What happened to quality city builders? SimCity was king of the genre, until Maxis (perhaps under duress from EA) decided to change the formula a couple of years ago, resulting in the fifth major SimCity being a thoroughly mediocre experience. More recently there was Cities XXL; but that was effectively a patch for another mediocre building title, and not worth the asking price.
That’s a huge gaping landfill that needs to be filled, and, like the rest of us craving for a great city builder, Cities: Skylines developers Colossal Order had their eyes set on that gaping hole when SimCity failed to live up to expectations. Colossal Order are the same team behind the more transport focused Cities in Motion so they’re no stranger to creating a simulation; but Cities: Skylines is a whole new challenge for the studio.
There’s little need to describe the premise in painstaking detail. Most people interested in this review will have played a SimCity or city builder at some point. The same basic set-up applies to Cities: Skylines – start with an empty map, and build up a city which needs to be constructed, serviced and remain functional.
Let’s go more in detail with with the map sizes. Realising what a huge mistake Maxis made in this area, Colossal Order has made sure the maps are huge. To give you an idea of the sizes, SimCity maps were 4 Square Kilometres (Km2) and Cities: Skylines’ maps are 36Km2. With a simple mod, this can be increased even further.
The reason Colossal Order has set the standard map areas at 36 is for performance reasons, but they realise that some gamers have more powerful hardware which can handle much larger maps. Well done CO! Here’s a developer that actually gives players the option to expand the maps if their beefy rig can handle it.
When the game starts it looks like the play area is small, but as the population grows and certain milestones are met, more adjacent land tiles can be unlocked. It’s these milestones that are the main challenges in Cities: Skylines, and they add some traditional game progression aspects to this primary mode of play.
For those who want the pure sandbox experience, there’s also an option to do away with the challenges. You do this by activating a mod in the options, which unlocks the buildings and gives stacks of cash. While these are tempting to activate, there’s little fun in doing so when you first start playing. Play the game first then mess around later, that’s my advice.
Starting a city is simple enough. In fact those who played SimCity (2013) will find the the interface options to be similar. If anything, they’re a little more refined and less confusing. All buildings, roads and zoning functions are across the bottom, and each slides out additional menus for selection. Information about all the different aspects required for your city to run efficiently can be activated in the top left of the screen in their own separate menus, and are thankfully not presented in an over-complicated fashion. There’s enough information available at all times to get a really good picture on how well you are actually doing.
No city builder would be complete without budgets and these are all accessed via (shockingly enough,) the budget icon. This pops up the budget allocation data for each city service, as well as those dreaded but ever-tempting loans which can kill your city off quicker than the plague. Various sliders allow players to increase or decrease budgets to all the different services, and it’s necessary to keep a close eye on these. These budget options don’t open up right away, but unlock as you progress. Colossal Order has made sure new players are not immediately bombarded with sliders to move and budgets to manage.
Thanks to the hearty map sizes, Cities: Skylines is a little more complex than just building one compact city. With so much space to play with, there’s the chance to create highly specialised districts. These districts can focus on a particular industry, which in turn can utilise map resources. Once laid out and zoned (using a paint tool,) the new area can be labelled as a district with its own specialisations and designated policies separate from the city/game-wide ones. This adds an extra layer to the gameplay, because these additional district policies can benefit not only a single district but ultimately the whole city. Get it right and the bank balance should swell nicely.
Specific policies cost money (of course,) but can also save resources. Implementing water saving measures or recycling for example can save water consumption and reduce garbage pick-up requirements, putting less strain on these city services. You just need to make sure there’s enough profit every month to keep these policies running.
Hunting for natural resources is a simple case of checking on the resources overlay map to see their locations. Each resource type, such as oil and ore, are highlighted and it’s here where you’ll want to starting thinking about specialist districts to cater for a particular natural resource. It’s not essential to check where the resources are very early on, but as the city gets bigger it’s probably a good idea to start planning ahead to areas of land you wish to unlock.
Creating different zones and districts is very easy in Cities: Skylines thanks to all the different tools available. Colossal Order has given the player everything from small brush tools that can can paint a single pixel, to block-filling whole stretches in one click. They’ve thought of just about every possible way you may want to colour a zone. The easiest to use is the block fill tool which colours a whole stretch alongside a road, and it’s more than likely the tool that will be used the most as it allows for quick zoning. City designers who want to be more careful or delicate with zoning have accompanying options to help them be more precise.
Areas which can be assigned a zone are determined by the roads. When placed, a small grid appears either side of the road which determines the area that needs to be painted with a zone colour. Once painted (assuming there is demand for that particular type of zone,) buildings will just start to pop up.
