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Cities: Skylines: After Dark

It's been a very long time since I've had a city-building game that I really enjoy. So it was a real treat to find Cities: Skylines last year. It was the first game to really capture the magic of the classic SimCity games and make them work in full 3-D, and managed to achieve the goal of abstract population agency that the SimCity reboot failed so horribly at. But as much as I loved Skylines, I was also very aware of many of its limitations. It didn't have as much content as you might expect from a game coming from a larger publisher (like EA), and there were certain elements of its abstraction that felt a little shallow or weird. The game's first expansion, After Dark, tries to address these limitations, but it doesn't really succeed.

The free update is a nice gesture, but ...

First and foremost, I have to clarify exactly what the expansion encompasses, since Colossal Order has created a bit of confusion on this topic. They launched a free update for the base Cities: Skylines game in parallel with the release of the After Dark expansion. This update included some of the core feature upgrades that the expansion's content depended on. Most notably, a day/night cycle, new zoned buildings, and upgraded crime systems. If you have Cities: Skylines, then you get these features as a free patch, and have probably been playing with them for months.

Cities Skylines - day / night cycle
The day/night cycle is a free upgrade to the core game, but makes the core game feel somewhat incomplete.

While I applaud Colossal Order for the good will they foster by being willing to give away new functionality for free, this does kind of put players of the vanilla game in a strange situation. You get some of the new features, but not any of the ploppable buildings or city policy options that make them work. You get more crime, but not the prisons in which to lock up and rehabilitate criminals. You get the day/night cycle, but not the fancy new leisure and tourism zones that make nighttime mechanically relevant. In some ways, it takes the core game that felt very complete on its own, and suddenly makes it feel incomplete in subtle ways.

Fortunately, the menu gives you the option to turn the day/night cycle off, which helps to preserve the integrity of the original game. But then you don't get the new feature.

The update won't harm any of your existing save files though - with one major exception. If you made the unfortunate mistake of creating a city that was completely dependent on solar power, then the day/night cycle will screw that city over big time! In the core game, this was actually the most optimal way to go. Solar didn't pollute, wasn't dependent on depleting resources, and money was easy enough to make that the cost wasn't a big enough deterrent to using solar. But with the day/night update, once the sun goes down, all those fancy, expensive solar panels completely stop working! This can lead to your entire city going into a blackout as soon as you boot up your save file. Suddenly, not only is solar non-optimal, but it's practically useless since it doesn't work for half the game. And this isn't something that you can fix by just increasing solar power funding or building more plants; the power output drops to zero!

Cities Skylines - solar-induced nightly blackouts
Solar power plants stop working completely during the night, leading to massive blackouts.

Fun at night, and in the sun

I did complain somewhat about the lack of a day-night cycle in the base game, but the implementation that Colossal Order gave us is a bit uncomfortable and awkward. The rapid progress of a "day" in the game means that they couldn't transition from day to night in a single game-day, or else the game would just be constantly flickering between day and night. The developers apparently didn't want to slow down the game-day either, since that would probably upset many elements of the game's economic and agent systems. So instead, your cities get about a month-and-a-half of day, followed by about a month-and-a-half of night. Individual citizens seem to go about a daily cycle within this time. They aren't bound to it though. I've seen some citizens go back and forth between home and a near-by job several times during the day-time, then spend the whole night out at a restaurant or nightclub; and other citizens can spend the entire daytime commuting to and from work only to spend most of the night sitting in the office. They start their cycles at staggered times during the day; thus, sparing us from the annoying pathfinding and gridlock issues that plagued SimCity (2013). It all ... works ... at a very abstract level; it just feels weird.

I get that it's all an abstraction. It was always a little bit weird to watch a single citizen spend a whole month stuck in their morning commute to work. But I could live with that because I looked at the agents as acting based on an "average" day that takes place during any given time cycle. But now I'm also watching the sun rise and set every few months, and people going about their daily routine over the course of weeks or months, and tax revenue flowing in every day, and all of it seems completely disjoint from each other. What constitutes a "day" in this game? Is it a calendar day? Is it a full day/night cycle? Does each citizen have their own day that depends on commute time? The abstraction model is starting to fall apart at the seams.

