*Review code provided by publisher Paradox Interactive.
The city simulation genre is one with a lot of history. I’ve played classics of the genre like Simcity 3000 and Settlers since I first started playing PC games. Cities: Skylines is Colossal Order’s new take on the classic genre releasing almost two years after Simcity 2013 and it feels like the revival of a fallen genre we deserved two years ago.
The genre and games’ strengths have been well focused in Cities: Skylines with the developers providing a host of tools and simulations to allow the player to design, create and manage a city of their own design. Cities start limited to a 2km x 2km tile with the ability to expand the map, up to nine tiles, unlocked throughout the progress of your city; each tile you choose comes with external connections and different resources: ore, oil, lumber and farm land which will further affect the economy and industry of your virtual metropolis. Outside of financial opportunities, tiles also provide access to rivers, lakes and oceans with beautifully simulated water that has its own current and mass. Building dams and waste pipes can change the health and flow of these rivers with the chance of making people sick if you aren’t careful with how you deal with human waste.
It is up to the player as the mayor to rule over their map tiles and carve out their own little slice of civilization; building their city out of residential, retail and industrial zones in its early life and later moving to dense apartment blocks, office towers and shopping malls. Each zone is a potential to generate revenue for the city and the budget tools in game allow you to set your tax for each zone type. These zones are placed along the roads of your city with different roads being more suitable for some zones over others, and at first, I found myself creating urban grid locked nightmares that only roundabouts and highways can relieve.
The tools for road-building are flexible, providing a few brush types and the ability to upgrade roads in the later life of a city. The absence of a circular brush for roads creates a reliance on the pre-built roundabout assets which seems a shame as these assets can be modified once you have placed them. I did find that the inability to separate most structures and recreational areas from roads a little limiting in my creation with parks and plazas having to be attached to a road to be placed in your city. It feels like a missed opportunity to restrict everything in this way when the game already has the built in tools to build paths but not to place a structure along them.
Progress through the game is marked at a number of different milestones, with each one unlocking different roads, structures and services for the player to add to their city; easing you into the different services you need to provide for a fully working utopia while giving a sense of achievement. Alternatively the player is also rewarded with the unlocking of unique buildings, each with their own requirements. Examples include: the office of oppression, Colossal Order’s office building and the Grand Library. If the zones make up the meat of your city, the unique buildings are the things that set your city apart, with many of the unique buildings leading to the magnum opus of city building, monuments!
Monuments are buildings with high requirements, but they also represent the peak of a single service. They provide an entire resource for a city all on there own, allowing you to focus your city in a particular way. Want to provide high education across the city? Build a Hadron Collider! Want unlimited power? Build the Fusion Power Plant! Each of these buildings has requirements that will shape your city and each wonder is the key to building a powerful concrete empire of your very own.
In addition to this host of building tools and structures, Cities: Skylines also contains a rudimentary political system that allows you tax zones by density and type while also splitting up your city into districts. You can set individual policies based on the needs, services and requirements of the district but these systems are relatively simple and limited to a small number of policies. The political system felt like the weakest link in the city simulation. While the city will complain about taxes that are too high, poor health care or crime, there seems to be a lack of political simulation with the player mostly left up to their devices.
Above all of the maths, agents and environmental simulations, Cities: Skylines’ simple yet pleasant art style creates a game that is truly satisfying to watch. Screenshots of your beautiful creations are easy to create with a cinematic mode allowing free movement of the camera and you are provided with a few simple tools to give your city a make over. Different services and structures will come with plants and trees and if you’re up for some tedium you can choose to place individual trees one at a time. Buildings will come in a small number of different aesthetic styles mostly ranging from slums to architectural majesty, and this is controlled by the value of the land you place your different zones in.
This land value can be increased by placing parks and services, but the unique buildings also often provide a boost to the land value in an area. Personally, I like spreading misery and wealth around the city as I please, but the perfect city will have balanced wealth all across. I was a little disappointed by the lack of any day and night system. It left a hollowness to watching the beautifully simulated traffic knowing that people weren’t going about day to day activities but just seemed to be stuck driving around from work, to the shops then home; a never ending day cycle with no sign of sleep in site. In addition, the game also lacked any sort of weather simulation with wind speed simply being decided by some sort of map data rather than actual simulation of wind. This of course means the game lacks natural disasters - an extra challenge to the building and running of a city, with you being prepared for anything.
What I hope is that we will see many of these features introduced at some point in the future, either for free or as part of an expansion pack, but there is also the option of gamers taking up the modding tools packaged with the game and introducing some of these features themselves. Performance wise, the game ran at 60 FPS on my mid range machine (3.3ghz i5 GTX 660). Even with a large city running at the highest settings, you shouldn’t have much issue with a reasonably modern machine. I did experience one crash to desktop, and sometimes the game would stutter when moving between cinematic and game mode.
Overall my time with Cities: Skylines is far from over, and it goes to show that when a AAA company messes up, an indie darling can stand up and shout “NO” and bring together a project that, though not perfect, allows the player to set themselves free and create something both technical and beautiful. The game is sure to continue to grow in the coming months with the community releasing new mods and hopefully regular content updates from Colossal Orders.