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.

Interview – War For The Overworld

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War For The Overworld is a new isometric, real time dungeon strategy game by Subterranean Games. A Kickstarter funded project, the game may seem like a very familiar one but this group of super fans are working to make a new game that is better than the one that drew them towards the project in the first place. Sean spoke with Josh Bishop, the CEO and Creative Director of Subterranean Games in Shoreditch, London to find out more.

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How hard is it going to be for people not to call it Dungeon Keeper HD? You’ve got a lot of inspiration from a lot previous games that are very good and you seem to have brought that well in to this game. How have you come about that?

To be perfectly honest, that’s what we set out to do. We started as a group of fans of Dungeon Keeper on a Dungeon Keeper fan site and there hadn’t been a Dungeon Keeper game released in 10 or so years when we first wanted to do this. We liked it so we thought let’s do this.

[It's hard to tell if it's a dungeon or a night club. They're the same thing though... Right?]

[It’s hard to tell if it’s a dungeon or a night club. They’re the same thing though… Right?]

A lot of people say things like “holes in the market” but there hasn’t really been any dungeon games or building games in this vein for a while. That must have been quite an attractive proposition for the community when you started your Kickstarter and getting everything together.

Kickstarter certainly has seen a big surge in games like this. In the past two or three years there’s been a lot in those genres that hasn’t really existed for the past ten years and suddenly it’s all come back. Which is cool because we love those games. So we’re happy.

And you’re managing to do it on a PC platform rather than having to bastardise it for any kind of mobile platform or anything else. Which must be quite good as a programmer.

Yes. It is nice. PC first always. PC, Mac and Linux.

How did you go in to the design process for this because obviously you had a pretty good inspirational template?

We’ve all been playing Dungeon Keeper for a very long time. We know what we like about it and what we don’t like about it. We’ve played plenty of other games that are similar to it, other God games and other RTS games. So for the longest time we’ve thought” Dungeon Keeper would be so much better if… this.” And that’s where we started. We use that as our ground work and we went through and anything we felt could be improved upon, we improved upon it. We didn’t start somewhere else, we started there and we didn’t want to change things for the sake of changing things. We wanted to improve.

It’s going to be very hard for people to disassociate the two games as they are very similar, despite the time difference, but this is a very different that’s almost an homage. You’ve got Richard Ridings for the voice narrator, you’ve got the stylistic choices in the way the game operates and in the humour… How difficult was it for you to separate and create your game?

It wasn’t too difficult. We wanted to build on the gameplay that had been laid out. We weren’t really looking to copy from a stylistic standpoint, legally and because it’s dated. From an artistic standpoint we started with the gameplay and followed from there from the ground up. So the visuals more than anything is where we differentiate at face value. The deeper you go, there are quite a few mechanical differences like the tech tree.

[Excuse me, Dungeon Master, but I didn't order the "Flaming Prince"]

[Excuse me, Dungeon Master, but I didn’t order the “Flaming Prince”]

A lot of God games can give you those kind of options on a plate, so the tech tree allows more strategy to be involved.

That’s because we wanted it to work in multiplayer. Traditionally God games aren’t multiplayer things so it’s kind of ok to just give people everything in a sandbox. But we wanted to bring that RTS angle in to it so there’s some sort of strategic choice and so it can work in multiplayer.

Quick fire questions. Favourite Minion:

The Chunder

Favourite room:

The Arena, that’s pretty cool. The Crypt also looks pretty cool.

I just saw The Archive and that looked cool. Especially close up when you’ve possessed someone, looking at the book and the writing on it. How much attention to detail do you pay to the little quirks and humours touches that people may not necessarily notice?

Quite a lot, the thing with this over other RTS and other top down games, is that they don’t have a first person view. We do. So we have to design everything from a birds eye and a first person perspective. We’ve had to keep things relatively efficient so the character models aren’t as high poly as you might see in other things but we scale that quite a lot. But the texture are made at a high resolution so if your PC can handle that then you can go and look at how cool it is. We did have a play with an Oculous Rift just to try it. It isn’t in the game and isn’t supported, but it did look really nice when we played around with it.

So when you’re in your remote offices, what do you do to get to your inner evil designing mode? Do you put on some thrash metal and sacrifice goats at an alter?

We all have cats on spinning chairs so we can turn around with crazy laughter.

[In the Tavern you'll find your minions getting hilariously drunk, talking about the time they were extras in Labyrinth.]

[In the Tavern you’ll find your minions getting hilariously drunk, talking about the time they were extras in Labyrinth.]

You have to have a sense of humour to work on a game like this though, right?

I guess it’s different from person to person. I know our writer can zone out for days before he comes back. Sometimes people communicate a lot, it’s quite a varied bunch of people we have. I don’t know if there are any teams that operate entirely remotely that are our size. There’s 15 of us from Australia, Hong Kong, Russia, to Europe and the US, all the way around the world.

So that goes to show that there is a worldwide desire and demand for games like these?

Especially in Germany. Germany is such a huge market for this type of game.

Where do you see yourself post-release with the game, as you’re all community based so you know what kind of things the community would expect?

There’s a couple of things we’re already planning. Firstly there’s the early adopter bonus so anyone who buys it in the first month of release will get the first DLC for free. We’re doing that as an alternative to pre-order bonuses as we still want people to buy the game early and at full price but we don’t want people to commit to it without seeing a review or whatever. And we don’t want to feel like there’s content being held back for people who don’t pre-order the game. We’re hoping that’ll be out in June but we aren’t great with deadlines. The second is the flex goal content. So during the Kickstarter campaign we had our milestones and for every one after our main goals, we were going to allow our backers to vote on what content they wanted. That vote is still going so we’ll see what content will be next.

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War For The Overworld is due to be released on April 2nd 2015 for PC, Mac and Linux.

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