Cities: Skylines: Industries - title

Wow, Colossal Order is really popping out these Cities: Skylines expansions in rapid succession! I feel like this is the third or fourth expansion in the last year alone! ... Hold on, let me check ...

Expansion titleOriginal release
After Dark coverAfter Dark24 September 2015
Snowfall coverSnowfall18 February 2016
Match DayMatch Day*9 June 2016
Natural Disasters coverNatural Disasters29 November 2016
Mass Transit coverMass Transit18 May 2017
ConcertsConcerts*17 August 2017
Green CitiesGreen Cities19 October 2017
ParklifeParklife24 May 2018
IndustriesIndustries23 October 2018
* denotes a mini content pack, rather than full expansion.

... So, yeah; third full expansion in the last 12 months (give or take a few days). Fourth expansion in the last 14 months if you want to count the Concerts content pack. Colossal Order seems to have been following a pattern of two full expansions and a mini content pack each year since the game released. I guess that's one way to keep your game relevant. It has certainly kept me coming back every few months.

Never as robust as I would like

The problem is that the limited development time means that the content that is provided in these expansions rarely ever feels as robust or comprehensive as it should -- at least, not to me. As such, I feel like I'm getting diminishing returns from each new expansion. The amount of content that is already in the game means that each new expansion feels like relatively smaller drop of content into an already-large bucket. Each expansion feels like it gives us less to do, and has that much of a smaller impact on the overall gameplay experience.

Adding to the problem of diminishing returns: every single expansion has had some glaring omission or weakness that bothered me, and none of the later expansions have bothered to go back in and address the weaknesses and limitations of the previous expansion(s). After Dark failed to include zoneable public beaches and didn't really make the day/night cycle feel as meaningful as it should. Snowfall failed to include season cycles to go along with After Dark's day/night cycle, and completely dropped the ball with regard to mechanics like ski resorts. Natural Disasters probably felt like the most "complete" and well-rounded expansion (not to mention the most novel one), but still suffers from its content being random, and it neglected to introduce any winter-specific disasters to go along with Snowfall.

Industries follows a long-standing trend with Skylines expansions neglecting seemingly-obvious features.

Mass Transit brought the long-overdue ferry transit option, but neglected to revise cargo harbors to make cargo ship routes more practical, and didn't have any water-based city services (like a coast guard, for example) that would allow a true island economy to function without a network of bridges for freight and emergency services. Green Cities was maybe the laziest expansion, and it focused on pollution-management, but didn't bother to actually make pollution any more relevant or challenging to begin with. Lastly, Parklife granted a lot of player expression, but failed to incorporate the legacy parks into the new modular park feature and doesn't allow the camera to zoom in close enough to get a good look at your pretty decorations.

This isn't to say that all these expansions are "bad". I've liked them all (except maybe for Snowfall and Green Cities), but none of them have really wow-ed me with their content (except maybe for Natural Disasters). And the modular nature of each expansion means that it has limited-to-no impact on the core game systems, and limited-to-no interaction with the previous expansions.

The latest expansion, Industries follows suit. It promises to re-invent the way that your cities' industry functions, but kind of does it in an almost half-assed way. Much like the expansion before it, Parklife, Industries doesn't really incorporate the old legacy industry zones into the new industry mechanics. The new "Industry Area" paintbrush is virtually the same mechanic as the Park Area paintbrush from the last expansion. It isn't a replacement for the original industrial district specialization, so if feels like it's pretty much duplicating that content rather than re-inventing it.

You paint an area as an "Industrial Park", just like the parks in Parklife.

...

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Last time, I discussed what I perceive as a problem in the way that most open world games (specifically, sandbox games) design their maps and use the space that the maps offer - or fail to use that space, to be more specific. So many open world maps end up feeling less like actually playing the game, and more like a convoluted mission-select and collectible checklist screens. This problem is especially bad in the Ubisoft model of design, and is also a problem (to a lesser extent) in Bethesda's open worlds. Due to the popularity of these developers' franchises, many other developers have been cloning these styles of games to one extent or the other, to the point at which Ubisoft's open world model seems to be the go-to template for any developer trying to make an open world game. These games aren't necessarily bad. They just aren't very good at making the space of their maps feel meaningful in its own right.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - zipline
Many open world games have large, expansive maps that mostly feel empty and pointless,
as the player rushes through them simply to get to the next map marker or checklist item.

