t’s been a very long time since I’ve had a fun experience playing a city building game. In recent years they’ve been horrendously broken, relying on hollowed out mechanics stripped from previously failed versions. I’m talking of course, about Cities XL (no relation to Skylines) and SimCity, the latest “always online” iteration of the long running, and previously beloved franchise. Before we get to Skylines though, let’s talk a little bit about why Cities XL and SimCity failed specatularly.
XL originally started out as an MMO where you could build your own city and invite your friends to check it out. You could even walk around as a little Mayor character and look at your city from ground level. Cool idea, but it never caught on. The people behind it then decided to make it a single player game, so they stripped all of the MMO mechanics out and slapped a price tag on it. The issue? Almost every aspect of the game requires some interaction with other cities. Had it still been an MMO, this wouldn’t have been a problem. You can technically trade with an AI player, but they have game breakingly high mark-up on imports and buy your exports for old dinged up buttons and lint. Once your city gets to a certain size, it becomes unsustainable and the fun evaporates into thousands of people screaming at you. They want new shops, which need people to work in, which need education, which need schools, which need people to work in, but because none of the aforementioned infrastructure is in place, your population never increases. Leaving you permanently stuck.
So what about SimCity? I fortunately haven’t played it. EA came along and decided to do exactly what Cities XL had tried to do, which was like watching two trains colliding head on over and over for months until just recently, they shut it down forever. Based on its horrible launch, bad press, always online requirement, crazy expensive DLC, and incredibly small city sizes, I pulled the plug before even considering a purchase.
When I heard the people behind Cities in Motion were working on a city builder, I felt a glimmer of hope for our world filled with stupidity, broken games, DLC and the apparent need to make everything online. I’ve been actively following its development for a long time. The trailers looked amazing, their promises were encrusted with gold. It all seemed too good to be true. Now, it’s finally here and I can tell you the truth.
ONE OF THE COOLEST ASPECTS IS HOW
ALIVE AND GENUINE IT FEELS
First impressions, the UI is superb; it’s impossible to not know what you’re doing. As for the actual city building, there is a bit of a learning curve if you’re unfamiliar. You might find that slapping down a bunch of roads, power lines and pipes leads to instant bankruptcy without the proper funds or population to ever fix the problem. If you’re less serious about your city building, like me, it may take you a few tries. Not that any of it is the games fault, many of the tooltips hold your hand early on and help you get an understanding for how the world works.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that the city will always tell you what it needs. Much of the game early on is spent adjusting budgets for things like electricity and water so you’re not spending too much money when the demand isn’t high enough. As population increases though, you’ll need to adjust these figures to match the new demand.
Zoning makes a return from series like Cities XL and SimCity. This allows you to paint tiles that appear near roads with either residential, commercial, or industrial areas that allow citizens to build respectively. Throughout, your city will have a demand for all three tile types and will tell you via a meter on the bottom just how in demand they are.
As more people move in to your city, you’ll reach new milestones that unlock new features and buildings, like Fire Departments and Schools. Public facilities like this will need to be placed strategically to keep everyone happy. Maybe even multiple times if your city is growing fast.
By far one of the coolest aspects of the game is simply how alive and genuine it feels. At any time you can click on a citizen and you’ll be prompted with their name, where they live, where they work, and where they’re going. You can even rename them if you like. If you click on their residence the camera will pan over to their house where you can see everyone else they live with. These citizens will even talk to you through a fake Twitter and tell you what they’re doing, how they feel about their home, and mostly keep you up to date on a day in the life of your city. You can even build a dam that actually affects the water level and its current, as well as a sewage pipe which over time, you’ll start to see its gross waste flowing down stream. That said, keep the city’s water supply in mind when planning the sewage drain and even the placement of Industrial areas. If hazardous waste gets into the water supply, all of those poor citizens you named will start getting sick and die.
The crown jewel of Cities: Skylines though is easily its limitless customization. There are dozens of road types, any of which can be raised and lowered to make overpasses, on ramps, roundabouts, highways, you name it. You can create your own map using the terrain editor, so if you’d like to recreate famous locations you can very easily. You can also edit and import new models for buildings, parks, or anything else. If you made a custom model in SketchUp or Blender, you can easily import it and combine it with hundreds of assets already available in the game. It also has Workshop integration, so you have access to hundreds of custom maps and assets and other mods if you’re too lazy to make them yourself. This positive outlook on the games community means Skylines will have infinite replay value for years to come.
The soundtrack flows well with the game and feels very motivational, for obvious reasons. While slightly repetitive I think it has a nice flare to the game, and melts quite harmoniously into the background alongside the sounds of busy city streets, factories, wind, and wildlife.
So in all I think Cities: Skylines has done a fantastic job simply meeting the expectations one would have in a city building game. Large cities, check. If they’re still not large enough there’s a Workshop mod that makes the buildable area even bigger. No DRM online stuff, check. Customization, super check.
GROWING CITIES BECOMES AN ACT
OF SPINNING PLATES
In the complaints department, it’s not as graphically robust as I’d like. By that I mean the game on max settings still feels a little underwhelming. Aliasing is incredibly jaggy no matter what, and the texture fidelity is to be desired which the developers have tried to hide with a tilt-shift setting that blurs the foreground and background. You can turn it off, but you’ll likely turn it back on immediately after you see how horrid it looks. Sure it’s a master race complaint but, because of the lack luster post-processing, it means mid to low range computers should be able to run the game with ease. This is great for the mass market of casual gamers. The only real issue I feel it suffers from is how monotonous it can become.
As I mentioned earlier, once cities start growing it becomes an act of spinning plates; adjusting budgets for all kinds of things. Then you add new areas, followed by more budget adjustments, followed by laying down more pipelines, power lines and eventually you’ll need to add new public facilities. Rinse and repeat. It’s not so much the act of strategy as it is a little boring. This is a problem on two levels: Those seeking hardcore strategy are left empty handed. Those looking to build a massive city without really having to do anything are left doing the housekeeping. There is a hard mode for strategists, but you’re still just left with a wall of sliders that need adjusting. There’s also a sandbox mode with everything unlocked and an unlimited budget, but the game still refuses to progress properly without building things in order, which can take hours to forge into a sizable city. In truth though, this isn’t as big of a problem as it might sound. Gamers these days are lazy, myself included, and a game like this requires a lot of time to master the art of managing a city in order to nurture it into a full-fledged megalopolis, as it should.
Unlike the SimCity franchise it also doesn’t feature disasters, but that’s alright by me. The only time I have ever used disasters was on my sister’s city which usually ended up in a massive spat. If those could be avoided for other siblings I’m sure that would be great.
Some other small wish list type requests for future games or even mods (if you’re reading this and are talented enough to make mods) is a 24-hour day and night cycle, as well as changeable seasons. Maybe even toss in some snow clearing management if you’re feeling generous.
Compared to those who have come before it, Skylines is a wonderfully fresh breath of air. It’s addictive, smart, very fleshed out, and open source to a brilliant community. Massive props to Paradox Interactive and Colossal Order for seeing a huge gap in the market, and taking a healthy stab at it. It’s about time.
MARCH 10, 2015
CITIES: SKYLINES REVIEW
By Aaron Bishop on March 12, 2015
Some images from Paradox Interactive