SimCity. SimCity. SimCity. Let’s get that out of the way now because it would be nigh on impossible to review Cities: Skylines without referring to the franchise that started it all. And not due to the simple fact Cities: Skylines is a city builder, but in the way it feels like a SimCity game. From the three-coloured zoning to the placement of roads, power lines and water pipes, Cities: Skylines for the most part looks and feels like the product of a SimCity cover-band. In the wake of the lacklustre and fundamentally flawed SimCity from 2013, Skylines also feels like a true SimCity game. Which works wonders in its favour. And in a number of ways Skylines could very well be remembered as the true SimCity 5, the city builder people have been waiting for over a decade to get their hands on.
Always-online arguments aside, probably the biggest flaw with the last SimCity was in the restrictions the game placed on the actual size of the city you could build. Naturally this led to running out of real-estate pretty quick, with players left to cram zones, buildings, roads and other things into a relatively small space. Which as you can imagine essentially broke the game once your city reached a certain size. Playing Cities: Skylines, the first thing you’ll notice is that the land you are given is roughly the same size. But, once you reach certain milestones you’re then given the option to buy surrounding land areas to grow your city. And with the option to expand the size of your city with a seemingly limitless supply of additional land, space never really becomes an issue. In fact, if you were to get your hands on all the available land on offer your city can become monstrously huge.
Starting a new city in Cities: Skylines the interface and tools will feel immediately familiar to those that have played a SimCity game. Even if it was way back when having 2000 at the end of a title meant something distant-future related. As the game begins, your options are limited to building some roads, zoning some light residential, commercial and industrial areas, and sorting out power and water. Without mods that unlock all the building options from the outset, the limitation placed on what can and can’t be built works well to ease players into the stuff that sets Skylines apart from SimCity. Even if the differences are mostly subtle.
One of the tools on offer in Skylines, which unlocks once your city reaches a certain population, is the ability to create districts. Districts, which are kind of like suburbs you can draw on the map, are a deceptively simple yet brilliant addition to the city building genre. Giving players the option to mandate policies within individual districts adds a layer of depth that feels natural to the function of a sprawling city. Let’s say you have an industrial district, called Smogville, and you want to decrease the number of fires and reduce the burden on your already stressed fire department. So in lieu of building more fire departments and increasing budgets you can get a similar effect by instituting a localised mandatory smoke detector policy. And this policy, like many others, costs a certain amount per affected building so being able to limit it to a particular district adds incredible nuance. They also play into the city expansion by the way of buying additional land too, allowing for entire farming districts to be built neatly alongside a condensed metropolis.
The only real problem with districts is that their importance is never really highlighted in-game, and only casually mentioned once they unlock. And this is probably due to the comparatively small development team of Skylines. That is, compared to the size of Maxis, the developer behind 2013’s SimCity. Small is probably not the right word either, something along the lines of teensy-weensy-tiny-whiny better encapsulates the fact that Cities: Skylines was developed by a small group of extremely talented people. What does this mean for the end product? Well, a distinct lack of a detailed tutorial for one, with everything left to trial and error and a few handy notification bubbles describing some of the fundamentals.
The in-game Twitter style feed representing your citizens, never really becomes more than a novelty. Kind of like the real thing. In a way it’s a bit of shame, because playing Cities: Skylines without any knowledge or prior experience with the genre, specifically with SimCity, means the learning curve can take a somewhat drastic turn. In fact, and what may be due to the size of the team and the smallish budget, without having any in-game advisors or structured notification system the entirety of the decision making is left completely on the player. As is dealing with all the different problems that arise. Namely, traffic.
Okay, so one of the other things that you’ll notice when playing Skylines is in the sheer number of different types of roads you can build. From two lane to three lane to one way to giant roundabouts, the variety is fairly impressive. And with all zone-able real estate attached directly to roads, their placement in terms of the traffic flows into and out of your city turns out to only be a small part of the bigger picture. Traffic to and from work for your citizens, goods being transported from factories to convenience stores, ambulances needing to take people to the hospital, and even garbage trucks picking up the trash, the traffic system is complicated to say the least. Especially when something like an ambulance can hold up an entire road whilst it does its thing. Because on a two lane road parking takes up space so an ambulance stops in the middle of the road. Again none of this is really explained in-game.
So getting a sense of how the traffic system actually works only really comes after spending some considerable time with the game, plus additional time that sends you off to see videos of other people’s cities and realise that one way multi-lane roads and meticulously planned traffic flow is the only real way to deal with traffic problems. And even then some of the reasoning behind traffic behaviour remains a mystery. But in the end the issues with traffic are pretty small compared to what the game does right. And that is a detailed overlay and colourful graph like view of your cities various systems, from education to water, to power and yep, traffic flow. It’s a spreadsheet lover’s dream come true.
In the end Cities: Skylines is a game that reveals its depth gradually, and one that is also set to spark some fantastic community support in the coming weeks and months thanks to the available mod tools and support. It seems that developer Collosal Order, the studio behind Cities: Skylines, have taken all the negative feedback from the last SimCity outing and made sure to not only rectify those mistakes, but proudly highlight them as features. From large cities, freedom to set game conditions, mod-support, to offline play, it’s impressive that a small development team seems to have done what a large publisher and studio couldn’t. And that is, make a city builder in the vein of SimCity for the modern gaming market.
Plus, one of the great hallmarks of a good city builder is being able to call it quits at a certain point to start anew with a fresh attitude along the lines of “This time, this time I’ll build a metropolis the likes of which the world hasn’t seen before! Also, I’ll try to make sure that sewage doesn’t back up and cause a mini-epidemic right after I blew all the city’s money on bus routes”. And with four separate cities and counting, Cities: Skylines comes highly recommended.
Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released
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