Cities Skylines PC Review: Laying a New Foundation

Colossal Order beefs up its Cities in Motion series to do city simulation right.

I received the review code for Cities: Skylines on March 3. I left for PAX East on the night March 5. So, I haven't had enough time to fully get in there and truly break the game. Here's some early impressions until I'm done. Enjoy!

When EA Maxis relaunched SimCity, I was hopeful that a fresh set of eyes could update the series for a new generation. I remember toiling on my city in SimCity and SimCity 2000, building it from the ground up before razing it all to the ground. Those were great days in my childhood and I hoped SimCity 2013 could recreate them in adulthood.

It was not as successful as it could have been.

That's more like it.

A New Dawn

Nature fills in gaps though. Where SimCity missed, someone has stepped up to provide the city simulation many of us have been looking for. This new heir apparent is Cities: Skylines, a new title from Colossal Order, published by Paradox Interactive. Colossal Order previously worked on the Cities in Motion games, which offered up simulated cities, but only let you directly affect public transportation within these cities. Cities: Skylines expands the studio's work into a full city simulation.

When you first boot up Cities: Skylines, you know something is going to be different in the game. Right there on the first screen, Paradox and Colossal Order play up the available mods! Cities: Skylines has full Steam Workshop integration, offering players new buildings, maps, save games, and other content to download. All of this content goes into your content manager - which comes pre-stocked with unlimited money and unlock all buildings mods - where you can turn on and off the content you want to use in each playthrough. Putting all this front-and-center just gives the game a completely different feel from EA's offering, reinforcing a real love for the fan community.

Once you've started a new game, you'll be taken to a choice of available maps. (Or you can go in the Map Editor and make your own!) Each of the starting maps has varied terrain, giving you a number of options for your city, from rural flatlands to a beachside vistas. Each map also shows you the level of available natural resources (Oil, Ore, Farming, Forestry, and Water) and potential outside connections (Highway, Rail, Ship, and Plane). Within each map you'll be allowed to start on one sizable section for your city-building, but you can purchase adjacent spots as your city expands. No tiny cities here, something that felt horribly constraining in SimCity 2013.

Breaking Ground

Once you've picked a map, you'll head into the game proper. Here you can start building. Cities: Skyline is still very much based around transportation. The idea of transportation forms the backbone of the entire game, whether it's transporting cims (yes, pronounced the same way) or transporting water and trash. Roads are what you'll build everything else around, so that's where you want to start. Your road tool gives you the option to build straight roads, curved roads, or completely free-form roads.

Let your mind wander. [Via SwedishTavern]

You can get pretty crazy with roads if you want, though that probably won't be all that efficient. While you're dropping roads, you can even change elevation by tapping Page Up or Page Down. Of course, you'll need to connect your road to the highway or citizens can't move into your city, something I neglected on my first playthrough. Seriously, you have no idea how long I sat there wonder why my population wasn't growing.

The road building tool is a bit finicky though: even with the point snapping option on, my roads didn't feel quite parallel. Eventually I just got used to the roads being close enough. The game also prevents you from connecting the end points of parallel roads in one fell swoop. You have to connect the end points with road construction one by one. It's annoying, but I got used to it.

There's more than just roads though. You can build complex overpasses, rail lines, or gravel paths and stone walkways for your cims to walk on. And if you build a particularly cool road structure, you can save it to Steam Workshop and share it with others. The options are staggering. Cities: Skylines mirrors this aspect in all things. Give players tons of options and let them play.

When you build your early roads, there will be a grid-like zoning area around each one. Within this zoning area you can determine whether the simulation will build low or high-density residential, commercial, or industrial buildings. You do this by painting your choice onto the zoning area with the fill tool, marquee tool, small brush, or larger brush, similar to working with Paint or Photoshop. It's an elegant choice for city zoning. You're not limited to huge block of residential or commercial zones; you can blend them together if you want.

Painting a new district.

This painting idea also blends into districts, a management tool you'll unlock later in the game. With districts you can define different areas of your city. Once defined, you can establish special rules per district. Is water a problem? Pass a water limit edict in your most urban district. You can ban pets or institute special taxes on certain districts. It's all about providing an additional layer of control for your city other than messing with overall cities sliders.

Service Your City

Next comes the services, like power, water, sewage, garbage, education, and health. Most services operate on an area of influence system. A completed building has a specific area of influence, for example. To add power, you just need to connect a power plant to that area or build connected power lines. If you have a number of buildings side-by-side, their areas of influences are added together. Power one building, you power them all. That model is used on various services in different ways. Water pipes have their own area of influence, you just have to ensure that your buildings are within the active area of a water pipe.

Education, Fire Prevention, Healthcare, and Public Transportation have less defined areas of influence. Instead they service as many buildings as their capacity can handle within their region. Cities: Skylines, like SimCity, offers up a wide variety of overlays for your city, so you can see what's covered by specific service and where you're deficient. Some buildings will even let you know if they're in dire need of specific service with a small icon in a word bubble. (Or they'll tell you via Chirper, the Twitter-like social service you can open at any time in the top-middle of your screen.)

