Ever since the omni-shambles that was SimCity, we’ve yearned for a city building simulation that wasn’t a hot mess. We even hoped and dreamed that Maxis might salvage the wreckage of their game and actually deliver on the illusions / tricks we had been sold. Sadly, that will never be, but hope isn’t lost. A new challenger to the genre’s throne has finally arrived with Cities: Skylines, promising to wipe away the disappointment with gameplay that not only works, but allows players to truly design their dream city.
And you know what? For the most part, Colossal Order have done exactly that.
This is thanks to the gameplay being informative and approachable right from the get-go. Starting a new game is simple enough, with information available on what travel connections are possible in each region. Once in-game, tutorial-style pop-ups announce the unlocking of options once certain milestones are hit, introducing players to new services and reminding them that they are there if they have yet to investigate them. It’s an approach I found not too intrusive as development of the city progressed.
As always, improving land value with parks, Unique Buildings (something we’ll look at later) and access to services like schools is at the heart of the game. Helpful visual and audio indicators let the player know when buildings are being upgraded, which I found a welcome touch. Beyond that, a Twitter-esque feed at the top of the screen provides insight into the needs and joys of the population in a familiar social media way (along with ridiculous hashtags.) Its placement is a little curious, and I personally wish it could have been moved over to one of the corners, but its auto-closing mechanic ensures it doesn’t clutter up the UI for too long.
Admittedly though, I became worried as I began to build my city. “Those boundaries look just as small as SimCity’s were,” I thought to myself. Had we been duped over the size of cities a second time? Thankfully the answer is no, as players get the chance to buy additional plots of land as the game progresses. It’s a genius move, as it allows cities to grow at a more natural pace without overwhelming the player with huge tracts of land, and ultimately allows them to do the very thing SimCity was trying to do with its interconnected regions, if that’s the way they want to go. Alternatively, they can go for one giant metropolis of never-ending skyscrapers. Or both. There’s that much space once all the additional plots are purchased. For offering players enough breathing room to design a city their own way, Colossal Order are to be commended.
That said, the gating of services also applies to things such as roads types as well as police and fire stations, which I found rather restrictive during the early stages of development. Admittedly the game doesn’t factor things like crime and fire risk until the buildings are unlocked (and in the end I was thankful for the funnelling of progress initially as it brought focus to my plans) but those looking for the freedom to build their own way from the get-go could find the pacing annoying. Thankfully, there is a the ability to use mods (something we'll cover in a bit) that unlock everything from the start an another that activates infinite money, so if you want to go down the sandbox route you can do. It's just a shame that these options are somewhat hidden for now, but at least they're there.
The biggest departure from the SimCity series comes with that of zoning and the introduction of districts. The usual trio of residential, commercial, and industrial zones can be placed alongside roads, but the player now has more options on how to do so. They can fill entire zones, click and drag a box, or use a brush tool to assign specific zones. It’s one of the many quality-of-life improvements added to the game, with a right-mouse click capable of un-assigning zones should the need arise. With Districts, players can change entire sections of their city to behave differently. This is most noticeable with industrial sectors, which can be made to focus on specific industries, but the use of policies can also affect other parts as well. For example, you can ban sky rises, enforce recycling, or allow recreational drug use. It adds a real sense of personality to a city (as well as new challenges), and watching as buildings react to these decisions is actually quite impressive.
One thing I was quite surprised by was how Unique Buildings – rewards for achieving certain tasks such as X amount of certain zones built, or negative milestones such as low health – are universally unlocked. As a requirement for monuments (Skyline’s version of Great Works) I found the system a refreshing change, as it meant that my second attempt at a city felt the benefits of my first go.
As I mentioned with the new zoning tools, the quality-of-life improvements are a great touch to Cities: Skylines –copying or improving on aspects from the last SimCity game. The most obvious one is free-form road placement, which caters to any layout the player wishes, including the redesign of highways. It also allows players to make their own ridiculous off-ramp solution, with my one creation making most well-known Spaghetti Junctions look like a simple affair. Likewise, upgrading (and downgrading) roads is now possible with any road providing they do not have a service building on them, which I found incredibly useful when redeveloping my city.
