Review: Cities: Skylines

While there's a few rough edges in the design, I can safely say Cities: Skylines is probably my favourite modern city-builder since SimCity 4, and that's been a long while indeed.  It looks great, runs well, and does a great job in offering a variety of transit and building options.  The lacking aspects beyond some more services (such as libraries or museums from SC2K for example), are mostly in the fine details, as creating transit lines can get quite finicky, and having to manually demolish abandoned building becomes a chore with a large city.  Nonetheless a new paragon in it's genre; Skylines is the new benchmark, the one to beat when it comes to city-building.
Review: Cities: Skylines
Date published: Jun 23, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Cities: Skylines is a city-building simulation game developed by Colossal Order Ltd and published by Paradox Interactive.  With the recent flop of SimCity due to it's ill-conceived always-online DRM (which I may take a look at now that it's been disabled sometime in the future), the city-builder genre had been left with something of a void.  While a few indie offerings found a good niche, such as the developers' Transport Tycoon spiritual successor Cities in Motion, there hadn't really been one that sat right in the middle of that city-builder genre and did it well.  Until Cities: Skylines.  While there's a few spots that could use some spit and polish, Cities: Skylines is easily comparable to the SimCity 4 and 2k of old; it's a great game well-executed.

The core mechanics of Skylines are solid

The districts system is a really neat idea, if awkward - As I mentioned, the chief reason you’ll be using districts is for the assignment of different industries to different areas, and it works well enough for that even if it’s a clunky solution where simply different zones would suffice, but you can also assign specific city ordinances to specific districts if you’re into micro.  You can, for  example, assign the requirement for smoke detectors to a region with a lot of fires.  It works quite well in that.

The main tools in your mayoral tool-kit are familiar: Residential, Industrial, and Commercial zones, an assortment of roads of various capacities, power plants, and wires, though wires aren't required if buildings are close enough together.  Likewise there's also the concerns of water pumps and sewage treatment that you'll find, as well as other city services, such as fire, medical, and police facilities.  It's fairly expected, and implemented fairly well.  It's easy to pick up, works very well, and there really isn't any complaint with the broad strokes of the mechanics; this is a genre that's been around since the late 80s after all.

The zones themselves, as you might imagine, are fairly bog-standard, though they lack the granularity of even SimCity 2k's zones, which is a little odd.  There's a simple collection of them on hand: Low-Density Residential, High-Density Residential, Low-Density Commercial, High-Density Commercial, Offices, and Industrial.  Industrial zones in peculiar are a bit odd, since there ARE separate industrial zones essentially, through the Districts section I'll touch on a bit below. What this ends up meaning is your industrial sector ends up suffering, unless you divide things into a billion tiny districts, because you cannot assign specific industries to specific zones, which, in turn, makes generating the optimum goods to sell in your commercial districts a bit of a pain in micro-management.  This isn't a huge quibble, and indeed, some people might even enjoy that level of micro, but given the screen clutter the district overlays create and the fact that a handful of different types of industrial zones a la SimCity 4 would have done this more elegantly than hacking things up into a bunch of different districts.  Honestly I lost patience with it, and just used generalist industrial zones, which the game simulation AI was generally intelligent enough to fill in with the industries your city can best make use of - a thing that kind of does make one question the point of fiddling with things to such a degree.

Beyond that minor somewhat odd design decision, however, the zones work intuitively how you would expect them to, and using the same general mechanics regarding NIMBY items and buffer zones can get you a solid city without too much effort once you get to grips with the banding - the first of two big differences in Cities: Skylines from the standard formula.  The core of the city-building genre when it comes to modern cities hasn't really changed too greatly since Raid on Bungeling Bay first inspired the original SimCity, and as such, Cities is an iteration, not a reinvention: While SimCity did put some power plants and modes of transportation behind year gates (ie, if you started in a historic year, you couldn't have nuclear power until it was invented), what Cities: Skylines does is gate everything but the basics (yes, including fire stations and police stations) behind population gates.  The ostensible purpose of this is to ease a player into the more advanced mechanics, especially as is regarding mass transit, but I have two problems here, albeit, again, minor ones: firstly, they haven't really gotten this curve down, and you'll find yourselves needing some services well before they're available, especially mass transit stuff as the city grows, and secondly, it makes the game seem much more mechanical than it needs to.  I'm not going to get my panties in a twist over breaking immersion in a city-building game, but make no mistake, that's basically what it does.  The more a game reminds you it is a game, the more it shakes you out of that rhythm and flow that you get going; I do have to say though, in Skylines' defence, it does the core mechanics so well, that once I got to grips with that banding, I stopped noticing it.  You find your optimum way of dealing with it (there's a few), and you kind of never think about it again.

Free-form road and other transit planning works brilliantly

Chief difference to the formula that Cities presents over the classical SimCity 2000, the benchmark against which any city-builder inevitably gets compared, is the addition of things like rounded zones and free-form roads in general.  This comes with a trade-off - to make this process work, what the game does is it glues still-square zones onto either side of a compatible road for you automatically, and then it's up to you to designate whether you want them to be residential, commercial, or industrial.  It's trading one agency for the other, I suppose: you give up being able to zone precisely how you wish for being able to have complex road systems as you desire.

