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.
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.
Building a city from below-the-ground up
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. This game unlocks things much quicker than Cities XL. Instead of having to wait until your city reaches 10's of thousands or 100's of thousands of population, Skylines unlocks most things in the hundreds or thousands of population. This keeps a much more steady stream of new things to build early in the game.
New content is incrementally unlocked as your city grows,
but budget restraints prevent you from immediately building everything.
But since you start the game with a much more limited budget, you generally won't be able to afford to build all of the things that you've recently unlocked right away. This forces the player to have to make strategic decisions. Which building or service or infrastructure improvement is most important for my fledgling city right now? Should I build a police station, or is a high school more important? Should I alleviate traffic congestion by building a bus depot, or by running a new highway through the city?
And many services like schools can only serve a very limited number of citizens, so new ones have to be built fairly regularly. You can delay the need for a new building by increasing the budget of the existing ones, but that's only a temporary solution. This did make me miss the customization mechanics of SimCity. As my cities got bigger, I increasingly wished that I could just expand my existing schools by adding a new wing or extra classrooms, rather than having to just increase the budget or build a new school three blocks away. This also leads to a lot of very repetitive buildings, as you'll see the same schools, fire stations, garbage dumps, and so on duplicated a dozen or more times in medium and large cities.
Your city starts small, but you buy
adjacent land plots as you grow.
You also start out with only a small parcel of land available to build on and a pre-made network of highways and rail. Don't worry SimCity haters, you can build your own highway and rail networks, and modify the existing ones. And as your city grows and you hit milestones, you'll unlock the ability to purchase new plots of lands to expand the actual area of your city. This is a feature that I've been wanting to see in city-builders for a while now, and it was one of the few positive critiques that I had for SimCity Buildit. So you're not restrained to a tiny square of land like in SimCity (2013), and your mature cities can grow to be quite vast.
These elements of design and pacing significantly reduce the "punctuated equilibrium" problems that made starting new cities in Cities XL so tedious. The early game in Skylines requires a lot more cost-benefit analysis, and it always feels like there is something that you need to build (even if you can't quite afford it yet). The limited budget can potentially cause you to go bankrupt early in the game if you aren't efficient with your initial infrastructure layout. If this happens before you've unlocked the ability to take out loans, then it can force a restart. You have to screw up pretty royally for this to ever happen though.
And once your city gets rolling, you can further specialize it by dividing it into districts and setting unique policies and industrial specializations for each district. The policy choices are fairly limited, but each one has its usefullness.
Taxes are handled a little strangely. Instead of the usual income-based taxation, Skylines applies taxes to specific types of zones. All low-density residential citizens pay the same taxes, regardless of their wealth level. Sorry liberals, no progressive income tax in this game! Which is really odd, considering that it was developed in Europe... You can, however, provide tax incentives or burdens to specific districts. So you could make a ghetto by zoning a bunch of housing in an area with no parks and limited service access (which keeps land value low), then provide a tax rebate to try to incentivize people to move there.
Feedback is very direct and specific, and even suggests how to resolve the problem.
Feedback in this game is also mostly excellent. There are plenty of useful tooltips and descriptions on buildings that help teach the player what things do and how to use them. This, combined with the aforementioned unlocking of content, mostly eliminates the need for a specific tutorial. It's easy enough to learn as you play. If you're a complete newbie to city-building games, then it might still be a bit overwhelming at first. But any amount of experience with city-builders should allow players to be able to dive right in with no problems.
The game is also very good about providing feedback about problems in your city and how to resolve them. The info overlays are all very useful, and the vibrant colors and contrast make them very easy to read (and pretty to look at). Little icons will pop up that will show you specific problems that are happening in your city, and if you click on the respective building, the info panel will show a very specific explanation of the problem, and will also usually offer a specific suggestion on how to resolve the problem.
Dams are tricky to use, and poorly explained.
The one area that the game's feedback felt really poor was with the construction and usage of dams. Since the flow of water is actually being simulated, the energy output of a dam is very dependent on where it's placed. The current of the water, the height of the dam, and the height of the water all influence the effectiveness of a dam. If the water on the backside doesn't flow over the flow line, then no water goes through the dam, and the dam doesn't work. But none of this is really explained by the game. I didn't even know that dams had a fill line. So when my river dried up and my dam stopped producing electricity, I was kind of clueless how to rectify the situation. I had to go online to find a solution.
My only major criticism of the interface and overlays is that some useful ones are locked and unavailable at the start of the game. This includes the natural resource and wind velocity overlays. Since these resources are only available at specific locations on the map, not having immediate access to these overlays can really screw up your ability to plan your city in advance. Sure, you could bulldoze your existing developments if you find that you built over a source of oil or fertile land, but that is expensive and annoying.
