With so many city builders newly released or about to arrive, I feel like it’s appropriate to look back at the current Big Daddy in the genre: Cities: Skylines (C:S). Even though the game was developed by Colossal Order Ltd., C:S has many of the strengths and weaknesses that are commonly associated (fairly or not) with its publisher: Paradox Interactive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that C:S is the archetypal Paradox game. What does that mean? Let me explain.
I’ll begin with some background. Cities: Skylines was released in 2015. It is the inheritor of a tradition originally started by Wil Wright and Maxis with the venerable SimCity franchise. In fact, many people first discovered C:S when the most recent installment of SimCity failed to live up to expectations.
I think you could argue that C:S is the first step in the currently burgeoning ‘builder’ renaissance. Solid entries include the very active C:S community, itself, Aven Colony, the Anno series of games (admittedly, a city-builder/4X hybrid), and Surviving Mars (also published by Paradox). There’s a slew of other titles coming too.
I can’t imagine anyone here really needs the explanation of what city-builders are, but just in case, here goes. In a city-builder, the player’s job is to construct the metropolis of their dreams. There may be some prefab scenarios involved, but mostly the game is a sandbox experience. Problems occur – budget shortfalls, citizen desires, pollution, crimes, gridlock, disasters (if you choose to turn them on), etc. You can’t just build willy-nilly. But the better you build, the greater your city becomes until you reach peak urban area. Then you start all over again.
OK, so how is C:S the paramount of Paradox? Let me count the ways…
There are countless hours of content
It needs to be said, Cities: Skylines is a massive game. Just huge. Even if you eschew every piece of available DLC, you’ve got a game that is simply overstuffed with with things to do. Just starting the game – the act of setting up electricity, water, and roads – is far more in depth than many other city-builders. And that’s before buildings start building, traffic begins trafficking, and people commence peopling.
C:S also evolves as you go, so the better you do at playing, the more curveballs the game will throw at you. At first, it’s enough for people to just have houses that are close to industry (for jobs) but not too close (because pollution). Soon though, the requirements of a modern city begin to pile up. Your citizens will want healthcare, schools, a fire department. The nerve of some people, honestly!
But then, these too expand outwards. It’s not just a school, but a high school and a college. Or do you build a technical school instead? Do you want a city of blue collar workers with heavy industry or some ivory tower, tech haven where even the local grocer has a doctorate? C:S allows both and everything in between.
While many city builder games have the ability to zone areas for different types of buildings or to construct services, they rarely give the player so many in-depth options. You’re not just painting in an industrial area, you can choose what types of industry to build. Not just factories but also farms or even logging. There is never a simple, yes or no choice.
Traffic is another great example of this. You have a nice, working road system. But then the city gets more populated and you have choices. Do you make bigger roads so more cars can travel at a time? Maybe you’d like to add more involved features like traffic circles or bike lanes? Or, perhaps, forget roads entirely: let’s add a subway system or bus routes! And then there’s ferries and airports… It’s a lot.
These are all options with strengths and weaknesses, and all require a ton of forethought before implementing. C:S does a great job of achieving what I feel is the ultimate pedigree for any game – offering me a wealth of choices that feel meaningful. Multiple times throughout the game, I’m not picking between two good choices but rather am forced to decide which option is the least worst. That’s great gameplay!
The options aren’t endless. But they often feel that way. And, always, as the city grows so do the complications. I’ve played for 40+ hours and I still don’t feel like I’ve seen even a portion of everything the game has to offer.
The amount of detail/options is overwhelming (often in the best ways)
Any veteran of this genre will read what I’ve listed above and think “Well, yeah, that’s what a city builder is.” And they’re correct. There is nothing that C:S does that is really transformational compared to the other games out there.
Where it excels is in two areas: the number of features and the depth. For everything you’re used to with something like SimCity, C:S has more of that. The detail can be overwhelming. You’re not just adding bus stations, you’re drawing out each individual route including the stops. For someone who wants to micromanage their city, to control every little bit, C:S offers an almost unprecedented amount of options.
Want to ban pets from the city? You can do that. Want to plan traffic flows down to the last detail? Holy CRAP can you do THAT too. You can open up individual houses, name the individual residents, see where they work, check their education levels, and see how they feel about their commute. That’s a lot of immersion, more than you’re probably used to.
There’s a tradeoff here, however. In many ways, SimCity was a gateway game. It was something simple that allowed you to play around in a sandbox, explore your options, and not feel overwhelmed. The original was one of the first games I played on a PC – it was a natural evolution of playing with blocks or Legos as a young boy.
C:S is not that game. The number of options are almost beyond comprehension, and while it gives you incredible control, it also makes everything very fragile. Early mistakes will compound — you’re expected to plan far far ahead and that simply isn’t always possible. Especially if you’re picking up the game for the first time. It sounds like an exaggeration but you can literally put a road down in the first five minutes of gameplay that will completely eff your game in five hours because the traffic flow is now unfixable. That’s rough.
