Cities: Skylines Review

By Darryl Kaye on March 10, 2015

Following the rather underwhelming launch of SimCity in 2013 and the PR nightmare that ensued, the city-building simulation genre has needed some fresh blood to help revitalise its appeal. Step up Finnish developer Colossal Order, who upon receiving funding from Paradox Interactive, set about attempting to do just that. With Cities: Skylines they proposed a game that was much broader than their previous offerings (Cities in Motion and Cities in Motion 2), offering players the ability to build huge cities that have a strong degree of realism.

Initially, Cities: Skylines can seem a little bit daunting. You are given the choice of a few different map types, each with their pros and cons from a resources perspective and from here you are pretty much given free rein to create your bustling metropolis. The game tries to give you little nudges as you progress in the form of pop-up tutorials, but you will learn the most by just getting stuck in and trying stuff out. This can be a little bit frustrating at first, as you try to figure out how to invest to get the best setup, but after a few tries things start to click and you are well under way.

To try and keep this trial and error manageable, the game has a tiered system for unlocks based around the population of your town/city. These start off quite small, with the gaps becoming larger and larger. It's a good way to make sure that progression is monitored and it allows you to get used to recent acquisitions while also helping you plan for the next stage of evolution for your city.

You will start off perplexed by the challenge of trying to build the optimum layout for your town that allows for expansion in every possible way, but soon after building your first residential and commercial districts and realising that you are going to need a significantly greater number of squares, this kind of planning starts to go out of the window. Before you know it, your town has quadrupled in size and that initial plan has given way to necessity. And that kind of planning is just one part of the equation presented by Cities: Skylines.

That amazing grid setup you think you created at the start may also generate additional problems later down the line because you hadn't anticipated that one area would become more popular than another. Yes, popularity of areas and the resulting traffic can wreak havoc. What might start off as a small tailback can very quickly turn into a tailback that involves hundreds of cars if you haven't planned properly. This is clearly where Colossal Order's experience with their previous Cities games comes into its own, as commuters and general citizens will try to find the quickest way to get from destination to destination. And as you start expanding your town to adjacent tiles using huge bridges and six-lane motorways, these challenges just become even more complicated.

When you start to throw in other elements, such as worrying about resource management through industrial zones and the resulting pollution, it can make you feel very sorry for people who have to worry about those tasks in real life. Fortunately you also have similar powers to wield through the introduction of policies. These help you implement certain conditions, such as reducing pollution via the prevention of trucks or enforcing smoke detectors to try and reduce the strain on fire services. The beauty is that aside from being implemented across your entire city, they can also be implemented across custom districts. This is huge, but it can also create a bit of a logistical nightmare as you try to keep track of all different districts and the various policies in place.

There is just such an impressive level of depth to Cities: Skylines that any gripes feel like nit-picking. An example would be the progression system and what becomes available when. You will unlock most of the fundamental construction options without too much trouble and after that everything is more about grandeur. For example, attempting to unlock the various unique buildings and subsequent monuments and working on building up your population so that you can get airports and nuclear power plants. It would have been nice to see some more expansion options within the services and some challenges that made them necessary. Healthcare, police and fire; they are all very straight forward and lack any real depth. The same can also be said for education, plonk down a few different tiered schools and that problem is solved almost instantly. It would have been nice to see the same level of depth applied to these elements as can be found with the transportation systems and highway management. There is also a very limited array of entertainment options, as aside from installing unique buildings, you have to rely on parks.

When you are talking about building up to the point where you have hundreds of thousands of citizens, these kind of elements become a little bit tedious and the initial drive and sheer delight at unlocking things and trying them out gets lost along the way. Still, you can always just buy a new area of land and try to do it better than the time before, all while working towards building a bigger and better inter-connected city.

Graphically, there isn't a lot more you could ask for. With a strong level of detail when zooming right in, you can get a decent understanding at the most granular of levels - individual citizens even offer thoughts, albeit ones that are often recycled. Again, it's a nit-pick, but it would have been nice to see a bit more variety with the different businesses that crop up, but when Colossal Order have gone to the point of modifying individual trees that are affected by pollution you can't complain too much. Every time you look around you city, you will find something new to marvel at and it's something the developers deserve real credit for "“ making the same things you see all the time look consistently unique. Time was even spent on figuring out how water pollution would work and how dams would impact cities.

Final Thoughts

For fans of simulation games, Cities: Skylines will feel like a breath of fresh air. There is a significant degree of depth offered with the experience that forces you to think outside the box and worry about things like noise pollution and how you manage the life-cycles of your citizens. There are a few question marks about the game's pacing, but these are minor issues when looking at what the game achieves overall.

Realising that your superb plan has just been scuppered.
Granular level of detail with many of the game's mechanics.
The sheer volume of people.
Pacing gets a little lost.
Lots of trial and error to start off with.
Traffic build-ups!
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