For the most part, Cities: Skyline is a familiar — almost too familiar — take on the citybuilder genre. It’s generically contemporary, without any meaningful structure outside the sandbox, and it wears its debt of gratitude to Maxis’ games proudly. It plays out like a piping hot bowl of gameplay comfort food for those of us hip to RCI indicators.
It’s taken a while to realize what sets it apart. At a population of 10,000 or so, you’ll realize the root of many of your problems is buses tangling with trucks and cars and bottlenecked offramps and clustered intersections. As your city grows to the point that these become issues, to the point that you’ll want public transportation to take some pressure off the streets, to the point that adding more garbage trucks might not make it easier to reach the accumulating garbage and, in fact, will just clogs the streets with even more traffic, you’ll appreciate that it all comes down to your road network. Traffic is the foundation for your city. The roads are veins and arteries, the vehicles are its lifeblood.
This is hardly a surprise given that Cities: Skylines was developed by Colossal Order, the folks who made Cities in Motion, a game that looked like a citybuilder but was actually a traffic management sim. Now Colossal Order’s traffic management is spun out into a full game, built from the road network up. Everything in Cities: Skylines comes down to traffic, much like the Impressions citybuilders were premised on walkers roaming a city to deliver goods and services.
After the jump, the three rules of real estate are roads, roads, roads.
A good citybuilder has to be three things: an ant farm, a garden, and a spreadsheet. As an ant farm, you must be able to marvel at all the animated detail and furious activity. The streets must bustle, the crowds throng. There must be moving things to watch. Cities: Skylines fulfills this goal admirably, even if it does keep you a bit at arm’s length. You won’t be down on street level with the citizens. The people are tiny figures, like pegs with limbs, but when they congregate at bus stops or in parks, they make for convincing crowds. The wonderful traffic isn’t just busy, it’s informative. It matters when you see buses, trucks hauling cargo, vans, ambulances, hearses, garbage trucks, or just cars. That activity isn’t just activity, it’s also the flow of goods and services throughout your city, and it’s only as efficient as the road network. This is what you watch in Cities: Skylines. One of the most thrilling visuals is anchoring your view to a train and watching it make the rounds through the metropolis you’ve built. It’s the videogame equivalent of a train set in your basement, trundling through an elaborate animated model city you’ve built.
By the way, don’t expect you’ll be playing in Anytown, USA. Cities: Skylines embraces its European origin. The colors and architecture are clearly inspired by the Finnish developer’s environs. When you zoom in and hear the sirens, you’ll know immediately you’re not in America. One of the few gameplay options is whether you want traffic to drive on the left or right side of the road. And roundabouts? As if. An American like me wouldn’t begin to know how to drive through a roundabout — I presume it has something to do with the metric system — but from playing Cities: Skylines, I can appreciate their effect on the flow of traffic. Who do I talk to about getting some of these roundabouts here in Los Angeles?
As a garden, a citybuilder must involve planting, nurturing, and ideally, some sort of active maintenance. It’s not quite enough that you just designate zones and drop buildings. It’s not quite enough that suburbs blossom, industrial sectors teem, and skyscrapers sprout regally. You must have something to do, even if its just weeding the abandoned buildings. One of my favorite solutions to this problem — waiting for something to grow isn’t exactly the stuff of exciting videogames — is SimCity Societies, which gives different buildings distinct abilities that you activate and sometimes target. The most immediate equivalent in Cities: Skylines is mostly just bulldozing abandoned buildings. It really does feel like weeding, even though it’s optional (abandoned lots can be reoccupied after a few weeks of game time).
But the more meaningful equivalent to gardening in Cities: Skylines — and what makes this citybuilder as good as it is — is something very few citybuilders are good at: upgrading your city. Too often in citybuilders, urban renewal is a colossal pain in the ass, sometimes to the point that it’s hardly worth bothering. The prospect of laying in a highway, or widening a street, or redistricting neighborhoods is enough to make you just want to start a new city. It’s all fun and games so long as you’re expanding outward. But once you have to tear something up, once you have to rework your previous work, once you have to deal with the inevitable demolition and disruption, it’s the gameplay equivalent of a trip to the dentist. No one wants to do it.
But this is arguably the heart of Cities: Skylines, which does a fine job making urban renewal as painless as possible. Because so much of the gameplay is premised on the traffic model, Colossal Order knows you’re going to have to widen streets, or put in subways, or deal with railways intersecting roads. So it gives you plenty of smoothly implemented options for one-way traffic, elevated roads, public transportation routing, and especially moveable service buildings. I can’t emphasize enough what a game changer it is that you can relocate an expensive university or hospital instead of having to demolish and rebuild it.