Cities Skylines - night school
Schools and other services seem just as active at night, defeating the purpose of the independent day/night budgets.

To make matters worse, a lot of public services don't even seem to be affected much by the day and night cycle. In fact, aside from my solar panels shutting down, I haven't noticed any major difference between the operation of other public services after the sun goes down. Water availability doesn't change as the sun goes up or down. People don't seem more or less likely to need an ambulance or hearse at night. Discounting solar plants going offline, I haven't noticed much increase demand for electricity to power all the lights at night. Heck, even schools continue to operate at full capacity at night! So a lot of the options for changing the budget of services during the night seems moot because there's no apparent increase or decrease in the demand for said services.

Electricity and public transportation (depending on city layout) are moderately affected at night.

Even crime rate doesn't seem to be much affected by the day/night cycle, which is odd because that's something that was specifically advertised by the developers. Sure, I see a bit more crime in general - but still not much. I had to go out of my way to delete all my police stations just so that I could get enough crime to unlock the courthouse. Crime doesn't seem to be any more prevalent at night, and so the new prison building doesn't feel particularly useful or necessary. And if you do plop it, it's practically a panacea that makes all your crime troubles simply vanish.

The only services that seem to be significantly influenced by the day/night cycle are transit services and maybe garbage collection (lower nighttime traffic possibly making it easier to navigate the city efficiently). Transit only matters for services and lines that specialize in transporting citizens to work (which are more active during the day) or lines that specialize in transporting citizens to leisure districts (which are more active at night). If you just have general-purpose transit lines running circuits around the city, then those won't require any budget adjustments either.

Letting your hair down

Night makes a lot more difference with the new district modifiers. In addition to defining different industrial zones with different specializations, you can now define commercial zones as specializing in either tourism (hotels) or leisure (nightclubs). Leisure districts give your citizens a new place to go and have fun after dark besides just shopping, and it can create a lot of traffic bottlenecks, as everybody in the city might try driving downtown to the nightclubs at the same time. Due to the abstraction of the day/night cycle, the flow of traffic into a leisure district is pretty uniform throughout the night, so you're still probably not going to see the complete gridlock that plagued SimCity.

Cities Skylines - nightclub traffic
Leisure districts provide nighttime entertainment, and can easily suffer from traffic congestion.

To help offset traffic congestion, the expansion provides new taxi cab services that you can build. This will reduce the demands of traffic around your leisure districts. The game doesn't model car crashes (or their effects on traffic), so you won't be setting up D.U.I. checkpoints or fining bars for letting drunks drive home. Regardless, citizens generally prefer to take taxis if they're available.

Tourist districts are active both during the day and at night, and there's a number of new entertainment buildings that you can plop to attract tourist. Most of these are beach properties like the marina and restaurant on the pier, but there's also a riding stable, zoo, and so on. I was really disappointed that you couldn't just zone areas as public beaches. You can plop beach buildings near the coast, but you won't see people swimming, surfing, fishing, or sunbathing along your coasts. Beaches have never really worked very well in any city-builder games, and I'm sad to say that I don't feel that Skylines: After Dark quite nails it either.

Cities Skylines - beach properties
City-builders never seem to get beaches quite right, and Skylines is sadly no exception.

From megalopolis to quiet little resort town

Managing traffic to and within the new commercial districts is another big focus of the expansion. The aforementioned taxi cabs are only one element of that. There's also new options for creating roads with special bus / taxi lanes and bike lanes, and there's new bicycle paths (similar to pedestrian paths from the vanilla game). These give you more control over the flow of traffic in your city, and it lets you create more reliable public transit networks that don't get shut down by traffic jams. It is a shame that you have to chose between having those nicely tree-lined roads and roads with bike or bus lanes. It seems like it should be trivial enough (for the divided avenues at least) to keep the trees in the middle when adding bus lanes.

Cities Skylines - tourist town
A quiet little tourist town.