Even service buildings have seen improved interaction. Colourful overlays help indicate how effective they will be in an area, but perhaps my favourite new aspect is how they can be relocated at any time. It not only eliminates the age-old annoyance of misplacing buildings, but allows for city redesigns to be an easier and (perhaps more importantly) cheaper task. Of course, certain buildings like Landfills and graveyards now include capacities, meaning such places cannot be moved while they contain items. This is countered with an emptying button which sends contents elsewhere, but I found the function to be hit and miss in the later game, despite (in the case of landfills) placing new ones down and having loads of incinerators.
The same can be said for corpse pick-up and crematoriums. Seriously, I couldn't believe how many corpses there could be in one city.
Another early worry of mine came from trying to play the game as I would have in SimCity - building the usual utilities such as power and water a fair distance from the initial housing. This proved difficult thanks to the low starting budget, causing my first attempt to go bankrupt within 20 minutes. It’s here that the tutorial fails to inform players of how to start off much smaller than they would do in the SimCity series, with the need to redesign during expansion a stronger component to success than ever. This leads to complications down the line, especially when dealing with collection services like waste disposal (something I’ll get onto shortly,) but you can argue that’s just part of the puzzle that players need to solve themselves. Still, a lack of guidance on this topic early on could frustrate players who don’t want to learn the hard way.
One oversight that really annoyed me involves placing trees. Individually. It makes the cosmetic touch-ups such a chore when a brush tool (or holding a key for an area placement) would have been ideal. However, my biggest criticism involves abandoned buildings. The intention is that, as long as there is demand for that specific zone type, abandoned buildings will make way for new ones, but again the later game felt like this mechanic wasn’t working properly. It instigated a very elaborate “whack-a-mole” effect to stop the spread of unhappiness, even when demand was high. I suspect a patch will be able to fix the balance, but it drove me insane at one point having to deal with it every other minute of game time, shouting “COME ON! at the screen.
As the site’s self-confessed audio enthusiast, I found the soundtrack – while reminiscent of the enchanting tones from Maxis’ final effort – doesn’t quite hit the mark, ending up fairly repetitious. Along with glitches that caused occasional drops during playback, it’s a clear reflection of a lower development budget for the game. That said, it’s a very cosmetic concern that doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, and I concede at this point I’m nit-picking, but I found it quite noticeable.
However, one thing that Skylines trumps SimCity at is with mod support, allowing the crowds within Steam Workshop to share creations with other players. The process can be done within game (with only some requiring a restart) meaning players can pick and choose before immediately trying them out in their own cities. This is on top of being able to forge your own regions with the map editor, with those creations also being sharable on the Steam Workshop. Considering there the lack of multiplayer in the game, this functionality should help keep players around long after their first go as they investigate new creations to add to their dream city.
Ultimately though, we need to assess the sum of its parts and decide if Cities Skylines is worth your time and money. Considering the pressure that SimCity’s failures have put upon them, the important thing to note is that it isn’t a hot mess that has school buses that kidnap children. In fact, Colossal Order have created a city building simulation that may still need tweaking with a post-launch patch, but overall it is an enjoyable, accessible, & addictive first step in a hopefully successful franchise.
- Integrated mod support is easy to use & should improve longevity.
- Once expanded, the boundaries allow for gigantic cities (or multi-town regions!) to create the perfect metropolis.
- Great quality-of-life implementation throughout…
- … even if some obvious ones have been overlooked.
- While the UI in informative, a lack of a proper tutorial means some players might be baptised by fire.
- Some game mechanics, such as abandoned buildings & moving building contents, appear to falter during the later stages of a game.
The Short Version: It’s time for us to finally move on from SimCity, as Colossal Order have taken the familiar aspects of city building simulators and given it enough of their own spin to make it fresh. It’s certainly not a flawless attempt, and will definitely need some post-launch patching, but the fun factor is there alongside the addictive gameplay. I guess you could even say that, for a first attempt, the foundations are solid as a rock.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Colossal Order
Publisher: Paradox Interactive