For example, every city starts with a highway that feeds it traffic. As you build up your city from its modest beginnings to its slightly less modest beginnings, the traffic might build up at a particular off-ramp. For example:
For a closer look:
That’s an example of how the ant farm bustle can be informative. You can see the cars backing up. The slow-and-go traffic jams catch your eye for how they stand out. So you build an additional offramp at a closer point on the freeway to bleed off some of the pressure.
It works! Of course, in a few years, that off-ramp is going to look like this:
But that’s the type of ongoing cultivation you have to do with your cities. This is the core gameplay once your city is big enough. At a certain density, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and rework your work. I can’t think of another citybuilder that so confidently encourages and enables urban renewal. Getting a city to a population of 75,000, at which point you’ve unlocked all the highest level buildings, is mainly a matter of endurance. Play long enough and you’ll get there. But to really pack in the population, you’ll be playing a game of optimization. Cities: Skylines is ready for you. This garden isn’t just about a single season of planting. It’s about working the land over the long run.
Finally, a citybuilder must also be a spreadsheet. It must present information that lets you manipulate interacting systems. It must tell you why a building has been abandoned. You must be able to see why an ambulance can’t reach its destination in time. It must tell you how many people are getting an education. It must keep you informed about how much power is being generated and how much is needed and what power station is most profitable in the long run. You must know what happens in a column when you change any cell in a row. These are ultimately just numbers. You change this value to affect that value. Any citybuilder that hides the numbers — or, worse, makes them hard to understand and relate to the gameplay! — is an affront to the genre. Cities: Skylines is a real pleasure for how much information it gives you and for how useful the information is for learning the systems. It’s ironic that SimCity’s transparency was how you knew it wasn’t working the way it was supposed to work. The game gave you the tools to know it was broken. But this is also how you know what a slick and efficient urban ecosystem Cities: Skylines lets you build.
There are some curious oversights. Pollution and particularly crime seem to be non-issues. So long as my residents don’t live in polluted areas, no one seems to mind how much I’m trashing the environment. I suppose I’ve been conditioned by the eco-friendly agenda of so many other city-builders. And as for crime, even the largest cities can get by with a single modest police station. I presume crime is a byproduct of things you’re already taking pains to avoid, such as unemployment and lack of education. Happiness is one quality of the cities, but it’s awfully muted.
Unlockable buildings encourage you to play a certain way, but they’re unlocked quickly enough, at which point they’re mainly useful as prerequisites for monuments. These monuments are the game’s only claim to endgame gameplay. Plop down a particular monument and suddenly all your needs are fulfilled for, say, education or tourism. That’s hardly a reward, much less a goal. Turning off one element of the gameplay? Why would I want to do that? Consider the high-end goals in SimCity that you had to work towards, or monuments in Children of the Nile, or the advanced achievements and unlockables in SimCity Societies. Other than the gratifying optimization, Cities: Skylines doesn’t have a very solid foundation for its endgame, or even much of a long game.
Furthermore, it can get repetitive. One city is pretty much like any other at a given population threshold. There’s none of the variety you get with SimCity Societies, CityLife, or even Maxis’ last SimCity. Say what you will about the small plot sizes in SimCity, but they forced diversity among different cities, ideally so they could form interdependent networks. But Cities: Skylines doesn’t encourage you to build multiple cities. There’s no real resource model so it doesn’t really matter whether I’m on an oil rich plot or an ore rich plot. An oil district isn’t different in any meaningful way from a farm district, for instance. There is no gameplay variety, because the resources are simply shipped away and reduced to mere cash. Taxes, ore, lumber, agriculture, it doesn’t really make much difference.
So once you’ve optimized a thriving city, there’s really no reason to play again. The maps don’t change the gameplay beyond the challenge of available space. There are no scenarios or challenges. There is no real metagame beyond the unlockables, almost all of which can be unlocked with a single city. As limber as Cities: Skylines is, it’s sorely lacking in replayability. Instead, it lets you get the most out of your favorite city by encouraging you to endlessly optimize and furthermore giving you the tools you need to do it. Come for the ant farm spectacle and spreadsheet detail. Stay for the endless cultivation of your favorite garden.
Cities: Skylines is a modern take on the classic city simulation. The game introduces new game play elements to realize the thrill and hardships of creating maintaining the a real city whilst expanding on some well-established tropes of the city building experience. From the makers of the Cities in Motion franchise, the game boasts a fully realized transport system. It also includes the ability to mod the game to suit your play style as a fine counter balance to the layered and challenging simulation. You're only limited by your imagination, so take control and reach for the sky!