The game doesn't unlock the natural resource overlay until the city reaches 1,000 population,
so I had no way of knowing that I was building houses over the limited fertile land available.
Separating water and power from roads
I'm actually surprised by some of the detail that the game includes. I don't think I've seen a city builder that requires the construction of power lines or water pipes since ... SimCity 2000? Back in the '90's? Most city-builders since then have just abstracted power and water to travel along roads, since players usually just build the pipes and power lines along roads anyway. This abstraction made practical sense, since it eliminated some of the tedious micro-management of having to build such basic infrastructure. It also made realistic sense, since most cities build water, power, and cable mains under roads or sidewalks in real life. After all, it's easier to tear up a road and redirect traffic than it is to dig a hole under somebody's house or business.
But Skylines brings this nuance back, and they found a fairly comfortable compromise (for power lines at least). Electricity does travel between buildings that are built close enough together. So if you build your city very dense, then you won't have to worry about power lines at all. It only ever becomes a problem if you start building infrastructure or zones far away from each other, with empty space in between. If you chose to spread your city out like this (for example, to keep polluting businesses away from homes, or to keep sewage drainage pipes from contaminating drinking water), then you'll have to go to the trouble of building the additional infrastructure.
It's been a long time since I've seen a city-builder require construction of power lines or water pipes.
Water pipes do feel a bit unnecessary to me. They're really only in the game because you need to connect pumps and drainage to your water system, but the developers decided that these buildings would be automated and don't require workers, and therefore, don't require road access. Pipes are very much a "place them, then forget them" feature. Once they are placed, you never have to modify them, and they never need to be upgraded or repaired or anything. So they're just an overhead requirement that doesn't really add much to the game.
Is lining up roads an intractable problem?
Unfortunately, the road-building tools have some of the same problems that Cities XXL has. Sometimes, it's very hard (or impossible) to get them to line up the way you want them to, and trying to create intersections with roads that are different widths can be a big pain in the butt that requires you to manually extend every crossing road well beyond the points of intersection (just like in Cities XXL). You also can't draw new roads through other roads; you must stop drawing at every single intersection and lay roads down one block at a time. I also quickly came to miss Cities XXL's ability to lay down whole blocks of zones, including the streets all at once. In Skylines, you can fill in whole blocks with a zone, but you still have to build every single road manually.
Roads don't always line up [LEFT] unless you extend the crossing road well beyond the point of intersection [RIGHT].
Despite these flaws and limitations, the road-building tools are robust and make it very easy and intuitive to create many different types of road. The game draws small guide lines around your roads to indicate the area that zones can cover and to represent a distance of about one block from the origin point. Curved roads are easier to construct, since the game gives you control over where to place the apex(es) of the bends. The zoning guidelines can make it a bit easier to build curved roads in parallel, but still not quite as easy as it was in SimCity.
It's also very easy to upgrade (or downgrade) roads - even to roads of different widths! You just click the road tool for the size of road you want, toggle the "upgrade" option, and then highlight over the road segments that you want to upgrade. Even if the new road is wider than the old road, the game automatically bulldozes any overlapping buildings. It's too bad that there isn't a way to toggle the new road to be offset so that it aligns with one side of the existing road instead of being centered on it. You also have to upgrade each individual segment of a road.
Upgrading the width of a road lines the new road up with the center of the old one, destroying adjacent buildings [LEFT],
unless you first destroy the old road and line up the new one [RIGHT] along the edge of the zone.
But probably the nicest element of the roads is how it handles elevated roads, bridges, and highways. These sorts of constructions can be seamlessly integrated into your road networks. Any road can be elevated by pressing Page Up and Page Down on the keyboard if you want to build bridges or tunnels. You also have complete freedom to create your own highway interchanges and ramps! You're not limited to one or two pre-built overpasses and interchanges like in other city-builders. You might not get as excited as I do about highway construction, but to me this feature is friggin amazing! And best of all, the residents of the city seem perfectly capable of pathfinding through even the most confusing monstrosities of custom highway interchanges.
You have complete freedom to create your own monstrosities of highway interchanges,
but traffic is smart enough to figure out how to use them.
Buses are also fairly easy to manage. Drawing routes is easy and intuitive, and lines can be modified by clicking and dragging stops to new locations. New stops can also be added, and existing stops that nobody uses can be deleted. So it's very easy to manage and extend your public transit network as your city grows.
Bus stops can be dragged to new
locations as your city grows.
You also have to draw lines between passenger train stations and metro stations in order to create specific routes within the city. This is, of course, much more limited than bus routes, since trains can only stop at stations.