I was a bit sceptical of this in theory when I first heard of it from enthusiastic readers and amidst the usual gaming press hype, because manually placing zones is usually essential to planning, but in practice it's indicative of the fundamental paradigm shift from which Skylines was born, and it functions quite well within it's own context.  The automatically-placed zones are usually kept efficient, and while I can't say I never wanted to be able to refashion them (from one huge block and a 1x1 block, to two mid-sized ones for example), I will say it was only a frustration for me once or twice in the 24 hours or so I played, so it was never a big concern of mine.  The bigger problem here is the fact that even constructions that wouldn't neccesarialy need road access (parks, for example) still need to be build roadside, and with the huge size of the buildings required for monument unlocks, that can make the city planning a bit of a nightmare when you have to tear down a zone you've build up.  Additionally, you have to manually demolish most buildings that become abandoned for their needs not being met, and on a large city, this becomes a huge chore.

The other end of the trade-off is one of Skylines' strengths: you can make roads pretty much free-form with whatever twists and turns you desire, including overpasses and the like, with up to five levels of transit - double that if you include underground metro tunnels.  The Cities in Motion root show here, but it's a good thing in this case, as the complexity of the transit networks you can create is one of the things that really help Skylines stand out.  The cities you create in Skylines seem much more realistic and natural as a result, and you can almost chart the course of a city's development by looking at how the road networks have spider-webbed out from the original founding location.

Unfortunately, the transit network's more advanced aspects are wherein we find our first major problem with the game.

The line planning feature is finicky at its very best

Visualisation of the routes works quite well at least - The graphics of Skylines in general are pretty great, and the route visualisation is no exception, with a high  contrast system with shorthand symbology that makes visualising the routes pretty easy, even in a dense  transit network, which is what makes the pixel-hunting nature of setting multiple routes to use the same stop all the more frustrating, since the design of the system is strong.  It’s in the implementation

So once you get to a decent city size, you will have three kind of transit lines: buses, which require depots and for you to set up lines and stops along the road, but otherwise use existing roads; metro, which uses underground tunnels which are fairly expensive, but with very little overhead above ground, so they allow rapid transit in areas where you cannot easily upgrade road networks to larger 4 or 6 lane roads or highways; and rail, which uses rail-road tracks and large stations, therefore being the option with the largest overhead, but also the most rapid, since trains can get from one end of even the largest map to the other in very short order.  You can also get airports late in the game's progression arc, but they are single facilities without any real special considerations, except that you'll want to restrict high-rise buildings from being built around them for obvious reasons.

In theory this is fairly sound, and nothing terrible out of sorts for the genre, but the devil's in the details as they say, and the problem that Skylines has are in the implementations of them.  Let's set aside rail for a moment, since the rail systems were fine, and easy to set up.  The problems here are with the bus lines, and with plotting metro tunnels, and they're two separate problems that feed into the larger one of "line planning is finicky."

The big thing here is the buses, and while it is late game stuff and something you can avoid for the other transit options, buses are both the first option presented that you can really use, and the one that doesn't require making new transit lines.  The plotting tool allows you to set stops at the side of the road, and you make a circle line.  There's two problems with this, one of them in the design, and one of them in the implementation.  First of all, bus lines simply end at the respective ends, if you wanted to create a line from one depot to another for example, and its since bus stops have to be at certain intervals, so sometimes, creating a line that turns around and goes back on itself (the work around) can be tricky as well.  What really irritated me however, was when you started getting into the complex bus lines.  If you have areas of overlap, which is ideal for the transition of people across large areas as opposed to a single line as it keeps traffic moving, well I hope you like adventure games, because distinguishing between the option to move a stop on an existing line, and create a new stop on the line you're working on, is a matter of pixels, so you're basically playing the old pixel-hunt game.  It's incredibly fiddly, it's difficult to adjust a line you misplace a stop on, and honestly, I ended up just scrapping lines I did mess up in that way, it's quicker, and that is pretty indicative of how clunky that system is.  It feels clumsy, to put it in a phrase.

The metro lines are the less egregious of the two, and kind of situational: they're easy enough to set up normally, however, the moment you have to transverse a body of water it becomes a nightmare. You can't build it through the water, and most waterfront banks are "too steep" to tunnel under according to the game.  And that's kind of more symptomatic of our second major problem, so without further ado...

The absence of terraforming tools is a glaring omission

I have to say, Cities: Skylines has made an admirable attempt at making it so that you do not need to terraform, for the most part, but the bigger problems in city planning you'll come across would have been solved in mere moments given the ability to terraform, and it is certainly within the realm of reason to expect a city to landscape where there's problem.

Flooding, for example, can be a consistent problem in coastal cities, if you build close to shore, and there's no real way to build dykes other than to build hydroelectric dams, which also is finicky since their effectiveness diminishes with shallow coastlines (and they can even have water run entirely over them and flood them), so they only really help in this instance if you find a decent place upstream with sufficiently-high shorelines.  A few of the starter maps have some significant issues with flooding as a result of this, and in a game where the water is simulated in such a stellar fashion, it's an odd, and frankly glaring omission.

