Cities: Skylines hands-on preview: We built this city on rocks (and roll)

cities skylines 4

EA's 2013 SimCity reboot was a disaster. Cities XXL has received a similarly-disastrous backlash this month, albeit for different reasons. In the aftermath, all eyes turn towards Cities: Skylines, the upcoming city-builder from Cities in Motion developer Colossal Order.

It's somewhat unfair to Cities: Skylines. After all, the difference in size between SimCity developer Maxis and Colossal Order is...significant, to say the least. It's like putting Call of Duty in the same category as [Insert small, indie shooter]. But fair or not, people have pinned a lot of hopes on Cities: Skylines.

I recently got a chance to go hands-on with the game. Here's a bit of what I learned ahead of the game's official March 10 release date.

Cities are huge

Yes, like I'd gathered from our hands-off preview a few months back, the cities in Cities: Skylines are actually cities. Shocking, I know!

Upon starting the game you're given a single square to work in, measuring four square kilometers (approximately 1.25 miles per side). After achieving certain milestones you'll unlock the ability to buy up to nine of these tiles total, for an eventual city size of 36 square kilometers.

Cities: Skylines

Here's what the starting square looks like. You'll eventually own up to nine of these.(Click to expand)

It's huge. I played the game for about an hour and even after turning an unlimited money cheat on for the second half of my time with the game I didn't even fill one of the game's nine grid squares, let alone populate that much space. And I was trying, believe me—I eventually resorted to just drawing random streets back and forth, and still found myself filling a paltry amount.

Streets, roads, and boulevards

Cities: Skylines sort of combines the way SimCity (2013) and SimCity 2000 worked, in terms of streets.

Things that are like SimCity (2013): Zoning has to run along a street. When you draw out streets, a certain amount of space for zoning is automatically drawn out at the same time. You'll then designate this as space for commercial enterprises, residential housing, or industry with the familiar SimCity blue/green/yellow color scheme.

Cities: Skylines

Notice my broken highway on the left. Yeah, I messed up.

However, you can't just go off into the middle of nowhere and zone some blocks as industry before you've built a road to that place. It makes sense—people couldn't move into that space without roads regardless. It is a bit annoying in the early game though, when you're trying to figure out how your city might look.

Things that are like SimCity 2000 (et al): Roads are just roads. Electricity? Yeah, you're going to need to at least get power from source to the edges of your city before it can be utilized. Water? I hear someone invented pipes to move that stuff in and out of the city. Sewage? Yeah, there are pipes for that also. And wherever you dump that sewage, you're going to pollute everything downriver. Be careful.

Other observations: There are a lot of street types, which should come as no surprise to anyone who played Cities in Motion—a series primarily concerned with routing traffic. In my time with the game I played around with two-lane, four-lane, and six-lane streets, as well as highways. Also, there were variations of each category, such as one-way two-lane streets, etc.

It's a lot to take in, and I actually restarted the game multiple times just trying to figure out the optimal way to connect my fledgling metropolis to the highway—a necessity if you want people to move into town.

Cities: Skylines

This was the third or fourth iteration of my city, and the streets are still all screwed up in relation to the highway.

I unfortunately wasn't able to build up a large enough city during my demo to see how traffic works. Supposedly the same traffic mechanics honed in Cities in Motion are in play here also, but my tiny town wasn't exactly generating a ton of chokepoints.

One thing I don't like about Skylines: There's no grid. You can get streets to snap to whatever angle the game thinks is optimal, but the early game can be a huge pain in the butt as you try to get your city snapped to the same grid as the highway. In fact, I couldn't do it. I restarted my game three or four times and each city I made was slightly off-angle to the highway.

It was hugely frustrating, as someone who likes nice, even grids of streets. Yeah, I know they're not beautiful. They're efficient. Take your curvy suburban roads and go home. (Yes, you can totally make curved roads in Skylines if you want.)

Happiness

The game is pretty good at conveying the effectiveness of various utility buildings. Placing a police station and need to know where it'll do the most good? Or a hospital? The game uses red/green overlays to show effective range, which is a huge boon.

Cities: Skylines

Check out this awful maze of power lines I built when I was young and naive.

On the other hand, the game's a bit lackluster at surfacing how much of any given resource you need—does my tiny city really need four windmills, or am I crazy? (Turns out it's the latter.)

It's also not as good about showing the immediate effects of these buildings financially. Need to know how that new hospital or police station or school will affect the budget every year? That information's not as immediately apparent. I found myself going into the red pretty early out of naiveté.

Speaking of which...

Always pay your debts

Debt is bad. It's a concept that took me a long time to learn as a kid trying to play SimCity 2000 and it's a concept I've had to relearn for Cities: Skylines. I think every person in our demo spiraled into debt at one point or another, and I'd say most of them simply restarted their entire city. Getting out of debt once you've bunked your checkbook is pretty damn hard or even impossible, especially if you've wasted all the money on roads and forgotten to provide something important like power or water to your residents.

Final impressions

I think Cities: Skylines will be good, but it's hard to say. All we've done is play the early-game so far, and if you'll remember back to two years ago it wasn't until late in the game that SimCity's biggest problems became apparent.

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Here's another official screenshot so you can stop looking at my eyesore of a "city."

Skylines is doing some things right though: Massive areas to build in, plenty of transportation options, and some interesting secondary simulations (traffic, water, wind, et cetera). Plus mod support both official and unofficial—did I mention that infinite money "cheat" is built into the game for when you want a more relaxing/creative session?

The UI could use some simplification and the tutorials are a bit wacky at times, but overall I'm happy about my time with the game. We'll have an official (and extensive) review once the game's out in March.

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