Take that, Maxis!
Long ago, in a place far away, my family got our first computer as a Christmas gift from my grandparents: a Compaq PC with Windows 95 installed. Of course, being a kid, the first thing I wanted out of it was to be able to play video games.
The first couple games we owned? Civilization II Gold Edition and SimCity 2000.
I royally sucked at Civilization II (I always ended up nuking everyone), but I could manage a bit with SimCity 2000 (cheats helped of course). Boy, did I love SimCity 2000. My love of it carried on through the years, driving me to buy SimCity 3000, SimCity 4, and even SimCity Societies (what was I thinking?). So when 2013 rolled around and Electronic Arts announced that the reboot of SimCity was available for preorder, I locked in my reservation that very day.
Then I waited. Just before release, I started hearing news come in of both the limitations and the problems, and then after release I heard that the game was barely functional. So I cancelled. My hopes were dashed upon the rocks of despair, and I ended up reinstalling SimCity 4 on my PC instead.
Now, you may be wondering why I’m talking so much about SimCity, and rolling your eyes while waiting for me to start talking about Cities: Skylines. Trust me, this will all make sense soon.
Cities: Skylines is like most management games, and follows the structure of a city management title very closely. Your main task is to build a city from the ground up by attempting to draw in residents to live in your town. You start with a tiny plot of land and a few tools to work with, like two-lane roads, low-density zones, and basic city services. As your city grows, you gain the ability to bring in new services that help manage your population. It’s a system that has been in place since the beginnings of the genre, but Colossal Order has refined the process of unlocking new tools into something more palatable and realistic.
The services you can build at each stage of your city’s development makes sense for its size; no two-horse town is going to have a nuclear power plant or mass transit service. It also help prevent you from overextending your budget, which can often be stretched thin as your city grows to accommodate more people. The drip feed of your options helps you get used to what you have at your disposal before throwing more at you.
The drip feed also extends to the size of your city map as well. You start with a relatively small area, one that initially made me worry that I was going to be running into the issues that I remember hearing about in 2013’s SimCity. You can rest assured however, knowing that as you fill up your town’s available plot of land, you gain the ability to purchase more property to fulfill your manifest destiny of constructing a megalopolis. During my many, many hours of gameplay, I’ve never run into the issue of running out of room, though I have had to get a little creative with road design on a few occasions in my quest to upgrade roadways without destroying whole neighborhoods.
Speaking of road design, Cities: Skylines boasts some of the best roadway and zoning tools that I’ve ever seen in a city manager game. You can still do the boring, old 90-degree turns and intersections, but once you discover the Free-Form Road tool, you’ll never look back. With it, you’re able to create some pretty interesting city layouts and make your metropolis look like something unique without having it all look like a giant grid. Zoning works more like painting as well, with the ability to not only zone with the traditional grids, but also with a paintbrush-like or fill tool.
The entire package is pulled together by the fact that you’re mostly presented with important information vital to the progress of your creation. Each tab that you open to plop down new infrastructure or zones brings up a relevant graph, and the interface transitions to tell you what’s going on in your neck of the woods. For instance, clicking on the Education tab not only brings up the available options for schools, but also shows you the global supply and demand of learning institutions in your town, and highlights the problem areas that need some more attention.
The number of tools at your disposal helps mitigate the issues that will inevitably pop up as you venture from a small hamlet to a metropolis. Unfortunately, sometimes the information that is so vital to your success as a city manager also ends up marring the experience. Abandoned or burned down buildings will constantly pop up if you aren’t doing an exemplary job, with tooltips nagging you to bulldoze them. The tooltips are there to notify you to fix something, but it can still grow to be rather irritating to constantly hear about a building needing to be knocked down because a fire broke out or not enough revenue was being pulled in.