The UI is overburdened
With all that there is to do, C:S is a game that really requires a clean, well-explained UI that allows players to stay informed and interact seamlessly with the experience. C:S does not have that UI.
If you look at the top of all my screenshots, you’ll see a little blue bird. This marks where the game will send you little messages – tweets, if you will – from your citizens. Do something they like and you’ll get a thank you. If they need something, they’ll post it there, as well. This is supposed to be an added level of immersion, giving you the feeling of chatting with the citizens in your city. In practice, however, it’s just another flashing thing on your screen that does more to clutter than to communicate. And there’s no way to turn it off, either.
Beyond the blue bird of happiness, however, the developers did a moderately good job of keeping screen real estate clear. However, the organization of information and commands is not always clear or intuitive. Many times, I’ve had to hunt for things. It’s not just that some buildings are under strange categories, often times the functions are split. Some parks are in some places, others are in another section. This one was behind two other tabs. Why?
Finding information is also a game in and of itself. C:S tell you a lot. More than any human could ever need to know. Seriously, my car tells me less about what’s going on with it. Figuring out where that information is stored, however, is an ongoing struggle. To some extent, players would be well-advised to randomly click everything. You’ll find some things you never even knew existed.
Many of the game’s mechanics go unexplained
Exacerbating the problem of the UI, however, is all the information that does not get explained. C:S isn’t just an exercise in city building – it is a constant checking of Wikis, Steam pages, and YouTube videos.
C:S often felt more like taking a college course than playing a game. I had to commit hours of study to electrical power line placement. To say nothing of far more labyrinthine game mechanics such as traffic or citizen education. All the options in the world don’t matter if the game doesn’t explain them to you. Many times there are interactions far below the surface level (in the case of water pipes, this is literally the case) that never go explained – that just sit and wait for you to uncover the impending disaster when it’s already far too late.
Take something as simple as the little symbols that pop up over your city when there’s a problem. For example, if a building isn’t getting power, a little lightning bolt will appear over it. Helpful! Less helpful, however, is when you try to figure out why the power is out. Did you neglect to connect a wire? Or perhaps the power plant is overtaxed. Or it’s cold out and everyone is blowing out their heat. The game does not explain anything. There’s simply no way to know. So you get to play Cities: Skylines, Whack-A-Mole Edition, frantically trying to fix the problem while your citizens flee their power-less shanties.
This, by the way, says nothing of the many symbols that are not initially intuitive. Take, there’s this thing, for instance:
What is this? It didn’t even show up in the first Wiki I found. I had to look at a different Wiki to finally figure out that this means my citizens aren’t getting necessary supplies. Why not? It has something to do with traffic, but nothing I found was explicit. Further, how do I fix that problem? Somehow there was even less info online about that.
Now, I know, KNOW, that someone in the comments is going to post something along the lines of “duh, moron, here’s what you have to do.” But you know what? I shouldn’t have to plumb the depths of C:S fans every time a symbol appears on screen. Every minute of gameplay shouldn’t require an extra hour of research projects.
I have the feeling that once I put 100+ hours into the game, I’m going to be able to get a handle on it. But that’s a heck of a learning curve and I’m not sure it’s worth it, to be honest. Remember, C:S is a game that needs everything to be perfect – not just at the moment but perfect for all things going forward. Anything less than that and your city will turn into Camden, NJ. That… Is not a place I want to spend time hanging out in just for the promise that I might – one day, with a ton of effort – be able to build Cleveland, OH, instead.
There’s a ton of DLC
So much DLC! People who cast a wary eye at all there is on offer for Stellaris really need to look at the C:S store page because that’s the future. Here are the major expansion packs and what they offer.
- Natural Disasters: Like the title says, this adds catastrophes to your game. For some people, this is half the fun – building a big beautiful city and then burning it to the ground. Because it’s C:S, though, this is more than just the ability to have a hurricane level your city. You’ll also have to construct shelters, draw up evacuation routes, and hope to heck that you’ve done it exactly right when the big bad storm shows up. Note, even if you purchase this pack, you have the option to turn disasters off.
- Mass Transit: Traffic is a major consideration in C:S. This adds all kinds of options to goose your citizens’ travel options. Cable cars, monorails, ferries, etc. Each offers benefits/drawbacks, though it often feels like a case where too many choices lead to more confusion. Does a monorail make more sense for my city than a cable car? It isn’t always clear. Setting up these systems was a fun part of the game for me, so I appreciated these additions.
- Green Cities: The most recent large expansion, this offers options for the tree-huggers. Players can add eco-friendly buildings, limit residents to electric-cars only, and provide green-focused services amongst a host of options. These are nice, though they don’t get beyond the expected push/pull of better environment for higher costs. Pollution was never as big a concern for my cities as traffic, but it’s nice to have the options. Like the other expansions, if you’re into C:S this is pretty much a must-buy. If you’re not, this won’t change your mind.
