Cities: Skylines is a city building and simulation game released this year for PC by Colossal Order. In Cities: Skylines, you’re tasked with managing all aspects of a modern population center, and growing it from tiny town to major metropolis. City simulation games have had their fair share of hard times recently, but is Cities: Skylines the game to save this genre? Let’s find out in my Cities: Skylines review!
The history of the city simulation game go back almost 30 years, with the creation of the first iteration of SimCity in 1989. SimCity was a revolutionary game for its time, and it inspired many sequels, spinoffs, and other imitations. In recent years, though, lackluster games have carried the SimCity name, and other developers have stepped in to reclaim the sim genre’s former glory.
Cities: Skylines is very obviously cut from the same cloth as SimCity. Anyone who has played a lot of SimCity 4 especially will feel right at home. Within a few minutes of starting up my first city, I was creating and maintaining power, water, and road networks like a pro. Then I was handling garbage, imports and exports, health, education, mass transit and all the other intricate, interlocking systems that make up the core of a SimCity game.
I’m of the opinion that good games borrowing good game mechanics from other good games is core to the gaming experience, so I can’t say that all this borrowing bothers me much. There’s enough that is different and interesting that keeps the game from feeling like a total rehash of games like SimCity 4, although I do still wish that Cities: Skylines had taken things a bit further from the SimCity tropes.
Simprovements and Simstakes
The overall feel of Cities: Skylines is very forgiving, almost more casual than many city builders I’ve played in the past. If you don’t like where you’ve placed a building, most can be moved to another location immediately by paying a small fee. If you build something and then decide you don’t want it, you can bulldoze it and get most of your money back if you’re fast enough. Roads can be moved or upgraded easily as well. You can also place and remove zones for free, which is a nice touch.
All of these “quality of life” features make Cities: Skylines feel more like a sandbox and less like a tight, “every dollar counts” simulation game. That’s another thing that is both good and bad – it’s good because it encourages a more relaxed, fun playstyle. However, a lot of times Cities: Skylines just ends up feeling a bit unbalanced.
One unique feature of Cities: Skylines is the ability to “paint” regions of the map as independent districts. It’s possible to get fine-grained control over the policies in your city and how they’re applied by using this feature. Each district can have its own policies, including some tax small tax rate modifiers.
There are a few aspects of Cities: Skylines that are just poorly explained. For instance, people like living near crematories, which I find weird. Commercial buildings also produce dead bodies as well. Elementary schools increase happiness from commercial buildings, really? Commercial happiness in general is kind of messy, and I never quite got it above 85% in my city.
Stuck in Traffic
The traffic simulation is probably where I spent most of my time fiddling. There’s a variety of road types, including 2, 4, and 6 lane roads with 1 and 2 way variants, and highways with offramps. They can be laid out in grids, or free form if you prefer. The free form method is nice for laying out curvy roads or for navigating difficult terrain.
Laying out roads is a bit more of a chore than it really ought to be. Land can only be zoned within 4 units of a road, so to maximize space you’ve got to place your roads in very specific patterns. The grid snapping in Cities: Skylines often snaps me just one unit too far in one direction or another. When trying to create intersections, it also prioritizes snapping to the end of a road, which means I generally have to work around this in order to get my roads to fit together just so.
After laying out your roads, you’ll want to spend time trying to figure out why traffic is bad in a particular area. This can be fun at times, although I do wish there a bit more polish here. It can be difficult to tell where vehicles are coming from or going to aside from clicking on individual cars.
Mass transit is usually the solution to traffic woes in major cities. Here in Cities: Skylines, the mass transit is a bit overly complex. Having to lay out bus routes by hand gets old real fast.
Mods to the Rescue!
The replay value of most simulation games is typically pretty high. SimCity games usually pack a number of random map seeds, variable difficulty, and a set of pre-built scenarios. Cities: Skylines feels more stripped down by comparison. I’ve managed to unlock most every building in 10 or so hours of play, even without really trying. Even the achievements don’t seem that difficult, as I’ve already gotten most of the ones offered in the base game on my first city.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention mods, though. Cities: Skylines has a pretty active community, and the game is designed to be extended. The modding tools are extensive, and tons of mods are already available via the Steam Workshop. There are even mods that improve some of the deficiencies I’ve complained about in this review.
I’m of two minds when it comes to a game that really feels “more complete” when you add a bunch of mods to it. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a certain amount of flexibility, and it can certainly amp up the replay value considerably. On the other hand, I kind of enjoy a curated, well designed, and well balanced game where the designers have set goals and challenges to overcome.
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Cities: Skylines is the best city simulation game I’ve played in a very long time. It’s as good as SimCity 4 was, but features a pretty decent set of improvements. There are more than a few rough edges where the game could have been streamlined, though. Mod support goes a long way towards making it replayable, despite having less content in the base game than you might expect.