Cities: Skylines Review
The tendency for people to create, cultivate and maintain something not out of necessity, but of desire is prevalent in many cultures: the Japanese bonsai tree, tenderly watered and pruned; Tibetan sand paintings, painstakingly filed down and designed in vibrant lines of fine powder. Here in the West we don’t really have a direct equivalent of these traditions, but I like to think one of the reasons the city-building genre has persisted is because there is some kind of parallel between these careful, spiritual actions and that of being a caretaker to a little virtual simulacrum of the urban world which we readily recognise, pruning and shaping it, watching it grow. A bonsai city, if you will.
It’s impossible to evaluate this game without reference to that other pioneering city-building series, so why try? Unveiled in 1989, the SimCity series quickly captured gamers’ imagination and went from strength to strength, spawning equally successful spin-off series The Sims. The rot set in after EA’s acquisition of the studio and the latest installment in 2013 caused major consternation among fans with a troubled launch plagued with server issues. The time was right for a new competitor to enter the race. Developers Colossal Order had good previous form with their transport management series Cities In Motion; no doubt Skylines seemed like the next logical step upwards.
It was about twenty minutes ago.
From the title screen, it's obvious that Skylines has been designed to be as open as possible. There's complete integration with Steam Workshop for mods, a map editor and in-game asset editor for crafting your own unique buildings. The rapidly forming community have already created a plethora of new content for free download, from timesaving tools like auto-bulldozing to full re-creations of San Andreas. Load up a new fresh piece of land to settle and the interface is as comfortingly familiar as it could be without possible copyright infringement. RCI zoning is present in the familiar green, blue and yellow colours, and reminiscent pastoral orchestral themes drift gently on the breeze. The water that flows past your nascent settlement not only looks great but the flow is modelled, so a misplaced dam can flood your city and a misplaced sewage outlet can poison it. The Unity 5 engine makes your municipality a treat to sit back and observe. Though not a hundred percent photo-realistic, the pastel colours and smooth traffic transition seamlessly from street level to high above the clouds.
The developers’ previous experience with traffic management simulation is well addressed here; roads of varying lane sizes can be freely drawn in almost any direction, curved or straight, along with ever more elaborate intersections (which you can also design and upload). While a grid system may prove the most organised use of space, sometimes you may want efficiency to take a back seat to aesthetics. Another way you can put your own stamp on your bustling metropolis is by shaping and naming districts, which can be easily done using a paint selection tool. You are able to set policies for individual districts as well as city-wide. Various milestones are set out on the path to cityhood, unlocking various buildings and rewards to dot around the area as you see fit. Although city-builders have traditionally been about setting your own goals and end conditions, this provides a more structured approach to progressing, if that's what you prefer. Natural resources like lumber and ore are dotted around the map to be exploited by your industry, which once placed can be designated solely for farming, forestry or mining. Producing these products locally means you don’t have to import them from the simulated outside world and can have a positive effect on your economy.
The virtual citizens of SimCity 2000 had to write in to the local newspaper to express their concerns to the mayor, but today’s tech-savvy modern folk can immediately broadcast their qualms with shameless Twitter knock-off, Chirper. It may be annoying for some, but is easy enough to disable if you’re the kind of mayor who’d prefer their denizens to make an appointment. Each citizen is modelled and you can follow them from their home to work and on their daily errands; you can even rename them if you’d like. In fact, pretty much every artifact in the game can be given a new personal (or hilarious) moniker.
For such a complex entity with many variables to track and adjust, managing a virtual city is and remains surprisingly calming and therapeutic. It’s rewarding just to locate and zoom in on a burning building only to hear the squeal of a siren and see a fire-truck pulling up outside, already on the case, proof incarnate that your city is functioning like a well-oiled machine, more than the sum of its parts. There will, however, inevitably come a time when your best efforts to rectify a problem aren’t enough, and you step back to see things aren’t as they should be. Maybe your low-capacity roads are choking the city’s traffic. Maybe you didn’t allot enough green space and your citizens are clouded with pollution’s grimy haze. Whatever the reason, sometimes you have to realise and accept when its better to start again, to destroy what you have created, and begin again armed with a greater understanding. The Tibetan art of sand painting teaches acceptance that all complex entities are impermanent by literally wiping the slate clean soon after each mandala is completed; so it must be with your city.
There are minor niggles about certain aspects of the interface - for example, multiple bus routes are hard to plan as the interface by default shows all stops and routes at once in the same colour. There’s no day/night cycle (yet); it sure would be nice to sail along the streets bathed in the neon glow of shop signs. Hardcore simulation fans may find the default difficulty setting extremely forgiving at letting you develop your city in the early stages without too much risk or complexity, but a hard mode is available if you want the challenge. On the other end of the spectrum, if you want to sandbox and build freely without worrying about money or resources, you can do that too. There’s no multiplayer, but given this was the problem that crippled the last SimCity, the devs can’t be faulted for keeping solitary what has traditionally been a single-player genre anyway. Outside interaction and trade with neighbouring cities is also simulated, so your city won't be ruined by the bad decisions of a random player with little to no investment in the game.
None of these issues are serious enough to impede enjoyment of the game, and publishers Paradox have a fine tradition of supporting their games with patches and DLC long after release. There’s enough great content here to let your inner Ben Wyatt run rampant, and the freedom to evolve and update your creation for years to come. It’s a shame that Maxis folded the way it did, but the baton has been passed. Rejoice, mini-mayors, for the city-builder is born anew.
In the scant time that has elapsed since this game has been out, the Steam Workshop already lists over twenty THOUSAND mods and assets for Skylines, ranging from simple workflow assists like automatically bulldozing derelict buildings, to a first person camera mod, to Instagram-style colour filters. Virtual architects have constructed thousands of buildings you can immediately add to your city, including famous landmarks to more generic items like football fields and corner shops. This isn’t even counting the free tunnel and European buildings DLC that Colossal Order have planned for the near future, and that’s just for starters. Fan sites such as skylinescity.com are already up and running with many players working together to make a great game even better. Obviously many of these are in varying states of completion and should be incorporated at your own risk, but all the ones I have tried so far have worked exactly as described. Expect more additional content than your eyes could ever see as the player base continues to expand.