Cities: Skylines – Review

 

Balance. Cities: Skylines has it. Whilst it is absolutely awesome to create the huge, truly 3D, Megalopolis that we’ve all yearned for since Sim City 4, city simulation games are actually a giant puzzle of balance. When you make a city, it isn’t just cool looking at the buildings? Isn’t it great to fly down the streets and notice the houses and cars zooming around? It’s one of the biggest things that gets you going in city builders, seeing your work breath life.  But trying to find that equilibrium of harmony so that you don’t grow out of proportion or decimate your resources whilst your population is swimming in filth, the deceased and can’t turn on a light to see that they’re drinking shit-flavoured water, is the biggest challenge. While much was lamented on SimCity’s size constraints, it really did teach you the lessons of good planning and staging your growth economically. It becomes something of a hangover when you come in to Cities: Skylines though.

Because you can just grow to enormous sizes there is a temptation to go absolutely crazy and just create your mega build. Which, if you’re in sandbox mode, you totally can and have the finances to easily manage the demands that present themselves. But in the normal game mode there are things you need to do in order to create the perfect, patient balance. The similarities to SimCity are very obvious in the games user interface and simplicity in its design and accessibility. This game has long been touted as “What SimCity should have been” and players of that game will see how familiar it is.

Firstly there is the big similarity that accessibility and traffic is king. Cities: Skylines is created from the mass transit simulator veterans Colossal Order (Cities in Motion). So it’s hardly surprising and makes sense to have traffic as a big part of your city planning. Getting people around is one thing. Making cool crazy roads is another. But beware as your services also rely on these roads and if they are too far away or hard to get to then your city will be swimming in garbage, dead bodies and burning down before you can scream “REDUCE THE GAME SPEED!!!” Education, much like SimCity, takes a very big presence as without it your city will have smaller buildings, more fires and less growth. It will surprise you, just like power, how much you truly need to build in order to sustain this even in the smaller cities of the early game stages.

Therein lies the puzzle of this balance as, at a moments notice, things can go from pleasantly docile to apocalyptically meltdown crazy. Which is something that Cities: Skylines does very well but it doesn’t go absolutely mad with obstructing your attempts to solve it. Unlike SimCity, the occupants of your efforts are mostly silent except for an initially novel Twitter-esque notification on the top of the screen – None of the screaming for superhero crime fighters or requesting for a church to be built, or demanding futuristic super fuels to increase trade options.

This is where you can divide your gaming audience however. Some people like the kind of quirky tongue in cheek nature that Maxis brings to games and SimCity had lots of it. Cities: Skylines has very little outside the quickly annoying top-of-screen birdy. Which means that outside of its technical gaming goodness, it can feel a bit cold. Given that a lot of your time you’re looking at a mass of green land slowly growing buildings, I personally sometimes yearned for that comedic touch. But the game doesn’t need that and many people will tell me to bugger off and play The Sims instead. So I’m very aware that for the purists and the serious gamers, this is in fact a positive.

Sometimes it can also be unclear what a problem actually is, and what the solution can be. Like SimCity, most of the time the solution is just patience, like waiting for fuel for power stations. Although there isn’t the same trading system that SimCity had so you can’t really see how industry and your specialist industries are doing without individually visiting them. Whilst the forestry and agricultural industries are great additions, I would have liked the opportunity for them to occupy more space. Like huge fields of land instead of the factory sized livestock pens, which have cows that by scale are mutant oversized bovine beasts.

I also find the need to put multiple power stations in your city so quickly slightly aggravating. Power demands are naturally high, but the fact that you can’t upgrade your buildings can leave you, in the early game, spreading multiple wind turbines and coal power stations across your map and barely scraping by. The lack of immediate leisure facilities and parks is a bit of a let down too, although there are some that unlock as you grow your city as “Unique Buildings”. It does limit some of the planning that you might want to do to encompass these but as with all creation, the ability to mercilessly destroy to create something better is a skill you need to possess.

Although your citizens very rarely complain about anything except education, it would be nice to have more options in making your city look prettier. Especially good would have been a brush tool for adding foliage that seems to be obvious UI option that’s missing. The game’s environments and maps are wonderful though, each presenting its own unique look and feel with resource management adding to the puzzle. And if you aren’t happy, you can create your own very easily or download one of the many available on the Steam Workshop.

Technically the game holds up very well. I was playing on a Mac, which isn’t the most stable of the OS’s pre-release, but it hasn’t caused me any problems. It’s available on Linux too as well PC, of course. But the system requirements you will need to get the experience you’ve probably seen in the trailers and watched YouTuber’s play is quite high. The game is perfectly playable on an i5 processor with a decent graphics card and enough RAM. But you have to sacrifice a lot of graphical detail in order to get anywhere near consistent frame rates. I mostly hit 30fps but I had to turn shadows off and textures down to medium. As my city grew, the lag did begin to increase, which I suppose you should expect given the amount that’s going on. But I’d recommend a big system if you’re going to create the mass of steel and concrete that the games can deliver.

The game’s blurb on Steam describes it as a modern take on the classic city simulation and for all intents and purposes it is exactly that. Apart from the moments of resource madness the game is very easy to manage. In fact its lack of adjustable difficulty might irk the most hardcore fans of the genre, although there is a hard mode. And whilst your imagination is fairly unlimited, you still have to imagine within some confines, which is a great puzzle that blurs lines between real life planning and gaming city planning. The support for expansion is brilliant with the Steam Workshop supporting customised buildings and maps for everyone to share with each other. If you’re ticking the boxes, especially against SimCity, this game has well and truly trumped it.

At the start though, I mentioned a hangover. On a personal critical reflection of the game the stigma of SimCity that’s around the genre, and especially the hype of this game, is at times unavoidably apparent. For all of the promise of the game being a better version of SimCity, that the fans actually wanted, this game completely nails it but at the expense of its own character. However this game wasn’t intended for that; it was intended for the dedicated and crazy people to build obnoxious, overwhelming metropolises and to create a supportive game and environment for the passionate modding community. With the seeming demise of Maxis and the buggy recycle that was Cities XXL, there may not be another time where PC gaming, nor any gaming due to console’s lack of strategy games, will have a studio which creates one of the founding staples of gaming so excellently. And if this is our last foreseeable option to modern city building then it is a damn fine one to have, if not the best we’ve had in nearly ten years. Balance is restored.

Summary

This is what not what SimCity should have been, but rather what SimCity could have been. The charm of Maxis is obviously missing but the gameplay, the mechanics and the scope of a good city building game is there. It’s an easy game to pick up and get in to and for the modding community it’s very well supported. Make sure you’ve got a good system though if you want the full experience.

Good Points

  • The game is suitably huge and expansive
  • Builds on SimCity’s easy to play UI and perfects it
  • Adds a few options that trump SimCity’s limited building

Bad Points

  • Lacks the charm of SimCity/Maxis
  • Can be a strain on recommend or lesser spec machines
  • A few building tools are missing that would have been nice

Why a 9?

This is quite simply the best City Building game available today and probably is the best since Sim City 4. In an era of freemium mobile gaming and the apparent downfall of Maxis, Colossal Order could be the heir apparent to the throne for a long time to come. There are a few tools missing and the game does miss some of the charm that its genre contemporaries provide but Cities: Skylines has reinvigorated a sadly sagging genre and is exactly what fans were looking for.

 

This review was based on the Mac version of the game.

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