Cities: Skylines is a game coming in hot. The People want a good city-building game to play, and it's been a long time since they got one. So there's a surprising amount of excitement and expectation for Colossal's attempt at fixing SimCity's mistakes.
Regardless of what you've been hoping for, whether you've been interested in Skylines because of the developer's pedigree (they made the excellent Cities In Motion) or to fill a Maxis-sized hole in your library, I've got some news. Mostly, it's good.
THE GOOD NEWS
Good news first! If you play city-building games to, well, build cities, this is the best you can get. Never before have I felt like I could just walk up to an enormous tract of land, open up some tools and just...build whatever I wanted, however I wanted. Straight roads, curved roads, designated office blocks, districts with their own tax rules, it's all at your fingertips.
If you despised SimCity for its tiny scale, this is not a tiny game. Skylines begins small, but as your city grows, you're able to unlock more and more of the surrounding countryside. It gets to the point where you can start building satellite communities just for the hell of it, because your primary city is so damn big.
It's liberating. You never feel constrained, like you need to pack a certain area in because you'll run into an invisible wall. I mean, those walls are out there eventually, but I've been playing this game non-stop for over a week now and haven't come close to hitting the map's limits. Trust me, if you've filled in every area you can eventually unlock, you have made one hell of a big city.
Above is the result of that week. It's a huge city, big enough that it's spawned secondary business centres and some industrial/rural communities. Below, however, you'll see that it doesn't even take up half the available territory.
The game's default difficulty setting is pretty damn easy, and that's good news for artists and builders. I built three cities in total in my time with Skylines, and not once did I run into money trouble. The game's demand displays (indicating how many homes you need to build, etc) did the trick and I always had a steady flow of cash coming in, so I'd always have money for the next road or building or bus station or whatever the hell else I wanted/needed to build.
If you are struggling, though, the game ships with a few mods you can activate to change things up. Some will unlock all the land area, others will unlock every unique building, others granting you unlimited cash, while one flips all that and turns on a "hard mode". We'll get to why this is a bad idea a little later.
(This 13-minute video takes you on a tour of the city I built for the review)
Cities: Skylines is a gorgeous video game. Not in a "video game graphics" kind of way; even with the settings maxxed out everything still gets a little blocky (anti-aliasing just isn't really there). But it sets out to recreate the vibe of a model city/toy railway, and it absolutely nails it, from the bright colour palette to the fact it even has a tilt-shift setting in its menu.
This might sound trivial, but it's really, really cool! After all, your job as a player in these kind of games is to operate as a God-like figure crafting a fake city out of nothingness. Instead of trying to somehow depict this as "real", or even video gamey, Skylines shoots for something more tangible, and it plays a big part in how much I enjoyed just scrolling around the streets of my city, basking in the cuteness and order of it all.
You'll do some very big things, like planning entire regions and suburbs, but you'll also be doing some very small things. There's a surprising amount of micromanagement in the game once you progress and pick at it, and while some of it sucks (more on that below), other parts are great. Public transport is one such highlight: instead of just dropping depots, stations and stops on the map, Skylines lets you actually plan out specific routes for each mode of transport. Being able to manually assign bus routes and subway lines feels great, like you've got more precise control over the movement of the people in the city.
Probably the highlight of the game for me is just many tools and options there are for customisation. I love how you can painlessly elevate roads to create expressways. I love how you can build pavements and paths between buildings, and then drop individual trees to create tiny, freestyle parks. I love how the game has strong Steam Workshop support, where people (or you!) can design their own churches (like the one above), houses and city halls and everyone else can just drop them into the game, adding an insane amount of variety and specialisation to their city's aesthetic. Sounds trivial, but again, we're building model cities here, so the better they look, the better.
Do you know what else is great about building your own city? Being able to name it, and everything inside it. And I really do mean everything. You can name the city, you can create and name districts, you can even name individual stores. It's a simple thing, but letting you name that much stuff really makes you feel like you own the city you've created.