Returning to the topic of tunnels, this is the other big way this lays debris on the gameplay train-tracks.  In SC2K, you could build them underneath the floor regardless, but if you found the slopes problematic, you could always just terraform it, which again, you can't here.  It's a particular bugbear with the metro tunnels, however, because the routes that you will find across rivers or other bodies of water will make your metro take long detours and make the routes very circuitous.  One could argue this is part of the design, and maybe so, but if we accept that argument, I'm going to turn around and say it's a rather poor design, because it makes a map with a dividing river or many small bodies of water essentially pointless to try to make a comprehensive metro system on, robbing you of one of the game tools for managing traffic flow, and managing traffic is one of the big focusses in the game, and a genre staple.

The graphics and game in general look pretty awesome

The level of detail in the simulation is intense - It’s hard not to bang on about it I suppose, but the fact that Cities: Skylines manages such a detailed level of simulation, such as having those parked cars for individuals at places they use such as in the shot above is an impressive feat, given how smooth and seamlessly the game runs.  Its all one cohesive city even with the larger ones as it grows, without any loading times or even sluggishness as it “loaded in” the city

I was initially worried, when I went in to Cities: Skylines, that the game would be poorly optimised, given that while it looked good in the screenshots, it was hardly cutting edge, and the hardware requirements seemed comparatively high.  What I failed to really take in mind there was the level of simulation going on here - this game is CPU-heavy, not GPU-heavy, and the few people that have had technical issues on the Steam forums and like seem to have been people who jammed a strong GPU into a lacklustre machine with a weak CPU.  That is the beauty of a lot of Skylines though - the detail of the simulation.  Each individual citizen is simulated in the game - no doubt the reason for the somewhat lower numbers with regards to the population: 100,000 is considered a metropolis for example - they each have a workplace, their own mode of transport (not neccesarialy a card), likes, levels of education, health, and so on, each and every one of those people, and it makes the game very detailed.  Why is that simulation important to looks, you might ask?  Well, it's an important je ne sais quoi of the look and feel of a city-builder game, as a game that simulates poorly will feel "off", and people will pick up on that manifestation of the "uncanny valley."  Cities: Skylines is detailed as anything, too - you'll even find the individual people waiting at bus stops, or their cars parked at the buildings they're presently using.

It simply looks very good as well.  Unlike the SimCity reboot, which did a similar style in the visual design and fidelity but was let down by really janky-looking roadworks and some very weak visual design, Cities: Skylines benefits from a very stylised creative direction that keeps things looking great and importantly easily-distinguishable bits and bobs - residential buildings are visually-distinct from commercial, different types of traffic are easy to tell apart from each other as well - and it's easy to understate how big of a thing that is.  The game is designed with a lot of attention paid to making the various areas and potential issues (such as pollution) something you can tell easily at a glance, and that makes the game much easier to manage than it would be otherwise.  Some city-builders can feel like they involve a lot of micro because they don't convey the information very well and bury them in menus, whereas Cities makes it all easy at a glance, which is no doubt the reason some complain it feels 'easy' - but I would argue the game being difficult because the information is conveyed poorly is very artificial difficulty.

Visual fidelity is strong as well, of course, and so was performance; the tilt-shit in particular made the game look really great at close zoom.  Coupled with a great visual design, some decent shaders, and a well-optimised engine, and I found little to complain about in that regard: frame-rate was constant and well above 60 usually, only dipping when I zoom in just enough to start rendering cars but with still a lot of the city in view, and even then, only a couple frames below 60.  The graphics options are solid, the resolutions are all present and accounted for, and it works well on multiple monitors.  The only big thing I might ask added is a colour-blind mode for different forms of colour-blindness since the zones are dependant on colour-codings to distinguish them prior to buildings being built there.  I wouldn't say it makes the game unplayable at all, but it would be something easy to add in this case, I'd think, that was passed over, unfortunately.

Steam Workshop support and the creation tools
allow for a lot of customisation in the game experience

The cherry on top of the Cities: Skylines experience is its creation tools, which allow players to add their own buildings and vehicles to the game world, as well as mod it to a certain degree.  The tools presented here are like the SimCity 2000 Urban Renewal Kit's bigger brother, since it builds on that same kind of customisation but with a tighter direct integration with the game itself and much more you can customise.  If you're willing to get your hands dirty you can mod just about everything, but if all you want is your own buildings or cars, some basic modelling and texturing knowledge is all you need, the game tools make the rest a snap, and it all hooks into the Steam Workshop, allowing easy distribution and updating of the content so you can keep current.  All in all this clinches Skylines going into the future as well, for there isn't much beyond the main mechanics and central engine you can't modify with enough elbow grease.

The Final Word: Recommended (Editor's Choice) - Cities: Skylines is, at its core, a return to the classic formula of the genre, taking the transit system from the previous Cities in Motion games and a great Steam Workshop implementation to give the game depth and future expandability.  it looks good, plays well,. and is only marred by the clunkiness of some transit lines in a complex system, and the annoying and tedious nature of demolishing abandoned buildings.  Easily the best city builder out there though, and a solid recommendation.