Easy to get started, but plenty of depth for those who want to dig into systems
End-game is mindless, as you might as well have infinite money
Traffic simulation can be intimidating to newcomers
Cities: Skylines somehow lives up to the unfair expectations heaped upon it, presenting one of the best city builders in years.
I debated about a dozen different ways to open this review and explain why I like Cities: Skylines so much. I could talk about what a disaster EA’s SimCity reboot was (culminating in the closure of veteran studio Maxis Emeryville last week). I could describe how I blinked in confusion at the clock the other night, pausing in the middle of constructing a massive coastal highway to realize it was four in the morning.
But the key to Cities: Skylines is scale, and scale just can’t be described. Here:
And that’s when I only owned eight of the nine regions I could eventually purchase, only three of which I’d really built on. Cities: Skylines is, true to its name, a city builder.
Progression. Satisfactory progression. It’s at the heart of any city builder, where the easiest measure of said progress is “How much of this space can I fill with buildings?” And Cities: Skylines gives you a lot of space to fill with buildings.
But it starts with a single road. Here’s my city of Springwood at its humble beginnings: A few strips of asphalt, a coal power station, water, and sewage.
To say Cities: Skylines is “in the SimCity vein” is a polite way of saying “Cities: Skylines straight up rips off a lot of traditional SimCity ideas.” Maybe that’s why I like it so much.
Zoning colors, for instance: Blue for commercial, yellow for industry, green for residential. In essence, Cities: Skylines goes “Hey, you didn’t like that new SimCity? What if I told you I could give you SimCity 2000, but bigger?” And to that I say…well, I’ve played until four in the morning multiple nights this week. So I guess I’m on board.
Seriously, Cities: Skylines is one of the best city builders I’ve played in years. You can basically do anything you want with your city. Want to make rolling suburbs with nice curved streets for wealthy families? Sure, you can do that. Want to create the Judge Dredd-esque all high-rise buildings nightmare dystopia of your dreams? Yeah, you can do that too. Want to make your entire population live next door to garbage incinerators and heavy industry? Mmm, poison those citizens. Want to make a penis-shaped city?
Well. [Clears throat.] You can. Not that I would know.
(You can also really do anything, thanks to built-in mod/Steam Workshop support, but that’s not really pertinent to this review except to say “Remember when EA wanted to charge you for every single DLC building in SimCity?” Okay, moving on.)
There’s a lot to do in Cities: Skylines, but it’s kept fairly manageable thanks to a gated unlock system that adds new concepts to the game as you add population. For the most part these unlocks make sense according to your city size—you wouldn’t see an international airport in a town of 500 people for instance.
[Side note: There’s also a built-in mod that allows you to bypass these gates entirely, or give yourself infinite money, if you’d rather just be creative.]
The one downside is having to re-plan your city every few hours. The most disruptive additions are public transit-related, as you demolish buildings to make space for metro stations.
Highways can be equally hellish. While they’re available pretty much from the beginning, they’re priced out of your budget. Trying to figure out what to demolish so you can run a highway down the center of the city can be a frustrating and tedious experience.
But you can do it! And even more fascinating, you can affect what’s already on the map. As mentioned, you’ll gradually expand not just your city but the available map space for your city. You start with a single grid of 2 kilometers by 2 kilometers, and the map as a whole is a 5×5 grid of these squares (so 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers total). You’re allowed to take over nine squares total, with the only requirement being that they connect in some way. (Of course, there’s already a mod on Steam Workshop that unlocks all 25 tiles for your use.)
So that highway funneling civilians into your city? It might look like background decoration when you start, but it’s a fully functioning piece of your city. Or, at least, it can be—provided you take over that grid square.
One feature I did miss is terraforming. At the moment, maps are maps. You can somewhat affect the course of rivers by building a hydroelectric dam, but you’re not going to just fill that river in or stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of your hand.
In fact, the water/wind simulation as a whole seems less important than Colossal Order made it out to be ahead of release. Perhaps it’s more of an issue if there’s less water on a map, but my city had more than enough water to draw on. All I had to do was remember to set my water pumps upstream from my sewage outlets, and I was golden.
The water physics are excellent, but I never really had a moment of “Oh damn” while playing either. I’d love to see the feature expanded to introduce droughts or floods, for instance—ones that aren’t necessarily made just by your own stupidity.
Building with ease
Which I guess brings us to the biggest problem with Cities: Skylines—it’s pretty easy. It took me about eight hours to get to what I’d call the “end game,” a.k.a. I’ve got millions of dollars, my budget is stable, my support buildings (fire departments, police, hospitals, etc.) are all in place, and I’m adding entire districts onto my city.
Yes, Cities: Skylines has the same problem as practically every city builder: The first few hours are the most entertaining. It’s really fun getting a city started, putting those first few districts in place, trying to balance your budget against your urgent need for a fire department, or even just expanding your borders.
But there comes a point where your city is basically a perpetual motion machine—all the parts are in place, and there’s nothing for you to do except keep expanding. And I did! I kept building and building and building long past the point where it’d become rote. I just kept thinking back longingly on those earlier, hardscrabble years where unlocking a new set of buildings meant choosing between a hospital and a fire department. By the end, I was unlocking things like airports—and then putting two into my city because why the hell not?
SimCity used to throw disasters at you to make this period of the game a bit more interesting, or at least more “challenging.” I’m not sure that’s the right answer, but there’s no doubt that after a while the feeling of “I’m struggling to build a city” is replaced in Cities: Skylines with “I literally can’t build fast enough to use all this money.”
There are still some things to work towards even in the late game. They’re just less important. Cities: Skylines allows you to unlock unique buildings for your city by achieving certain goals, i.e. building all of the available public transportation hubs will then allow you to build the Transport Tower, “a large office building specifically meant for public transport companies.” In-game these buildings only add to the general happiness/leisure of citizens, but it’s still cool to break up the skyline with some unique structures.
I also get a sort of thrill from optimization. Cities: Skylines gives you a lot of information about its systems, particularly traffic (which makes sense, considering this is a successor of sorts to Cities in Motion). Trying to figure out how to stop my downtown area from turning into a Manhattan-esque gridlock was an interesting exercise in city planning. One I totally failed at.
Still, don’t be surprised if you eventually get the urge to wipe the slate clean and start over. It’s good to be king, just for a while. Then it’s nice to go back to the small, scrappy mayor dragging a town up from nothing.
Cities: Skylines is a great city builder. I still think my personal favorite is SimCity 2000 but at this point I can confidently say that’s more because of nostalgia than because Cities: Skylines doesn’t measure up. It does.
Gigantic areas. Pretty tilt-shift post-processing. Offline mode. Curved roads. Interesting pollution and water simulations. Steam Workshop support. Plenty of information overlays pertaining to everything from wind to population happiness to noise pollution. And there are some features I haven’t even mentioned, like the fact you can create districts in your city and then assign them unique policies like high-rise bans and small-business tax breaks.
Is it perfect? No. The end of the game is just as mindless as any other city builder, including SimCity 2000, and certain simulations could be more involved or at least more communicative. I’m still delving into the traffic system for instance and trying to figure out whether certain quirks are actually broken simming or just my own incompetence.
But overall this is the city builder I’ve been waiting for. Time to get back to it—my city’s in another window waiting for its mayor to return.
Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.