee-deep in water. I wasn’t mad at the game at all though, as it was completely my own fault. Water acts in a certain way, and so long as you know how to use it then you’ll be fine.
Alongside the nitty-gritty of actually building your city, in Cities: Skylines you’re able to enact policies that you can apply to specific areas you set out, instead of them taking global effect. For example, I can ban smoking in my main residential zone to increase health but reduce happiness, to create the sort of city I would want to live in [a nanny state? – cigarette-ash Dale]. Policies can completely change the sort of city you create and will give you a different flavor of play every time.
Cities: Skylines is a game you’ll start many dozens of times. Failure is easily achieved but not disheartening, and as such you’ll find yourself coming back over and over again to try out new city builds. It’ll also surprise you how quick it can be to set up a small city (once you get over the initial learning curve) and yet how long it takes to build something massive. No matter what sort of player you are, casual or hardcore, Cities: Skylines is a game that you’re going to enjoy playing – and one that you’ll keep returning to.
Aesthetically the game definitely continues that idea, managing to cut a delicate line between realistic and cartoon. Cities: Skylines is a pleasure to look at and watch, with detailed and colorful buildings and plenty of little animations which mean I could sit back and watch my city run for hours. Unlike most city builders, on the highest settings there are no textures that stand out as being of an unacceptably low resolution. Some of the house designs don’t quite mesh with the aesthetic, but this is a minor niggle.
Thankfully, despite the large scale of Cities: Skylines, performance is great on a semi-decent machine; I’ve played the game on multiple PCs of varying power and haven’t had any trouble so far, though some older machines required a little compromise and reducing the quality of the graphics down to medium settings. If you want to hold a solid 60fps on max settings you’ll need quite a bit of grunt, but for the most part the game is well-optimized. I also tried playing it on a Mac, and can report that it runs like a charm there as well – so Apple fans can join in on the fun. Loading times are about what you’d expect from a city builder: one reasonably long loading screen to start with and then nothing after that. There are no major bugs present either, at least not any that I encountered; the only slight glitch I noticed were some gaps between textures on some of the building models.
City-building games can sometimes start to lose their lustre over time, as over-familiarity with both content and mechanics starts to set in. Thankfully, with the welcome addition of Steam Workshop support there’s always new content to add to your game. New landscapes and new buildings keep things fresh for when you come back next time, and there’s already thousands of creations to choose from. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to build a city on a map shaped like Gabe Newell’s face?
There are unfortunately a few faults that prevent this game from being absolutely perfect. The first is the tax system, which doesn’t seem to adapt well to the city you’ve built. No matter what, as long as your tax level is at 12% people won’t complain – and yet if you set it to 13%, everyone starts to move out. This is something that the developer needs to address: taxation should be a massive part of managing your city, particularly given the attention to detail elsewhere in the game; but currently, setting tax rates is something you’ll touch once and never look at again. I would prefer a system that took into account how prosperous your city is and how many amenities you supply, and being able to set different rates of tax for different zones would be nice, as well as different tax brackets for high earners. I’m not expecting some kind of financial simulator, but a little more depth in this area wouldn’t go amiss.
Another disappointment comes in the complete lack of random events, which although I’m slightly bummed about many will actually enjoy. It removes a level of randomness that some might find annoying and not required, but that I always had a soft spot for. While seeing your city completely destroyed by an earthquake in Sim City 4 was disheartening, it added to the excitement and forced you to adapt to the situation on the fly. Again, it’s possible that this could be added later via a patch (or expansion), and I guess the community might achieve something similar with a mod; but once you have everything running nicely, a game of Cities: Skylines becomes little more than an interesting snow globe and can feel rather… well, passive.
Some minor technical issues are present, but these are things that are fixable by the devs or a modder. Not being able to adjust camera sensitivity for the keyboard makes taking sweeping panoramic shots difficult; and despite playing on a screen with just under 2k resolution, the game wasn’t able to detect this and forced me to play in 1280 x 720 – which again should be a fixable problem. These are small oversights though, and shouldn’t hamper the enjoyment of anyone but the most picky of city architects.
Overall, I have very few bad things to say about Cities: Skylines. It is an almost perfect city builder, managing to revive and re-energize a genre which has been going downhill in recent years, trading on past glories and nostalgia without adding anything meaningful. But not only is Cities: Skylines an almost perfect city builder, it’s an almost perfect game in its own right. Colossal Order took a gamble, and it’s one that paid off. If you’re looking for something to buy on Steam that evokes warm fuzzy feelings not felt since the halcyon days of Sim City 4, make sure that Cities: Skylines is your first port of call.