I didn't really use pedestrian paths much to begin with. I rarely ever saw citizens use them. The bicycle paths and lanes, however, seem to work a lot better. I see fairly regular use from them, and people will travel much greater distances on bicycle. It's especially useful for reducing bus usage. If you have really long lines at your bus stops, just build some bicycle paths leading from homes to shops or businesses. A bunch of the people who would otherwise have waited weeks for a bus to take them around the corner will now ride their bike instead!

While you can build a massive metropolis, these new leisure, tourism, and transit options also allow you to make smaller, more focused resort towns. And if you want to make a rural little farming town, you can even enable "School's Out" to encourage citizens to eschew school in favor of going directly into the workforce, and an "Old Town" policy that prevents tourists from coming into the district (or city) at all. So there's now more variety in the size, and feel of your city. Unfortunately, since most buildings, services, and region unlocks are locked behind population thresholds, you'll still need to grow your city to a certain size before you unlock all the basic infrastructure, districts, and policies that you'll need to create even a small resort town.

Even though well-educated workers are required for tourist buildings, universities don't unlock until later.

There's some problems with the timing of the unlocks for the new content that will cause you to have to wait a little longer than you might like to create that little tourist town. The tourist zones become unlocked at the 4,800 population milestone, but many (if not all) of the zoned tourism buildings require at least one highly-educated worker. Guess what? The universities that are required in order to create highly-educated workers don't unlock until the next milestone, which is over 7,000. So you can create a tourism district and zone commercial buildings for tourists, but they'll just keep going out of business and rebuilding until you get that university to churn out some graduates. If that bothers you, you can always just enable the option to unlock everything from the start (it's under the mod menu). You'll still have to meet the special criteria for unlocking the unique buildings and monuments though (something that I'm still working on), and some of these (like having a crime rate over 50%) still feel insanely difficult and require you to go out of your way to complete them. Fortunately, once a unique building is unlocked, it's unlocked for all cities.

If building a giant megalopolis is still your cup of tea, then the expansion also has some new service buildings for you to play around with. In addition to the new road types to help manage traffic and public transit, there's also some buildings geared more specifically to larger cities. The new bus station provides a more convenient place for citizens to change to new routes, which makes a large bus network more efficient. There's a larger international airport to help more tourists get into your cities. The new cargo hub really helped one of my cities with its freight traffic problems by providing a way for industrial goods to transfer directly from trains to cargo ships and vice versa.

Cities Skylines - cargo hub
The new cargo hub solved a long-standing freight problem with one of my old cities
by allowing industrial goods to be transferred directly from cargo ships to trains and vice versa.

A side-step at best

The actual amount of content offered by the expansion feels a bit limited, especially when you consider that the day-night cycle and other core features were patched into the base game for free. So if you bought the expansion, you are literally only paying for the new buildings and infrastructure. Fortunately, all the new features build upon mechanics and systems that were already in the game, and so the expansion doesn't really change the way that the game was played. The comfortable learning curve is still in place, and building and zoning is all still as easy as ever.

I felt like I had to go out of my way to add the new leisure areas and infrastructure to my city, since the game provides no pressing need to make it. Fortunately, this means that I can still enjoy the game almost exactly as I did before. I also still had no trouble making money, and rarely had any need to micromanage my budget or tax rates. So it's a shame the expansion didn't fix that minor issue.

After Dark is a mediocre expansion; a modest side-step for an already-exceptional game. In all honesty, the base game is pretty cheap as is, and paying a full $45 for Skylines and After Dark is still a great bargain! I certainly don't regret buying the expansion, and I'm getting more than my money's worth on Cities: Skylines thanks to the excellent groundwork that the core game is built on. After Dark just takes the Cities: Skylines canvas, and offers the player a few more colors to optionally paint with. And that's fine.

It's really hard for me to come up with any kind of score for this game, since it's built on Skylines exceptional groundwork and doesn't play substantially differently. This is why I didn't include the usual "in a nutshell" section at the top. But if I had to give the expansion a score, it would probably be a C+.

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