Water and Sewage runs on the same pipes, you just have to have a pump somewhere and a sewage release somewhere else. (Protip: Don't have the pump downriver from the release.) Education determines the ability of your buildings to upgrade. You always want to have Police Stations, Fire Departments, and Hospitals within spitting distances because your cims' lives are fraught with peril.

The Circle of Death

Healthcare includes Cemeteries and Crematoriums, because it covers the entire life of each cim. Skylines simulates each and every citizen according to Colossal Order; they have homes, jobs, and pets. They go to school and to work. They get married and have kids. Eventually, they'll die from old age and their bodies will have to be carted off to the local cemetery or crematorium for disposal.

Skylines does make little sense if you pay direct attention to your cims. There's no day and night cycle and the time doesn't correspond directly to their movements. I followed a young student - you can click on any vehicle, building or person to find out where it's going and what else it's tied to - named Max Lewis. He took 2 days to walk to school, 18 days to study there, and another 2 days to walk home. I'm not sure what kind of school I'm running, but I'm certain there's some indoctrination. I understand that there are limits to what can accurately be simulated and it was probably a design decision so my cims wouldn't be running around town like The Flash, but it breaks the simulation effect a bit.

Follow their tiny lives.

Your cims will also do odds things like drive down the street a short distance to their destination (maybe because it takes them a day to get there?) or park their vehicles down the street when there's a perfectly good open spot in front of their residence. That said, the simulation overall is pretty impressive, especially once public transportation enters the picture. Just following one or two cims around on their day-to-day business is fascinating.

Colossal Order has thrown a ton of building types into the mix here. Fire Stations, different schools, parks, Metro Stations, a Cargo Harbor, a Court House, Stadium, Observatory, Sky Scraper, and even individual trees if you want to get down and dirty. Most of buildings are locked behind achievements like population caps, zone size, or the happenings in your city. That keeps the early game simple, while allowing for a complex elder game. Or you can just unlock most of it with the included mod.

Another thing that Colossal Order got right is the performance. Cities: Skyline is a rock-solid monster regardless of city size. It simply runs like a champ, even on my six-year old PC build. And it's not an ugly game. Zooming close to a building shows amazing detail, like air conditioner fans or smoke churning out of smoke stacks. Police sirens cast red and blue light on buildings. Kids play in the park or pools. Dynamic water flows through your hydroelectric dams. (Warning: putting a dam in the wrong place can lead to a flooded city.)

They Built This City

There are some problems in Cities: Skylines though. First, there's a lack of explanation in-game about about integral and basic things. I've heard about people creating cities only for no one to move in because they lack a road connection to the initial highway. Or seeing your city get deathly ill because you put your water pump downstream from your sewage drain. Or the ins-out of transportation, which is integral to major cities or mid-game services like fire, garbage, bus lines, or cemetaries. There's wiki articles out there explaining most of this, but it's not readily available for new players. You will trip up on your first few cities.

There also isn't a huge variety of buildings and services to provide. This is probably a side effect of Colossal Order being a small team, but it does feel like things are missing. There are great works in Cities: Skylines, but it feels like there's empty spaces in the roster of normal buildings. No jails or courthouses, a lack of additional clean industries, no recycling as an option for trash (There's the policy lowering the amount of garbage made, but not an additional building as a replacement). Flavor buildings like a post office, welfare center, or any number of club can be added via DLC, but they'd add some visual and gameplay variety here. The reason this variety is needed is because of Cities: Skylines lack an high-level game.

At some point, you'll just coast. Unless you've made huge mistakes, your city will just keep growing and making money. you're just adding new high-density districts to push the population cap ever higher. As you add them, make sure you have the requisite service buildings in the coverage area and you'll be fine. Cities: Skylines simply lacks any sort of high-level game at this point. It's fun, but you get you a point where you just want to start over and try something different.

Cities: Skylines is an amazing start for Paradox' new city simulation, but it's just a start. The game needs to grow. More systems need to be added. Things need to be smoothed out, for new players and sim veterans alike. Mods will take care of some of these issues - the Steam Workshop already has nearly 4,000 items to download - but others will need to be handled by Colossal. I have faith in them, based on their strong initial release here. If you're willing to do a little research and you're willing to part with some of SimCity 2013's more interesting features (modular buildings, I miss you), Cities: Skylines is worth the price of admission.

District management.

If you want to take a look, Paradox has let the media stream the game for a few days now. Try Quill18's channel for a good look at the game.

Visuals
The game looks and runs great. Following you Cims around town is a treat and field-of-vision effect makes you feel like you're looking around a diorama.

Sound
Cities: Skylines has pleasant music, but its sounds could be a bit more distinct.

Interface
The interface works well, bringing up necessary visual overlays when needed.

Lasting appeal
When you're done with one city, try another! Load up some mods! Cities: Skylines is all about experimentation.

Cities: Skylines isn't perfect, but it's an excellent city builder and a great launch for developer Colossal Order. There a few control issues, a lack of key features explanations for new players, and the building currently lack the complexity found in SimCity 4 or SimCity (2013), but I still sunk hours into the game and will sink many more. With a strong mod community, I'm sure Cities: Skylines will look great for years to come.

4/5

Tagged with Colossal Order, Paradox Entertainment, Reviews.

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