City building games went out of style shortly after the turn of the 21st century. The old masters, Maxis of EA, attempted to reboot the genre and failed spectacularly thanks to a combination of bizarre design decisions and poor implementation. Does Cities: Skylines make the same mistakes?
The Mistakes of Others
So did Colossal Order and Paradox fall into the same traps as EA and Maxis? For the most part, thankfully, no. While there is online integration, the game does not have to be constantly connected to servers in order to play. Steam users can still play the game in offline mode – something that Maxis refused to do and said was impossible, until someone modded the game for them!
The previous SimCity game was also a very closed platform. User created content was not officially supported or encouraged by Maxis, and this is clearly something that Colossal Order saw as a mistake – as they've gone out of their way to encourage modding for Cities: Skylines, even encouraging mods that radically alter how the game plays or adds entirely new features, such as first person exploration mode.
In the end, it wasn't the furore around always-online gameplay that killed EA's latest SimCity, it was the rudimentary nature of the Glassbox engine that the game was built on. Individual citizens of a player's created city didn't have their own homes and jobs, rather they were simplistic agents that merely went into the first home they came across and the first job they came across.
Each citizen is a true individual with a name, a set job and a set home. They have their own vehicle, and sometimes they'll go shopping or to a park. They act like real people, which means that the simulation aspect of CS stands up to scrutiny for far longer than it ever did in SimCity. It also means that traffic and resource flow makes sense, and doesn't infuriatingly become stuck because of bottlenecks in the infrastructure.
The other major flaw with SimCity was the size limit imposed on the players' creations. They were a measly 4km2 – which was unbelievably less than a quarter the size possible in SimCity 4 – that 10 year old game that in the end turned out to be vastly superior to it's more modern next of kin. The starting size is the same – 4km2 – but as the city grows and runs out of space, additional plots can be bought, into which the settlement can be expanded up to eight times – a total combined area of 100km2! If that isn't enough, there's a handy mod available on the Steam workshop that allows up to 25 plots to be unlocked, allowing for a staggering 324km2 of land to be built on! (That's almost half the size of New York!)
Release Date: 10/03/2015
Available on: Linux, Mac, Windows, PC Download
Play the Game
As you may have picked up by now, modding plays a major role in the expansion and longevity of Cities: Skylines. It's so important that new players may find it a good idea to browse through some of the more popular creations before building their first city. There are some enormously useful and awesome tools available – mods that change the style of buildings, provide extra help when building roads, allow the creator to walk around their creation in first person, or automatically bulldoze abandoned buildings (that last one is a real time saver, especially in a developed city).
The workshop also has new buildings available that carry out functions otherwise missing from the default game. For instance, there's a medium sized power facility that fills a gap between small-scale power generation and the massive facilities available later in the game.
Modding can also help players get around common headaches that come with the development of a massive city – namely infrastructure organisation and design. New players will find, at one point or another that certain parts of the city become traffic nightmares. Thankfully, the game's asset editor allows for people to create chunks of road infrastructure and share them with other players. There are some fantastically inventive solutions available, some modelled after real life solutions, others a bit more inventive.
Progressing from Hamlet to Metropolis
Starting out, the player is presented with an empty plot of land (the player can choose from one of several maps with different resources levels and geographical features) with a connection to an interstate highway.
The first thing the new settlement will need is a source of power, a source of water, a sewage outlet and a small road system. Next, it's time to set districts for different types of buildings – residential, commercial and industrial. It's a very simple and narrow introduction that might seem restrictive to veterans (although there's a built in mod that allows for all restrictions to be removed), but for new players it's an ideal way to get started. Initial road and resource infrastructure can be carefully planned, and an idea of the ideal ratio between residential/commercial/industrial zones can be found.
As the population grows, certain milestones are achieved. With each milestone, new features and buildings are unlocked. The first milestone unlocks the ability to set taxes and create districts, which allow for quick management of policies and industrial specialisations. With each milestone comes a big fat wad of cash – with the idea that it be spent on the new buildings that have just been unlocked.
Soon, education, waste disposal, health care, emergency services and public transport will be on the agenda, and the complexity will ramp up exponentially.
Overlays upon Overlays
One of the most important tools that the game makes available to players are the information overlays. There's one for everything, ranging from citizen happiness to crime rates to natural resource availability. This is one of the few things that SimCity did right, and it's good that Colossal Order decided to implement their own take on overlays, as they're a vital tool for players that display a great deal of information in a very clear and easy to understand way.
Designing a city the size of Manchester (or bigger) is not something that one person typically takes on alone. So it's only reasonable that some mistakes will be made, especially by those who don't have a qualification in civil engineering.
Roads will become bottlenecked, visitors to the city will complain that they can't get to their destinations, and industry may fail because their lorries can never get to where they need to go.
Thankfully, it's possible to quickly upgrade roads from single lanes to triple lanes. If that's not good enough, there's nothing wrong with pausing the game and demolishing entire sections of roads and interchanges to start from scratch. You won't kill anybody, and it won't take long for your citizens to figure out the new design.
There's a great deal of choice in how problems can be resolved. At some point, it will become obvious that relying on roads only is a bad idea. So what then? Is it time for a bus network? An underground rail system? Or should bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways play a more important role.
Should the city connect to the outside world via a major airport, a ferry service or a national rail service?
Cities: Skylines gives the player so many choices that it will take many creations before there's a feeling of repetitiveness or of treading the same steps.
This is the game that city builders have been waiting a decade for. Since its release in March, it's sold over 1.5 million copies (according to SteamSpy) and is Paradox's most successful release ever. The success is thoroughly deserved, if for no other reason than they delivered a game that players actually wanted. What's better – it's available for a measly €13.99 – bargain!