After the disappointment of Sim City, the hunger for a great city builder grew to famine levels. Well, forks at the ready folks because there's a feast afoot.
It's been the best part of a decade since we had a decent city builder. The latest Sim City was simplistic and disappointing to the extent that 2003's Sim City 4 saw a revival on Steam and other retailers, with fans scrambling for something to satisfy the town planning craving.
How good is Cities: Skylines? Well, my first play started at about 2pm. I decided I should tale a break and cook dinner... until I realised it was 4.30am. Time disappeared down a rabbit hole of town planning and traffic management. Always the damn traffic management.
Cities: Skylines is Colossal Order's first attempt at a city builder, but the complexity and polish would easily convince you they were old pros.
It's quite clear that C:S is heavily influenced by the Sim City games that went before. For the most part, C:S doesn't revolutionise the genre but rather does all the expected things brilliantly. The standard road, water and electricity networks are all there as the backbone of your city, with buildings only available next to a road and poor utility connections leading to quick property desertions. Nice additions such as elevation for wind-turbines and river currents for water-based activities add an extra layer of realism.
Where Cities: Skylines really shines is in its ease of use and presentation. It's very easy to get a basic city functioning and the drip feed of buildings, with more options coming available as your city grows, means it's quite tricky to mess up. The game is built on a lot of stats and variables, but the player is never lost in a screen clogged with information.
Picking various tabs changes the map to present the relevant information in a clear manner. For example, the water tab clears the map of colour and focuses on the water supply and an outline of roads. Information is generally presented in a graphical and numerical format, satisfying both players who want precise stats and those who prefer a "green is good" level of info.
On the one hand C:S is extremely in-depth, with the ability to zoom right down to the level of an individual citizen, but in other ways it leaves you guessing. For the most part it feels easy to keep the town ticking over, but at times things can go horribly wrong, often for no discernible reason. OK, so there always is a reason and you'll feel it in your gut, but it's odd that a game with so much information leaves you guessing at certain points. Odd, but not bad. Time will tell if gut feelings are enough to manage a metropolis.
At first glance the game is perhaps too easy with no real punishment for a period of inactivity or gross neglect. There's a sense of the ye olde land grab (or Celtic Tiger urban sprawl) to the whole thing, with people prepared to move in to any old plot of land initially. Crime is easily controlled, with my massive city only requiring one small police station, and while fires are a more pressing concern the worst that'll happen is a single building burns down. There are no blazes to ravage your city if left unchecked. C:S is a simple game to survive in, but thriving is a different matter.
The nuances kick in hard when you chase the ultimate town. Traffic is a major concern and a tricky one to manage. It's not enough to tackle the problem areas, you have to predict where your populous are trying to go. My perceived city centre was a grid-locked black spot and I assumed that's where people wanted to be. In a very Irish solution to the problem, I built new roads around existing buildings, rather than demolishing anything in my way. Each new road layout led to failure. It was only when I accidentally bypassed the city centre that I realised my citizens had no interest going into its crowded and dated shops, they were simply using it as the quickest route to the cosmopolitan wonderland I'd built up the road.
Custom districts allow for some effective micro-management of smaller areas, with the ability to specify an industry type or change tax laws. It's entirely possible to have a low tax recreational drugs zone next to a strict high tax office area. Plus, like pretty much everything else in the game, you can rename districts to impress yourself with your jolly good wit.
A number of issues prevent Cities: Skylines from claiming a flawless victory.
First, it's impossible to transform an existing road into a one-way system, frustrating when you want to improve traffic in your older areas. Deleting a road will get rid of the buildings built on it, so an upgrade can prove costly when the real world solution would be a bucket of weather-proof paint and some signage.
Next is the confusion that springs when you deal with the public transport system. Creating bus routes is excellent fun and gives the player a real sense of control, but when you've a number of routes in place, trying to figure out the active one is painful.
Finally, there's the lack of threat to your city. Earthquakes, fires and floods all appear absent and allow for a largely predictable game. Even rampant crime would add some spice, but I created a low-rent ghetto surrounded by industrial parks and the worst I got was low house prices. It's certainly a challenging game, but there's never a moment when crisis management crops up.
The issues above are more inconveniences than deal breakers. What players have in Cities: Skylines is a city builder with complexity, a great interface and most importantly for many burnt by Sim City, the freedom to build what you want and grow your city across a map (albeit once you buy new plots of land.)
If it's your type of game, Cities: Skylines will devour your hours. No regrets.
Available now on PC