You can’t help but root for Colossal Order, the little developer that could.
Cities Skylines saw the studio, that previously hardly anyone had heard of, thrust into the limelight. Heaped with praise from critics and players alike, imaginary cash registers ringing as the game flew off virtual shelves, and people even making a living by asking for support on Patreon for making mods: a City Building game isn’t the most likely candidate to become something of a gaming phenomenon, but Cities Skylines practically came out of nowhere and captured players’ imaginations in a way that surprised practically everyone.
It helps, of course, that the game’s only major rival – SimCity – had such a disastrous launch, shipping with limited features, a broken simulation that barely worked, and city sizes that barely lived up to the name. By contrast, City Skylines’ metropolises (metropoli?) felt almost too sprawling at first, its options almost overwhelming. Ok, the simulation wasn’t perfect – the traffic AI is still a little dubious, and I find it hard to believe that people would return from holiday and immediately go straight to work without even stopping at home to unpack, as if they’ve just arrived from the longest commute on earth; but in a post-SimCity world, Cities Skylines gave people who had been burned by EA’s offering an instantly appealing alternative – and they lapped it up. Jay Adams reviewed Skylines shortly after release, and loved it – awarding the game a well-deserved score of 9/10.
So what do you add to a game that already seems to have almost everything, and add it without treading on the toes of the legions of modders who have made your game such a success? The answer is simple: you improve the options that players already have, and then you provide them with a few that they don’t.
As the name of this first expansion might suggest, After Dark is all about the nightlife. One of Cities Skylines glaring ommissions at launch was the absence of a day/ night cycle. Bathed in perpetual daylight, your sprawling creations never took a break for some nocturnal downtime. After Dark rectifies this, adding a real-time day and night cycle to the game that means cities now feel more realistic. Enhanced lighting and the addition of some lovely skyboxes is just the icing on the cake. At times, the game is genuinely lovely to look at – even if the impact on performance can sometimes mean that the game engine struggles to keep up a decent level of performance.
The addition of a day and night cycle isn’t simply cosmetic, either. Colossal Order has added a wide range of new commercial buildings to the game, designed to boost revenue and your tourism industry. Many of these are focused around coastal areas, turning areas that were previously a bit of a limiting inconvenience into invaluable building opportunities. Marinas, fishing docks and even beach volleyball courts can all be added, and you’ll soon learn that it’s a good idea to add a few hotels to the area, as tourism has a tendency to gravitate towards these areas.
The zoning tool allows you to assign commercial zones to act as nightimte hotspots, which will lead to nightclubs, movie theaters and bars popping up in your city to attract residents looking to let their hair down after a long day of being stuck in congestion on the highway. Naturally, this can lead to a backup of traffic, as swarms of people descend upon the same area. To combat this, you can now add Taxis to shuttle people to and forth, and a few other transport options – such as a dedicated bike lane – will mean that it’s easy to spend ages tinkering with your existing road network.
Just don’t forget that electricity usage tends to go up at night: those neon signs and streetlights come at a hefty cost to your power grid, and it’s easy to find yourself in the midst of a blackout because you’ve underestimated the demand on your power grid.
Another downside of all this increased nightlife is, as you might expect, an increase in crime. Thankfully, additional options have been added to help you maintain order, and you can even set budget levels for day and night time separately – perhaps lowering the budget for public transport in the evening, freeing up money to invest in the police force.
You won’t find yourself facing any kind of crime epidemic, however. Cities Skylines remains a rather sedate experience, free from the challenging disasters that kept Sim City players occupied for so many years. In fact, Cities Skylines remains a little too relaxing. The inclusion of disasters could have easily been added as an option to keep things lively without detracting from the experience, and would have provided a little more variety. As it stands, creating an efficient city remains a challenge, but cities seem to grow and function no matter how poor your planning is, and fixing any traffic bottlenecks or other problems tends to be a fairly simple (albeit occasionally costly) endeavor.
The lack of a campaign also feels like a missed opportunity, and would have made for a much improved learning curve for new players. Cities Skylines isn’t exactly difficult to learn, but the sheer amount of options – more than ever before – does mean that new players have an awful lot to digest. It’s not a massive problem yet, but assuming Colossal Order has further expansions planned for the future, it’s easy to forsee a time when the complexity and breadth of its systems becomes overwhelming.
Lastly, it would be nice if Colossal Order had provided a few additional themes for cities. It’s not a dealbreaker, but from a personal standpoint the buildings in Cities Skylines have always had a somewhat sterile, generic European look to them. Different architectural styles – Far Eastern, Middle Eastern, country-specific styles – would have been a nice addition. Admittedly, providing multiple different skins for the same building would add a significant burden on the developer’s artists, and one of the benefits of having such robust modding tools means that many modders have already stepped in to scratch that particular itch; but the absence of different styles does mean that you’re at the mercy of modders when it comes to truly creating the city of your dreams. Sim City 4 provided some great options when it came to customizing your city’s appearance, and the lack of such options in Skylines does feel somewhat behind the times.
At $15/ £10, After Dark certainly won’t break the bank, though the fact that some of its additions – the day and night cycle, the dedicated budget sliders, and a few other things – are included as a free update can make the expansion feel a little light on content.
Personally, I think that the new tourism and commercial options add just enough to make you think about your city planning in a new way, without feeling as though your exisiting cities are suddenly redundant. Given how much time can be spent on carefully nurturing your creations in these kinds of games, that’s welcome; nothing’s worse than spending upwards of thirty hours creating a city, only to have to scrap it and start from scratch. But at the same time, it’s fair to say that After Dark doesn’t quite bring enough to the table to make it a truly essential purchase.
After Dark is a solid expansion that brings new options to the table without treading on the toes of the modding community, and rectifies some of the areas in which the game was a little lacking at launch. Let’s just hope that the next expansion has a little more meat on the bones.