It’s hard not to look at Cities: Skylines and make the comparison to Electronic Arts’ SimCity. Even in the game’s trailers subtle references to some of SimCity’s failures were noticeable, even if not intended. It’s clear, from the second you boot up Cities: Skylines, that developer Colossal Order has modeled its game after SimCity. They didn’t stop at just creating a new city building simulation game, though; they improved upon it.To really appreciate what Colossal Order has created in Cities: Skylines, we must also be reminded of SimCity’s failures.
For starters, the game works. It’s works on a fundamental level, and it works on a technical level. It’s a powerful, flexible game design that works as intended at launch. If you’ve paid any attention to the city-building simulator genre for a while now, you’ll realize how impressive that actually is.
Almost every aspect of Cities: Skylines is clearly inspired by SimCity. From the overall concept of playing mayor (or God, for that matter), to the way in which you manage your city. Everything you’d expect to have control of, you do. This includes power manage, water and sewage flow, maintaining all the essentials (fire, health, safety), and maintaining a budget while also growing your city.
It’s a lot to take it and can definitely seem overwhelming at first, but Cities: Skylines presents everything in a clear and concise, easy-to-understand manor. Most aspects of your city are presented in some sort of color-coded fashion. There’s no technical spreadsheets with complicated numbers, just colors that usually represent good or bad. Providing your city the essential services, typically consists of plopping down a specific building and connecting it to your city. For water, this means adding pipes; for electricity, powerlines; and for public services, just ensuring maximum coverage. For city-building veterans, this is all standard stuff. There’s a brief tutorial that shows you the ropes, but the game does little to explain the technical process of everything which can leave some new players lost.
From a size standpoint, Cities: Skylines blows SimCity out of the water. The game is deceptively small at first, giving you “only” a four-square-kilometer plot for your city (the same size as a SimCity map). For SimCity, of course, this was to force you to pick a specialization and work cooperatively with others in an online environment that ultimately failed to catch on. In Cities: Skylines, there is no online, which means it’s totally up to you, and you alone. I found this aspect of gameplay to be both good and bad, but before we get into that we need to examine its competition.
SimCity’s online experience was frustrating for two reason: it was forced upon us without giving us the choice, and it didn’t work as intended at launch. Players just wanted to be free to build their own city without constraints. Cities: Skylines lets you do that. While you’re city starts off small, you are quickly able to buy access to adjacent plots of land, ultimately allowing you to expand up to a total possible area of 36 square kilometers. It’s huge! You don’t feel the pressure to squeeze everything into a tiny plot. For those of you who like to play alone and do your own thing, this is great. But if you’re like me, and enjoy playing games with friends, Cities: Skylines can feel a bit lonely. I realize I was in the minority, but I actually enjoyed the online aspect of SimCity (when it worked, that is). Most of you probably don’t care about online, and would prefer plot size and complete freedom over forced restrictions (and that’s totally understandable), but Cities: Skylines felt lonely to me. For as horribly implemented as SimCity’s multiplayer was, it was a decent concept that opened my eyes to a gameplay experience I never knew I wanted until I didn’t have it.
Multiplayer aside, there’s a lot to like about having such large cities. It feels liberating to not be shackled to such a tiny plot. You can build out instead of being forced to build up. However, the bigger your city gets, the harder it can be to maintain. To that end, Cities: Skylines does a great job in helping you maintain it by letting you define and regulate specific areas individually. Using the District tool, you can not only paint specific areas to easily recognize them on the map, but give district unique policies that can regulate everything from banning smoking to water usage, or banning heavy traffic (I’m sure SimCity players appreciate this one) to allowing free public transportation (at a cost). In industrial zones, you can specialize businesses to capitalize on the map’s natural resources, such as mining ore, drilling for oil, farming fertile land, or harvesting trees. Special tax incentives can even be created. As a veteran city-builder, having this extra control is much appreciated.
One of the harder aspects of planning your city is the fact that more advanced buildings and roads, things that can ultimately make your life easier, are locked behind restrictions, typically related to your city’s population. The downside is that as your population grows, the city’s traffic flow starts to slow. The game does give you tools, like overpass intersections and eventually trains and subways, but unless you’re planning these from the start, it’s hard to make them fit into the already built portion of your city. It requires some serious city planning which is probably why I find myself constantly making new cities. Cities: Skylines is just one of those games that you continue to learn from as you play and each city, I feel like, gets better and better. The strategy curve is deep on this game, adding tons of replay value, which is important for a single-player city-building game.
Aside from the ones you create, there’s no real story to be found in the game. You can choose to name individual citizens and follow them on their daily journey; it's a sort of weird Truman Show thing to do, but to each their own. Of course, you better keep a close eye on them because once you lose them once, they can be hard to find in a massive, sprawling city. The game does attempt to guide by giving you certain Achievements to aim for which, in turn, unlock unique buildings like stadiums. Some of the Achievements seem a bit outlandish to me, like having an unemployment rate over 50 percent, but I suppose its to create varying gameplay experiences. With no natural disasters (aside from the never ending fires), I guess this is Colossal Order’s way of shaking things up.
Graphically, Cities: Skylines holds its own. Buildings are colorful, bright, and vibrant. They could probably benefit from more detail and variance. I also found the depth-of-field blur for distant buildings to be a bit annoying, but you can easily adjust that. Another feature I would’ve liked to see is a day-night cycle. While the game looks great during the day, there’s something about a bustling city’s skyline lit up at night that makes for a gorgeous view.
You know one of the best parts about Cities: Skylines, though? A lot of these complaints can, and probably will be addressed by the community. Some of them already have, as modders have taken to the Steam Workshop to upload their own creations. Even now, you can find mods that change parts of the interface, add new cities (even GTA V’s Los Santos is a thing), and add more textures for buildings. If the community stays active, Cities: Skylines will flourish as it could add tons of replay value and fix things that maybe the developer can’t get to right away.
Cities: Skylines isn’t the perfect city-building simulation game, but it’s a pretty damn good start from Colossal Order. At its core, Cities: Skylines is about the joy of building, and it works. It gives you the freedom to do what you want and build to your heart’s content, without absurd restrictions. For those who just like to build, you can do that. For those who enjoy mastering the finer strategies of managing a city, you can do that too. There’s something for everyone, and if it’s not in the base game, you can probably find it in the Steam Workshop.