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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A friend of mine introduced me to the social game SimCity Buildit, currently available for mobile devices and tablets. Since I currently lack a strong mainstream entry in the SimCity franchise, I thought I'd see if this social game does anything to fill my long-neglected need for spline-reticulation or if it presented any new features that could be worth pursuing in a full PC version of the game. I don't generally play social games. I dabbled a bit with CivWorld and Sims Social, but that's about it. So I lack a lot of reference for judging SimCity Buildit in terms of other social games.

SimCity Buildit

Most of the fundamental SimCity elements are here: you set housing, commercial, and industrial zones, link them with roads, and build service buildings in order to satisfy various citizen needs within a certain radius. None of the deeper simulation elements of newer city-builder games are there. Individual citizens don't exist; there's just an abstract population, and happiness levels are set for each residential building. It's understandable for the limitations of the platform, and it provides a retro quality that reminds me of the good ol' days of SimCity 4.

But since this is a social game, the design has to put up numerous barriers to restrict the player's freedom to construct the city that they want. You have to "level up" your city by building new buildings. The number of residences that you can build, as well as the availability of industry and shops are also limited by your level or by the city population.

You also don't really have an economy to manage - at least not in the traditional sense. Citizens don't work at factories and shops. Instead, these buildings create certain building materials that are used to "upgrade" your residences into higher-density buildings that generate more tax revenue. This provides the core challenge of the game: you have to build the necessary materials in order to upgrade your buildings. Each of these materials take different amounts of real time to construct in your factories and shops (or you can buy the materials you need through real-money micro-transactions). As you level up, you'll unlock new materials, which residences will suddenly demand in order to upgrade their buildings.

SimCity Buildit - city
You don't have to manage employment, tax rates, or city ordinances; only resources and service coverage.

The ability to upgrade a building seems to be limited by its happiness level. Only happy residences can be upgraded, so you also need to provide city services such as power, water, waste disposal, emergency services, entertainment, and so on. But these services are very frustrating because they are tied to your city level. New services or entertainments become unlocked when you level up. That's fine. But once those services are unlocked, your entire city starts demanding them, and happiness plummets (as well as tax income, which is tied to happiness) because you don't already have the infrastructure ...

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Tropico 5

Without a decent, new iteration of SimCity for me to play, I've been looking high and low for new city simulator games in order to scratch that particular itch. I spent a large chunk of time a few years ago playing Cities XL, but never got around to reviewing it (maybe I'll post aretro-review in the future). Cities XL has so far been the best of the bunch and has a very wide scope, but it's developer has folded, and the game has never truly felt complete.

So I've started looking at more niche titles. I gave Children of the Nile and Caesar IV a go a few years ago, and both were pretty good, but just didn't hold me over for very long. So when Tropico 5 went on sale on Steam, I picked it up and put it on the shelf till I took a break from Civ. The game has also been released on XBox 360, and it has also been announced for a PS4 release sometime in 2015, but I've been playing the PC version.

The primary gimmick of the Tropico series is that the player isn't a mayor (as most city simulators claim); instead, you play as a dictator who is granted governorship of a small Caribean island-nation by a European power. It's basically a Cuba-simulator. At the start of a game, you must create a dictator avatar, and that character can have children and heirs in order to maintain your dynasty. From a meta standpoint, this gives much greater justification for the breadth of power that the player has over the development of the city. But this dictatorial theme isn't just a gimmick; the game actually does use it for gameplay purposes.

Tropico 5 - war
Poor management of relations with internal factions and external nations
can lead to revolts and open warfare on your streets.

In addition to balancing workers versus jobs and various citizen satisfaction metrics, the player also has to worry about maintaining your position of power and dealing on the international stage. Much like the Democracy games, the player actually has to win elections in order to avoid losing the game, and so you must balance the favor of various competing factions. It's nowhere near as deep as Democracy, since there's only about four factions (which change depending on the current era), but it does add an extra challenge that a game like SimCity lacks. After all, your mayor-hood in SimCity is indisputable.

It can be hard to manage the favor of these various factions and their members, since it's hard sometimes to tell exactly what is making them happy or unhappy...

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SimCity

For those of you paying attention, EA's launch of SimCity was a disaster. Server problems combined with the always-online DRM requirement prevented many gamers from even being able to play the game, while others had to wait hours just to connect, more suffered crashes and glitches, and still others lost save files (and hours of progress) due to failures in specific servers that housed their game files.

It got so bad, online retailer Amazon.com pulled the game from its site, citing the unplayable state of the servers. They've since reinstated the game, but with a warning to consumers, and a lowly 1 1/2-star rating (as of the time of this writing).

Having participated in one of the closed Betas for the game, I was fully aware of the potential for problems, since Beta users were plagued by server issues that prevented many players from even being able to login to test the game. I had to wait hours before the server was operational long enough for me to load a city, and even then, I got booted off several times. It was incredibly frustrating, especially with the knowledge that the Beta would only last through the weekend, so I was under pressure to login as quickly as possible and spend as much time as possible with the game before the Beta ended.

SimCity - snap-to road grid
One of the best features of the game is the snap-to-grid for building roads that lets you keep your roads nice and parallel, even if they curve!

So I fully anticipated server problems with the launch, since I didn't trust EA to put any real effort into making sure the game would work. This is the same EA that won a consumerist award for the "Worst Company in America" in 2012! And deservedly so! Despite the servers not being up to par during the two closed Betas, EA still seemed to think the online infrastructure was suited for a full retail launch. Boy were they wrong!

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