- Snowfall: This DLC is essentially cosmetic, yet it costs as much as the expansions above with far more gameplay improvements. This will make it snow (or rain!) in your city. There are some options associated with this, but for the most part it just makes things pretty. Just a note, once I added this, it seemed to rain in my city all the freaking time. Not sure if that was the region I selected or just overkill from the devs.
- After Dark: Same as Snowfall, this is primarily a cosmetic upgrade, yet costs like a content one. It can be nighttime in your city! The buildings will light up! It’s really pretty, but it makes it really hard to see what you’re doing and you’ll probably turn it off! This adds some other features, as well. Primarily the ability to set your commercial zones for specific kinds of businesses. As you can probably tell, it’s not my favorite content addition, but if you love the game you’ll probably want it.
- Most recently, Colossal Order has announced a new expansion called Parklife, which will add greater options for building green land, particularly amusement parks. While we don’t know all of the details at this point, it seems you’ll be able to draw pedestrian-only pathways with the same freedom you have for vehicular roads. There’s also a bit of Rollercoaster Tycoon spilling into this, as players will be able to make some basic decisions about their amusement parks. We’ll know more once the expansion arrives, but it sounds like an interesting addition.
There is also a slew of smaller, cosmetic upgrades available for purchase. These will allow you to have different looking buildings, host certain events, or even just add new background music. Whether all this is a sign of a healthy commitment to C:S content or the early warning signs for the nickel-and-dime apocalypse is going to depend on your perspective. Purchasing all of it could cost you over $100, so be sure to keep an eye out for the frequent Paradox sales.
It has a very healthy mod scene
Like most other Paradox titles, C:S is modder friendly and there are lots of mods out there. There are helpful buildings, landmarks, solves for traffic snarls, even ways to adjust the height of the grass on your virtual lawns. Like everything with C:S, the amount of options can be overwhelming. For some people, that’s going to be a huge selling point.
It is often more than the sum of its parts, but it can be less.
C:S has nice graphics that often seem to exceed the limits of the engine in which it was built. It can be a very pretty game. You’re not going to blast it through the latest 56” 4K monitor to show your friends the future of computer graphics, but that’s not really the point of playing a city management game.
Sound is also good and music is solid. It doesn’t reach the heights of some other Paradox game soundtracks (Hellllooooooo Stellaris), but I also never switched my speakers off in frustration. That’s quite an accomplishment.
One commenter on the site called C:S a traffic simulator and I think that’s a fair description. Players will spend a lot of time fiddling with the controls, trying to draw the perfect intersection. You will probably not get there. Later, a huge traffic jam will develop at that slightly off-centered road. It will clog up every thruway in the city, meaning emergency services will be unable to get to that fire across town and your entire city will burn to a crisp. You will hear the screams of your horrified citizens deep into the night. The next morning, you’ll wake up and resolve to try again.
Because of this, C:S seems like it downplays other parts of city building that you might enjoy. Building a utopia, or a place where you might want to live, is usually pushed aside as you desperately try to figure out if you’ve determined the best location to place a bridge.
Whether you agree that C:S is very Paradox-y or not, I think you’ll find that it can be an acquired taste. Those looking for a quick, fun city builder are going to discover that C:S doesn’t just frustrate their goals, it seems to take a perverse enjoyment in stomping on them. For people willing to put the time in, I think C:S is a game that can keep giving for a long, long time.
C:S is a very good game, and I have no problem saying that it is probably the best example of a city builder currently available. However, I also think that that is an indictment of city builders as a whole. This is the best we can do? Really?
I know some people absolutely adore C:S, warts and all. I actually think those warts, that intentional obtuse nature of the game, is what makes some people love it even more. But some players, and I include myself here, are going to bounce off this bad boy, hard. Is it nice that I can personally oversee every little aspect of my city? I imagine for some people it is. But sometimes I just want to play around and C:S seems set against allowing me to do so.
If you’re looking to get into C:S, be aware that it is going to be a huge investment, perhaps even more costly in time than it is in cash. It wasn’t for me, but if this sounds like something you can sink your teeth into, you’re going to feel satiated for a long, long time.
TL;DR: Cities: Skylines, for better or for worse, is the best city-builder sim game currently on the market. For micromanagers of the highest order, the game will absolutely overwhelm you with options that you’ll return to again and again. For people who just want to play around, it will just be overwhelming. Open up a bunch of links, watch a ton of let’s plays, and be prepared to purchase a bunch of DLC. For good and for ill, Cities: Skylines is the all-you-can-eat buffet of city builders. Bring an appetite.
You might like this game if:
- You love city builder games
- You like a deep, meaty experience with lots of options
- You want to feel truly immersed in an experience
- You are very detail oriented
You might NOT like this game if:
- You make a big deal out of minutiae
- You’re allergic to YouTube videos/let’s plays
- You want a game that focuses on the city, rather than its traffic
- DLC is something you avoid
Joshua has played for 40+ hours on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070. He was provided with a copy of the game (and its associated DLC) for the purposes of this review.