But now that I've established what I see as a problem, I want to focus on positive feedback. In this discussion, I'm going to look at a handful of games that should serve as inspirations for would-be open world developers. Ironically, some of these games aren't even open world games, but they still pose valuable lessons for how games that are open world could better use their game spaces. That isn't to say that the games discussed here are perfect. In fact, many of them have their own major flaws. But each of them has some element of design that utilizes the actual game map as a component of active play, rather than just a space in which game sequences exist. First, let's take a look at a game that was re-made recently, and use it as a "before and after" case study of map design...

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Fallout Shelter

My recent forays into mobile and casual games has been pretty disappointing. I'm becoming pretty pessimistic about these games, and hoped that Bethesda's Fallout Shelter might have the production quality and complexity of design to keep my attention. After all, Bethesda doesn't seem to be using this game as a simple delivery service for micro-transactions and actually seemed to be taking it seriously as a video game.

Fallout Shelter does, indeed feel like a more honest attempt to make a true video game for mobile devices. Some of the telltale features of casual games are present, such as rewards for daily play and some micro-transactions. But the game isn't constantly badgering you to buy micro-transactions, and the player can't spend money to accelerate the basic production cycles of the game (as is the case in most other casual, resource-production games of this type). In fact, there are plenty of high-level items that can be unlocked fairly early via in-game rewards without having to spend any money at all.

Fallout from a different perspective

The player assumes the role of a vault overseer in the Fallout universe and must build your vault and manage the dwellers that live inside. Each dweller is assigned to a specific room in order to produce resources. There are three resources: power, water, and food, that are each produced in various rooms that you can build in the vault. Each resource has its own unique utility. Power allows rooms to keep functioning. Food keeps the dwellers from losing HP. Water keeps the dwellers from suffering radiation poisoning. And bottle caps are used as the primary currency for building rooms and buying or selling equipment. I don't get the sense that the different resources are just a way of forcing the player to grind more to pad out the length of the game, and the costs of new items stay fairly low and reasonable. There is still grinding, but it's nowhere near as painful or tedious as in Trexels, which has a very similar basic gameplay mechanic. Management is also more complicated than in Trexels, since each dweller has specific S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats that affect how quickly the room will produce resources. So it matters which room a dweller is assigned to.

Fallout Shelter - low food
The different resources have different utility, which makes the game feel less like a grind.

Worked rooms will produce resources every so often, but they can also be rushed if you're desperate. Or if you want extra money, or if you want experience for your dwellers, or if you just want surplus resources, or if you're just bored. Rushing production seems to be highly encouraged by the game mechanics, since it is the fastest path to bottle caps, experience, and resources! The tradeoff is that you risk triggering an "incident" whenever you rush production. Incidents can include the room breaking out in fire, or radroaches or mole rats infesting the room. Both will do gradual damage to any dwellers in the room while the dwellers try to fight them off. Incidents are easy enough to deal with, especially if you have a hefty stockpile of stimpacks, and if all your dwellers are equipped with weapons. The risk of incidents will increase each time you attempt to rush, and so everytime I load up a vault, I usually collect all the resources already accumulated, then I repeatedly rush all the production rooms until the risk of incidents goes up to 60% or more. And once you get a medbay and laboratory, you can produce (and rush) stimpacks and rad-aways to heal your dwellers from incidents, which makes this cycle almost trivially easy to maintain.

Incidents can also occur randomly, and you'll even see the occasional random raider attack...

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Cities: Skylines - game title

I've been on quite a city-builder bender this past eight months or so, and I've gone through quite a variety of games! From Tropico 5, to Cities XXL, Banished, and even a foray into the mobile game SimCity Buildit. Since the SimCity reboot in 2013 turned out to be a bust, I've been desperately searching for a modern game to fill the hole that was left after I moved on from SimCity 4. Cities XL held me over for a while, but my interest in it waned, and I was back to searching.