I’m not exactly running the most beastly gaming rig, but I have a decent setup, and I feel like the game looks pretty damn good. You know, when I’m not generating tons of pollution and making half of my city a horrific place to live. I guess a better way to put it is that Cities: Skylines‘ visual fidelity is really damn high (unlike the rent prices, which are just too damn high).
The cities of Cities: Skylines can actually look and behave like real cities. Traffic ebbs and flows like the rivers nearby, and you can even follow delivery vans around to their destinations. Fire engines race to the scene of a blaze and the firefighters jump out to battle the infernos. If you’re sporting the After Dark expansion, your city will close up shop for the night, after you watch the gorgeous sunsets. The day and night cycle itself is wonderful to behold, and the Snowfall expansion adds some new wrinkles to the equation, forcing you to account for the beautiful torrents of snow and ice in winter maps by maintaining a fleet of snowplows.
It all really looks wonderful, and the sound backs it up nicely. Accompanying the visuals is the ambiance of a city, complete with realistic sounding traffic noise, sirens, ocean spray, and even the laughter of children in the middle of the night…
Wait. That’s creepy, not wonderful.
Furthermore, the modding community has proven their mettle yet again with another game, by introducing tons of buildings, tweaks, and tools to improve the experience of other gamers. Enterprising modders have done well to create the likeness of dozens of landmarks, as well as custom buildings that can be built by virtual residents in the game itself. Custom maps and themes are also available in the Steam Workshop as well to round things out, and all players have the ability to make their own creations within the game client.
Cities: Skylines‘ originality doesn’t come from a new addition to the formula of city management games. Instead, it comes from a combination of the freedom given to the player and the fact that Colossal Order managed to usurp the city management king, Maxis (more on that later).
Players are truly handed the key to the city, and are free to design, experiment, and tweak to their heart’s content. Highways make for a particularly unique challenge (you’ll learn once you try to make your first custom interchange), and a quick jaunt through a Google search of highway interchanges will give you a bit of an idea of what I’m talking about. That’s just a small example of what sort of freedom you have though; every neighborhood is one that you design.
You can even go so far as to create ordinances for specific areas of your city through the use of districts. If you want to take advantage of a natural resource in an area, like oil or metals, you can set a district to attract the industries that focus on those resources. If you want to have an area of the city that diverts traffic around it, you can do that. Want to make an environmentally-friendly city? Go for it. The choice is yours, and almost anything is possible.
There uh… There isn’t one. Or multiplayer. This is a city management simulator. If you’re looking for a story, make one. Download the Natural Disasters expansion and play god, or just pretend you’re the government and gouge your citizens for cash until the city dies. Legalize recreational drug use and make a killing off of the taxes or refuse to build cemeteries and watch the dead fill the city.
Don’t look at me… You can actually do that.
WILDCARD: DETHRONING THE SIM-KING
Like I said in the beginning of this review, SimCity was my jam for scratching that city manager itch that I have for some reason. I remember spending hours just calmly crafting a massive city worthy of standing beside the greats like New York, London, and Walla Walla (Yes. It’s a real place, and I lived there). When EA and Maxis botched the SimCity reboot with online requirements, claustrophobic maps, and blatant lies to try and save face, I knew I was done.
But Colossal Order stepped in and saved the day by crafting one of the best city simulators that I’ve had the fortune to play. The strengths of the SimCity series are all present, with the only omissions being the campy Sims and the weird culture that has sprung up around them. In a way, I have to thank EA for tying Maxis’ hands and screwing up the SimCity franchise so badly, because so much good came out of it as a result.
My only regret with Cities: Skylines is that I held out for so long before starting to play it, and that it took me so long to sit down and write this review. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it’s damn close. Right now, it’s the only city management simulator that I would consider playing, and anyone interested in the genre would understand why in a matter of a couple hours of playing it.
Even if you just play the base game, you’re getting a complete package. The only limitations your city has is the person sitting at the keyboard playing it. If you’re in the market for a city simulation game, look no further than Cities: Skylines.
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