My only real complaint with these features is that I don't know why the game doesn't assign each route a different color by default. All bus routes default to blue, all train routes default to orange, and all metro lines default to green. This can make it difficult to tell the individual routes apart unless you specifically click on each line and manually change its color.
Little simulated people living little simulated lives
Probably the greatest strength of Cities: Skylines is its depth of simulation. Everything in the game feels like a real thing that exists and lives in the city. The SimCity reboot promised this level of complete agency in its simulation, but it didn't deliver, and that game's simulation was a real disaster (for example, citizens would work at the first open job they find on any given day, and then go home to the first unoccupied home). Cities XXL doesn't even bother with any agency. Sure, specific households worked at specific jobs and had to pathfind on the roads to get there, but it was all simulated in a spreadsheet in the backend, and you never actually see the people going to work and coming home
Citizens have specific jobs [LEFT] and specific homes [RIGHT] and really seem to live abstracted, simulated lives.
The city feels alive and real! It isn't just a collection of roads and buildings and abstract ranges of effectiveness and satisfaction values. It's populated with little simulated people driving their little simulated cars across little simulated highways to their little simulated jobs where they make little simulated products that they sell to other little simulated people in little simulated stores. They have little simulated births, graduate from little simulated schools, live their little simulated lives, and finally die and increment a body count in a little simulated cemetery.
You can exhume bodies and move
them to other cemeteries. Kinda creepy...
Traffic is made up of actual cars transporting actual people and goods to where they actually need to go. Trucks and cargo ships carry an actual quantity of freight from raw material industries to production industries and then to store shelves. Or they import or export the goods to other (sadly non-existent) cities.
It's all abstracted to a tremendous degree (like, there's no real day and night cycle), but everything feels very tangible, and the behaviors of objects in the world really do feel representative of what is actually happening in the city.
This truck is transporting goods
between nodes in the economic chain.
The simulation isn't perfect, of course. Perhaps the most obvious limitation to the simulation is the lack of a real day-night cycle. Even though citizens live simulated lives, their specific actions can take days or weeks of in-game time to complete. They don't drive to work, complete an 8-hour shift, and then drive back home and go out shopping all in one day. Instead, that drive from home to the office might take a couple in-games days, by itself! And they just keep cycling through the routine on an apparently arbitrary basis. It might be a weekly cycle, since most of the game's taxes and economics are based on weekly cycles.
Speaking of traffic: vehicles are always stuck navigating along the quickest possible route to their destination. As far as I can tell, they don't take traffic delays into consideration, or change their route if traffic gets backed up. Since citizens aren't operating on a standard clock, they don't all leave for work and come home at the same times, meaning that the game doesn't model any kind of "rush hour" driving condition. This alleviates the complete gridlock that SimCity suffered, but does cause Skylines to lose some of its realism.
Almost everything a city-builder could wish for
It's unfortunate that each city exists in a vacuum. The pre-existing highway, rail, and sea routes connect to a completely abstract, nebulous "world" from which imports magically come and exports magically disappear to. There is no actual world map on which the given city plots exist, nor is there any way to link multiple cities together to form a trade network.
Such a feature isn't in the scope of the game, but it does take away a lot of incentive to go back to your previous cities once you start a new one. Building an interconnected network of cities that interact with one another was my favorite element of SimCity 4, SimCity (2013), and also of Cities XL / XXL. Perhaps some kind of overarching trade network between cities could be the subject of an expansion or DLC pack?
I could also complain about other omissions. The only government building is an unlockable courthouse. So there's no town hall or anything like that. There's no prison building for locking up criminals. There also aren't any public libraries, private schools, community colleges, or other education variants. And the options for public leisure are limited. You can't build athletic parks, or public beaches, or hotels / resorts, or any kind of nature preserve or zoo. These complaints ring hollow because Cities: Skylines feels so complete and streamlined without any of that stuff. All it means is that there is plenty of options available for meaningful DLC and expansion.
And if you do feel that the game is missing anything in particular, check out the in-game mod browser. You may find exactly what you're looking for. Or you can open up the in-game asset creator and make it yourself!
The game feels very complete on its own, but you can still add content via the in-game mod browser or asset creator.
Cities Skylines is what SimCity (2013) and Cities XL desperately wanted to be! It gloriously succeeds where both of those games miserably fail. It picks up the mantle of the great SimCity games of yesteryear (yester-decade now) and propels itself into the 21st century with deep simulation, compelling gameplay, and attractive 3-D graphics. It is the new gold standard by which all modern city-builder games should be judged. And it's full MSRP is only $30.
Last year, I set out on a quest to find the best contemporary city-building game that is available. Now I've found it.