Well now that search can finally end, because I think I found my new, definitive city-builder: Cities: Skylines!

Almost immediately after starting a game, Skylines stands out as a very pretty game. The graphics have a very slight, cartoonish quality with very bright, vibrant colors. The animations are very smooth and fluid, which makes the map look very organic and alive. There's also some film grain and depth of field filters that can provide an immersive sense of being in the city when you zoom in. The depth of field effect only focuses on the center of the screen, which can look weird when you zoom very far in to look at certain objects. But if these effects become too bothersome, then you can always turn them off, and the game still looks great without them.

The various overlays are also very vibrant and have their own animations that show the flow of traffic along roads or water through pipes, and these overlays are also very pretty. The color contrasts also make them very easy to read and understand at a glance.

Cities Skylines - growing city
This game has very vibrant and attractive graphics and art styles that make the city look alive.

The game also has a very simple interface that looks good and is easy to read. Navigating through the menus is comfortable and intuitive, and it doesn't take up very much screen space.

Much like Cities XL, Skylines also gradually unlocks new buildings, infrastructure, and services as the city grows. Again, as somebody who routinely ran my SimCity 2000 cities into bankruptcy by overbuilding services and utility infrastructures early, I appreciate how this feature creates a gentler learning curve and helps to tutorialize new players in how the new features work.

Skylines differentiates itself from Cities XL and SimCity by providing a much more comfortable compromise of pacing and scale...

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Cities XXL - game title

So right off the bat, Cities XXL is not substantially different from its predecessor (Cities XL). In my time with the game so far, I've only encountered two new features. Everything else, right down to the buildings available and the game interface, are unchanged. XXL hardly deserves to be called a sequel or sold as a new game. It's a content patch, and not even a very good one.

But on the upside, since I never got around to reviewing the original Cities XL, I can just roll them both into one review!

Cities XL - box art Cities XXL - box art
This review will cover both Cities XL, and Cities XXL because they're practically the same game.

When I first started playing Cities XL a few years ago, I was really impressed with it. I hadn't really played any modern city-builder games since SimCity 4, and so the jump to 3-D graphics, the ability to draw curved roads, and the sheer size of the maps was enough to win me over initially. But as I've played the game more, it's limitations and weaknesses have become much more apparent and hard to ignore. This is especially true in the game's interface and controls, which are very rough and full of nagging annoyances. When compared to the much smoother and organic controls of games like Tropico 5, the modern [disastrous] SimCity reboot, and even older games like Caesar IV, Cities XL really starts to look bad.

The biggest deterrent to enjoying Cities XL is its UI and controls. There's nothing that really single-handedly breaks the game, but there's a cacaphony of small, nagging problems that gradually wear down your resolve to play the game. The first thing that you'll notice is the ugly and disorganized interface. There are buttons and widgets floating all over the screen: build icons, overlay toggles, camera control widgets, zoning sub-controls, and so on. You can customize some of the UI elements by dragging them to different places on the screen, but there is no arrangement that really feels comfortable.

Charts, graphs, and table widgets are also ugly and difficult to read or understand, so I rarely use them. There's a lot of depth of information in these widgets, but they are just so poorly designed as to be nearly un-useable. And while some info-widgets show a great degree of granularity and precision, others are oddly abstracted. For example, shops and industrial buildings say that they require a "medium" number of workers of various classes, but they don't specify exactly how many employees they require. I assume that "low", "medium", and "high" correspond to the respective sizes of the residential zones, but I don't know for sure.

Cities XXL - closed office building
This office building had to close before I found out why it was unsatisfied.

Feedback in general is one of the game's weaknesses. The "satisfaction" level of buildings are all shown as colored circles rather than actual numbers. Those colored circles that indicate the satisfaction level of a building can be highlighted to show the percentage of satisfaction, but it won't necessarily give any indicators as to what is influencing that percentage...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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