Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Colossal Order
Let’s face it, to top last years disastrous Simcity from Maxis and EA Skyline Cities didn’t really need to do all that much. Provided the game actually worked it would already be leagues ahead of SimCity in the eyes of most people, but happily Cities is much, much more than just better than SimCity. No, it’s a hugely satisfying and well designed city builder in its own right that will soak up way too much of your life.
To begin with you need to lay down some roads connecting the freeway to your forthcoming city using the incredibly easy tools so that people can begin to move in. Roads can be chucked down using straight lines, curves or a free-form paintbrush if you’re feeling creative. Before any houses or businesses get constructed you need to first sort out some basic amenities: a water pump needs to be setup at a nearby river so that a fresh supply of the good stuff can be procured, while a waste pipe must also be placed so that sewage can be removed. The sewage pipe needs to be placed downriver of the pump, though, or else you risk poisoning your town’s inhabitants with contaminated water, resulting in mass deaths and much embarrassment all round. Pipes must then be laid to supply your town with water, and then you need to move onto producing electricity, opting for either turbines or a coal plant to begin with. Once you’ve got that stuff sorted out you need to begin allocating zones. Zones are the grids that the game automatically creates along roadsides, and using a set of basic tools you can set these zones to be used for either housing, commercial or industrial buildings. Once an area has been allocated to a certain type you just leave it alone and the game will do the rest, little AI people tossing up entire neighbourhoods and factories in no time.
As your town slowly grows into a booming metropolis new buildings, services and other things are unlocked at certain population milestones, with a handy cash injection included that usually allows you to almost immediately purchase at least one of the new unlocks, although it’s often advisable to just bank the cash as having a hefty reserve is always helpful. At first construction options are limited to things like elementary schools, a small clinic and garbage heap, but that selection expands to include a full-scale hospital, a police force, hydro electric dams and public transport such as buses and a metro network, plus unique buildings and larger roads that can deal with higher volumes of traffic. You can construct universities to educate your population for office and heavy commercial work, maintain a fleet of fire engines, add beautiful parks and more Expansion will also unlock the ability to set up office zones which come in the form of huge skyscrapers, plus heavy commercial and housing zones, too.
The interface you use to manage everything is easy to navigate. A panel on the left grants access to plenty of overlays so you can get a good look at your city, and everything is presented clearly for construction and examination. You can always pause time with a tap of the spacebar and then enjoy the strange satisfaction of using the free-form road creation tool to create sweeping highways and elaborate methods of traversal for cars. There are some slip-ups with how the game is controlled, however. Upgrading a road, for instance, a handy feature in itself, means you have to manually delete all the buildings alongside the tarmac as the game refuses to just automatically bulldoze stuff for you. It’s a small thing, but it makes laying down new road networks and even large buildings a touch more inconvenient than it needs to be. If you want to put down some pretty trees then you have to place them individually, instead of being able to paint them onto the landscape. Likewise deleted trees means having to click each and ever single one. Again, these aren’t problems which break the game or make you want to stop playing,
Districts are a neat feature of Cities: Skylines, giving you far more flexibility in managing your city. Using the tool you can paint districts directly onto the map and then name them as you see fit. After that you can set specific taxes, policies and more for that area, choosing to perhaps ban pets, provide free smoke detectors, legalize recreational drugs and much, much more. Of course these policies can also be set to affect the entire map as well, districts just allow for far more specific control. They also allows you to create specialist areas of industry that take advantage of natural resources like trees, fertile soil or oil which regular industrial zoning doesn’t do. You can even ban large vehicles from travelling through a given district, a good choice if you have a large amount of trucks blocking the roads to your housing areas, and then provide free public transport
Given that one of the biggest complaints surrounding EA’s disastrous SimCity 2014 was the tiny size of the maps it’s worry to see that your initial plot of land is a mere 2km x 2km, a space which you’ll fill rapidly. All fears are for nought, though, as it doesn’t take too long for chunks of land, each of which are another 2km x 2km, to pop up for sale. In total you can purchase a substantial 36km² of landscape, enough to construct more than one city and link them together, or act as a humongous canvas for the ultimate urban sprawl of your dreams. To aid in such an endeavour there’s even an included mod which grants infinite money so you can focus entirely on sculpting elaborate road systems and beautiful residential areas for your people.
Throughout it all you need to manage every aspect of your virtual landscape, ensuring that there’s always fresh water, healthcare, parks for the kids to play in, buses to ferry about workers and electricity to support it all. To be entirely honest general city management isn’t actually the challenge most of the time; just make sure the simple folk have their basic amnetites provided and they remain happy. The true challenge is shaping the flow of traffic as your burgeoning city grows in size and populous. Roads can quickly become congested, and once that begins to happen you’ve got serious problems as emergency vehicles struggle to get around. Irritatingly police, ambulances and fire engines all refuse to behave like true emergency services and will que in traffic rather than go around and force their way through, often leaving you to watch helplessly as dead bodies pile up.
In fact chain reactions are devastating at times. Take the above situation; if hearses struggle to get through traffic dead bodies can begin to pile up. Oddly if a body sits for too long without being collected the entire building is abandoned, even if it’s a massive skyrise. Abandoned buildings become an increased fire hazard, and if one catches fire you’ll quickly find the fire engines stuck in the very same traffic as the hearses, the drivers refusing to move through the crowded cars as they would in real life. Before long you have a rash of burned down buildings, and property prices drop through the floor because of all the wreckage, of course damaging the very funds needed to try to fix the road system.