The districts are more than just names, though. It always felt weird in other city games that when you set taxes and institute policies, you were doing so for the entire city at once. Skylines instead lets you divide your city into districts — which you manually paint on the map — and once done not just name them, but set their own policies and tax rates, in ways that you'd only want to do for that one specific place. Want to ban heavy vehicles from your city centre? Done. Want to offer free public transport to a struggling industrial area? You can do that. Institute legal drug use on your beachside holiday areas? Knock yourself out.
(This is a 13-minute tour of the city I built for the review. It'll show you some stuff I couldn't get around to in the review!)
THE BAD NEWS
Now for the bad news. As enjoyable as it is to build a city in Skylines, actually managing one is a different story.
Skylines asks you to do a lot of tedious stuff, from endlessly clearing abandoned buildings to laying your city's water pipes. Those activities require little strategic thought and seem to exist purely to keep the player "busy" in the most annoying ways possible.
It's a hassle, but it's bearable. Much worse is that the game's traffic system—the current most important system in the game—is kinda busted.
Traffic is the game's primary means of determining how your services respond to their jobs (eg, whether a cop can bust a crime, or whether a fire engine puts out a fire). With that in mind, take a look at this bridge, which despite having three lanes in both directions, has only one being used. And everyone's stuck on it.
See all those trucks backed up? There are fire engines, cop cars, garbage trucks and hearses there. Because they're stuck forever in traffic, despite their being TWO EMPTY LANES, the services they're trying to perform aren't being performed. Meaning that my city, in spite of dozens of fire stations and cemeteries, and a 50% increase in health and emergency funding, is drowning in rubbish. And corpses.
That kind of thing happens all over my city, but the bridge is just the best way of showing you in a single gif.
Note that this isn't a problem with the way my city is designed. There are enough big roads, bridges and alternate routes to service a city of millions here, let alone one with a population of under 100,000. I have parts of the city with a fire station or cemetery on every street corner, and as absurd as that is, those services still aren't being performed.
At times it feels like Skylines is a simulator where traffic is everything, instead of one of many design elements. Traffic should be important, yes, but it shouldn't be having such a drastic and negative impact on other parts of the city.
This kind of thing is heart-breaking, because it tugs at the OCD many city-builders experience while playing. With no "victory" in sight, the goal for most folks in a game like this is just to get their metropolis running as smooth as possible. Cut down on the problems and make everyone happy.
If that's you, there is no happiness with Skylines, at least for now. No matter how perfect you think your city is — or how perfect you keep being told it is via the game's fake Twitter account, which serves as your official feedback device — the bigger your city gets, the more it fills up with CRITICAL RED ALERT BUBBLES, telling you OH MY GOD THIS CITY IS FULL OF DEAD BODIES WHY AREN'T YOU DOING ANYTHING, and you're like I'M TRYING TO BUT THIS IS BROKEN AND *SOBS UNCONTROLLABLY*.
Here's a more nuts-and-bolts example of what I'm talking about. In this small rump area of my city, there are three cemeteries and three crematoriums (highlighted in blue). They're taking up a crazy amount of real estate relative to everything else! Despite this, all those red buildings and skulls are dead bodies, piling up amongst the living, driving down real estate values and making people sick. That shouldn't be happening.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about the trash and corpse problems is that they didn't need to exist at all! They're tedious, distracting and uninteresting at the best of times, let alone when they're messing up your city.
The whole traffic mess is a disappointment, but at the end of my week with the game it couldn't really dent how much fun I'd still had with Skylines. The sheer joy of, well, everything else kept me going long after I'd learned to ignore the fact that my city's living were drowning in the bodies of the dead.
Cities: Skylines — which I'd like to point out was made by a team of fewer than 20 people — is a city-builder's dream. On the whole, it's a bit of a good news/bad news situation, but while it may be a flawed management game, busted numbers and weird traffic haven't been enough to dampen my enthusiasm for all the things it gets right. From the tools at your disposal to the degree of customisation available right down to the tilt-shifted look of it all, Skylines knows exactly what it wants to do (be a game for people who want to build cities, duh!) and just goes out and does it.