Developer: Colossal Order Ltd.
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: March 10th, 2015
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux (Steam)
Reviewed on PC (review copy provided by Paradox Interactive)
If you’re a fan of city-building and management games, you’ve had a rough couple of years. In March 2013, EA released the next installment in the long-running Sim City series. Between the server issues at launch, no offline mode, and various design issues and bugs, the game didn’t fair too well until almost a year after it launched. Throw into that mix two lackluster Cities titles and you get a dry spell of city games that leave a very unscratched itch. Thankfully, Cities: Skylines changes all of that.
The first thing I noticed in Skylines was how similar it looked to the new Sim City in appearance. The design of the buildings, the look of the cars, the small people running around – all of it looked eerily similar. Fortunately, that’s pretty much the only thing Skylines shares with its cousin, besides basic game function and design. The plot of land you’re initially assigned to appears very small, but you’re soon made aware that you can purchase additional adjacent plots every time you reach a population milestone. This increases the potential city size by a huge factor and makes the layout of the cities almost endlessly customizable.
To make a healthy and sustainable city you need to make all the basic needs of the population readily available: electricity, water, and civil services. You’re given an initial budget to get the city going but once you’ve spent it, you need to rely on tax income and businesses to make any money to continue expanding your city. Every building requires upkeep which is automatically deducted from your budget, so spreading yourself thin too early can do you in – it’s extremely easy to run your budget into the ground early on by overextending your civil services. Between laying down the roads and water pipes and building your first water supply and power plant, caution is recommended.
As more and more citizens move into your city you begin unlocking more options for your city – new buildings, bigger headquarters for your civil services, denser zoning, and historical landmarks. As before, if you’re not careful with spacing these out over a few in-game months, you could run into some money trouble. As your population continues you grow, you begin to have to look out for ever more specific needs: education type and level, public transit to reduce traffic, cemeteries and crematorium for your departed citizens, landfills for the mountains of waste you produce, and a steady increase in power and water output. This eventually turns into a juggling act you need to manage until you have a stable income later in the game. It’s definitely engaging, but can easily become frustrating.
One of the first problems I ran into was an abundance of abandoned buildings. When the building is abandoned, you can find out why through the tooltip; it told me I didn’t have enough customers at the stores or workers for the factories. I increased the amount of residential areas, but the problems persisted. Skylines does fairly well in explaining most of the basic concepts and game controls, but when micromanagement and certain city-wide problems come into play, the learning curve is very steep. I also had half my city filling up with dead people who were supposed to be picked up by cemeteries and crematorium, but were not. I built an absurd amount of both, but the problem never went away. I eventually began having trouble with garbage as well – despite having two dozen landfills and twice as many incinerators, they were always full of garbage and it was piling up on the streets. Many people on the forums I visited had similar issues, and it appears to be a combination of small bugs and a lack of deeper knowledge of the city management process.
One of the more creative aspects of Skylines is the way it delivers news and citizen reactions to the player. As opposed to thought bubbles or having to click around the city, a Twitter feed – called a “Chirper” feed – is constantly updated and putting out tweets (chirps) about goings-on in the city. Citizens talk about what they’re pleased or annoyed with, use hashtags with abandon, and generally do what Twitter-users do. The novelty begins to wear off once your city is a couple of decades old – you see plenty of repeated tweets, and nothing much of substance is reported unless there’s a problem somewhere in the city, which you can find out about through other means.
Besides zoning there’s a tool to create “districts” – areas of the city you can individually manage and enforce different policies. It appears that industry gets the most out of the district tool, as you’re able to designate entire industrial areas as farming, mining, oil, or logging. Depending on which you select, the buildings and businesses in the area will change their appearance and function, completely altering the landscape of the city. You’re also able to district residential areas, but this is limited to enforcing certain policies only.
Speaking of policies, another inventive idea that’s showcased particularly well is the policy tab. The tab allows you to enact city or district policies that can affect anything from education to transport to civil services. For example, enacting a “Smoke Detector Distribution” policy gives every household in the city a smoke detector; you pay a small upkeep fee for each residence, but in return fires are reduced and responded to much more quickly. Enacting the “Parks and Recreation” policy makes the parks and plazas you can place increase the surrounding land value much more than usual, enabling some quick housing development early on. Most of the policies are balanced by a positive and a negative – usually a small charge or upkeep – but can end up helping the city immensely.
What’s really going to help out Skylines in the long run is the community support – it’s fully integrated with Steam Workshop, making community add ons and mods seamless and plentiful. The community is already producing tons of content, mostly consisting of custom buildings; if there’s a famous landmark you enjoy that’s not already in Skylines, chances are someone has recreated it on Workshop. The Cities franchises are also known for their expansive library of DLC, so it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect expansion packs and add ons coming down the pipe.
Cities: Skylines delivers to city-management fans what we’ve been craving for a long time: gorgeous visuals, endless customization, deep management, and intuitive tools to control it all with. During my time with it I never encountered any obvious bugs, had smooth performance running at maximum, and enjoyed myself a little too much – I stayed up half the night saying “Just one more year!” The only negative impressions came from the steep learning curve, the lack of information regarding how to fix city problems, and the almost disastrous discovery that the game doesn’t auto-save. If you’re even a casual fan of city management games, you’ll have a blast and find endless things to do.