Watching a city slowly come to life is fantastic. It’s always a joy to watch buildings construct themselves in games of this type, and the animation quality and detail on show here is excellent. Controlling how you view the city has also been made simple with several hotkeys available to change the view. WASD controls are available to move around the map, there’s a zoom function on Z and X, and rotation is possible with Q and E. All this can be done with the mouse as well, but it’s so much easier having lots of hotkeys available to handle views and click functions.
Basic city builder rules apply in Cities: Skylines. Industrial zones will impact residential due to pollution, industrial and commercial zones need workers, the population needs to be able to reach work easily, traffic will impact movement around the city, and even noise from industry or wind farms will have an impact. All of these different factors are conveyed well with small icons above buildings used to indicat problems. Each structure can also be checked individually, with a click popping up an info box detailing any issues.
It’s always hard to completely test how all of these multi-layered factors actually impact one other, but it appears the actual simulation is working well. Colossal Order has obviously spent a lot of time working on how each zone and structure can affect the population of the city. There were a few issues with traffic simulation in the pre-release build, but these appear to have been addressed by the studio.
Constructing a city layout is always fun and there are three factors in Cities: Skylines that determine the design. Roads, power and water. SimCity fans will remember placing down pipes under the city to supply water to the populace, and Colossal Order has implemented a similar system. Construct a water pump then drag the pipes under the buildings.
Power works slightly differently. If a power source is far away from a building it can be connected to a structure by placing pylons. Pylons are only used to bridge a gap. If a structure is powered, the building next to it will automatically receive power – which is just as well because the city would otherwise be covered in pylons.
Power also comes from hydro dams and placing this can have hilarious consequences thanks to the game’s excellent water dynamics. Place a dam in the wrong location and you can flood your city. This will probably make you cry initially but you can always load up a save and go back.
Other essential services include garbage collection, police, fire, hospitals, cemeteries and education; all of which have a positive influence on the populace (very few instances of medical malpractice or authority-crazed police in the Cities: Skylines world, apparently.) Each structure has a sphere of influence, indicated on an overlay map before a given building is plopped down. Green lines cover the roads in the overlay map to indicate which areas will benefit from the building placement.
A solid road network is also essential for these services to reach a destination as fast as possible. If a fire engine can’t get to a burning building in time it will burn down and have to be demolished. If it does get there quickly the building will be saved. You can even watch the little firemen jump out to hose down a building.
Even the cemeteries have an oddly positive influence on the population. It’s great to know you can bury your dead, but I’m not sure I’d want to live right next to some decomposing corpses.
No city would be complete without transport connections, and these are just as vital in City: Skylines. Colossal Order has added just about everything except bicycles to help the simulated population get around in this game (perhaps unsurprisingly, given their history with Cities in Motion.) There are buses, a metro, trains and planes; all of which unlock at different points depending on your population size.
Players have to create routes for systems such as buses and the metro, achieved by dragging a line around the overlay map and giving it a start and end point. Creating the route is easy enough but it can be a little fiddly to get them to connect sometimes. Overall though, the system for transport links works well.
Now let’s get on to a really important aspect of the game – one which has a real impact on longevity. The game comes with pre-made maps, but that’s hopefully just the start, because full modding support is included and the game also comes with a really easy to use map editor. Colossal Order has tried to make sure that Cities: Skylines is a game people will return to time and again.
There is no Terraforming once a game has started, so you work with what’s available on the map. The idea is to either create new maps yourself or download maps created by the community. Maps are already being put together by some players, and you can even use a nifty, community-created tool to create height maps of real world locations. While the tool is not perfect yet, it’s a great start.
The map size question is always raised and although there’s 36Km2 to play with, that will probably still not be enough to satisfy some enthusiasts. As mentioned though, there’s already a mod out which allows you to open up the whole map. The standard 36Km2 can cover nine grid squares but with this mod you can open up a whopping 25 squares, making the playable area absolutely massive.
In addition, players can create assets like new buildings, which can be added to the game and easily accessed via the in-game menu. Once a mod is installed it can also be toggled on or off with a quick click. It’s an elegant system that makes using the Steam Workshop super simple. There shouldn’t be any shortage of new, unofficial content for the game in the months and years ahead.
For the past week or so I’ve been completely consumed by Cities: Skylines. It’s everything that SimCity should have been. There are massive maps, a simulation that appears to work very well, a great interface, lovely visuals, an editor and the ability to really mod the game properly.
Colossal Order has created a fantastic city builder. SimCity may have been the series of choice for many years, but with that name now tarnished it was only a matter of time before a developer like CO came along and created a new city builder with the features that players have been crying out for. What’s missing? There are only a couple of minor things as far as I can tell. There’s no day or night cycle, no disasters, and you can’t build tunnels but that’s apparently being added at some point. Not a lot missing really and nothing that would make you hold off buying this right now.
Cities: Skylines is by far the finest city builder that’s been created for many, many years. It’s a must-have game for anyone who loves the genre.
You can read more about Cities: Skylines on SkylinesCity.com.
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.