Forward planning is key. Renovating roads from smaller two-lane affairs to larger tarmac surfaces often means having to destroy all the existing buildings that run alongside them, a potentially huge loss if large factories fall victim. Even from the opening minutes you really need to consider how you lay down roads, and take full advantage of the systems on offer, be it roundabouts or the ability to raise and lower roads. You need to think about tunnels, bridges and where you want to place residential and industrial areas, and whether a freeway will be needed. You even need to consider whether having a more beautiful city with curving roads is worth losing the extra productivity of having a traditional grid layout. Further consideration is needed when deciding where to build industrial and commercial areas as noise pollution can lower the property value and generall happiness rating of housing areas, both of which will damage your income from taxes and possibly result in people leaving.
All the individual elements are actually quite simple to handle, but it’s keeping tabs on absolutely everything at the same time which catches you out. Your city expands at a deceptively slow rate, even with judicious use of the fast-forward button, yet it takes mere seconds for everything to fall apart. It’s a strange contradiction between long periods of extreme relaxation where you enter an almost trance-like state of building and maintaining, and intense minutes of insane floundering as you desperately try to fix a major problem which has resulted in entire swathes of buildings being abandoned or money vanishing quicker than you can read the numbers. Sadly when it comes to conveying information the game is somewhat lackluster. There’s no proper tutorial for starters, giving the opening hours a rather steep learning curve. Pop-up tips do help a little, but if you’re inexperienced with city building games then trying to even get a small town running well can be a frustration, especially when you hit certain points where progress grinds to a halt and you can’t figure out what to do next.. This trial and error nature will lead to you having to abandon many cities due to unforseen circumstances, but the flipside is that if you can deal with the difficulty it does make for a very rewarding game where every failure is a lesson. And speaking of failure the other problem is that Cities: Skyline doesn’t do a very good job of letting you know what’s going wrong sometimes. Most of the time you’ll be able to figure it out before the problem comes terminal, but a bit more communication would help.
There’s other problems to contend with, too. Having to lay water and sewage lines to connect new buildings feels like a chore that should be automated since it requires absolutely no skill on your part. Even the electricity is a little odd as buildings automatically supply neighboring buildings, so pylons are only really needed to connected distance chunks of sitting, such as a little suburb out in the country. IN some instances I even found myself having to put up a few pylons just to supply a couple of people who had annoying opted to build their new house a few spaces away from existing residents and were bitterly complaining about a lack of power. You’ll also likely notice some questionable behavior in the AI of traffic as drivers don’t simply move around obstacles as they might in real life, or consistently choose to travel on congested roads rather than utilise other routes. The traffic AI is by no means terrible, but some tweaking clearly still needs to be done.
Then there’s some missing things, such as a lack of any weather or a day/night cycle. There’s also no random events or even natural disasters to help make the late-game more interesting, so once you’ve got your city properly running and up to a good size expect to just sit around and do very little. Indeed once I reached that point I usually just stopped and began a whole new city. However, there’s an insane amount of mods already available for the game via the Steam Workshop, so it seems likely that somebody will come up with something to help keep that late game more fun, plus the developers are already talking about what they’d like to add next.
The Chirper system is a neat idea in theory, a real-time in-game Twitter of sorts that displays messages from the little people whose virtual lives you lord it over like the evil bastard you are, and for the first little while it’s kind of amusing to see the passing thoughts of your minions, but it really doesn’t take very long for it to become annoying, and messages often don’t match reality, either. People would Chirp about problems with the water supply, for example, but a quick examination of the water overlay would reveal no problems whatsoever. Chirps repeat themselves a lot, too, and thus it probably won’t be all that long until you turn the system off completely and forget about it.
All of these problems, though, are generally very minor, and none of them ever spoiled my overall enjoyment of the game. It’s all far more impressive when you consider that Cities: Skyline has come from a team of just 13 people who have managed to create a far better package than last years SimCity, which was cobbled together with a vast team, a massive budget and the hinderance of EA. And speaking of last years SimCity you’ll find no sodding online DRM here stopping you from playing the game every five minutes. Having said that there’s no multiplayer at all, leaving this as an entirely singleplayer experience. Again, not a big problems, and who knows, we might see it added down the line.
Graphically the game is none too impressive. It looks adequate, for sure, but it’s also pretty…well, dull. There’s a strange blur to everything except what you’re focusing on when zoomed in which seriously needs an a disable option, but otherwise the game looks okay, and is backed up by an uninspiring yet relaxing soundtrack.
When all is said and done the only thing that might deter seasoned veterans is that Cities: Skylines doesn’t quite have the same level of complexity and depth as some other titles on the market. The basics of your economy, like taxes and budgets, are handled via sliders, and while you can set up zones and districts there’s no room to make a truly specialized city or micromanage. Truthfully it never felt like a problem, though. Cities: Skylines works wonderfully as it is, and after the sour taste of SimCity this small team of developers have delivered a truly fantastic game which outshines it in every possible way. I’m looking forward to sinking many more blissful hours into Cities: Skylines, and can’t recommend it more to fans of the genre and newcomers alike.
Recommended games may either be truly amazing, or possess some quality or qualities which make them worth playing.