The Cities: Skylines (2015) Review

Who dictates what constitutes progress? While high-rises and mass-transit may seem like progress to some, others may see things differently. Published on Tue, Oct 01, 2019. Written by Michael Bassili.

I: City Development Diversification

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. -Edward Abbey

When disaster strikes, those tasked with rebuilding are granted the luxury of learning from past mistakes. Such is the case with the Colossal Order developers, and in more ways than one. For starters, their Cities in Motion games had garnered a bit of constructive criticism. But, more saliently, SimCity (2013) had been released. Over-analyzing games is a bad habit to get into, but it’s tough not to frame the mechanics of Cities: Skylines (2015) as a direct response to decisions made on SimCity’s launch:

And, I’m just getting started. I haven’t mentioned SimCity’s issues with rendering its Sims, it’s “streamlining” of city services (i.e. you can’t place pipes and power lines, it’s done automatically), or the forced online component. SimCity was a glorious train-wreck that (I suspect) informed decisions on the later-released Cities: Skylines.

Fig.1 Firewatch outside town

For someone like me, who grew up in metro-Vancouver,my ideal city is one where pedestrian pathways, bike lanes, and electric cars dominate the environment. But, for someone who grew up in the Canadian prairies, their ideal city might be a small town attached to a plot of farmland. Depending on your upbringing, your personal preferences, and your value system, a player could have a completely different experience with the game than their friends. The beauty of Cities: Skylines is that all possible options are valid, and all valid options are supported by the game’s systems. Your economy could be entirely farm-based and you’d never be punished for it. It’s as if the game was built with the sole purpose of poaching SimCity’s old fan-base, and that is hilarious. But, like I said, this kind of over-analysis might be futile. The developers at Colossal Order were probably just out to make a satisfying, rewarding, and feature-rich city builder. It’s just a shame that those guiding principles were thrown out the window when it came time to build SimCity.

I.I: Building Different Cities

You can grow your city’s economy in a number of ways, from mining to tech. Residential zones could mean skyscrapers or suburban homes. All city forms are valid in Cities: Skylines. You could think of Cities: Skylines as a set of tools and systems that work to accommodate the player, not the other way around. Different simulations occur for variables such as traffic and population dynamics, allowing for a game world that feels less planned and more free-flowing, fluid. Where SimCity penalizes players for building anything other than mega-cities (small cities don’t lend well to experimentation, and optimal strategies are almost-always taken to maximize the space available), Cities: Skylines is content with having the player dictate their own fun through creativity.

Fig.2 View the city from on high

There aren’t objectives in Cities: Skylines; you’re going to be evaluating your own fun through the lens of your own value syste. Besides the initial requirements of a connecting highway, water, and power, you can really do what you want. The inclusion of these simulations, systems, and creative tools accidentally made Cities: Skylines into an excellent geography simulation tool.

Fig.3 Overhead the dense city

Most games of this scale would be content with just pushing new players through a contrived tutorial world, but Cities: Skylines takes a different approach. Your first city will see most city services disabled until population milestones are reached. So, you’ll start off with power and water services, and build your city up until you unlock the firefighting and healthcare services, at which point you’ll retrofit your existing city to accommodate these new systems. This way, your first city doesn’t have to be some throwaway tutorial world; you can get the feel for the game’s mechanics and simulations, gradually adding to it as you progress through the milestones. Eventually, you can just turn milestones off and venture off to build whatever you want. Cities: Skylines trusts that its players will feel around for what they want to do. There’s no need for a tutorial when the player is expected to experiment anyways.

Fig.4 University island, secluded, calming

“Progress” is subjective, and constructing a highly-dense metropolis isn’t necessarily considered a good thing if your value system doesn’t agree with it. Someone who grew up in a farm-ridden, small town might not marvel at large-scale construction the same way someone who grew up in a dense metropolitan region. The great thing of Cities: Skylines is that its gameplay is modular enough to support a large number of differing city types. This makes Cities: Skylines much more valuable to much more people than SimCity. In fact, I’d argue that SimCity is a terrible game for those looking to build literally anything other than a large metropolitan city.

II: Traffic Problems, Going Places Slow

By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities. -Socrates

By far the most common issue people have with Cities: Skylines is its traffic mechanics. I constantly hear about how tricky it is to fix the traffic issues people introduce into their road networks. This impresses me greatly, and not in a sarcastic way. I’m seriously impressed by the systems at play under the hood. After all, you can’t have traffic problems without traffic, and to have traffic, you need to keep the following in mind:

Nothing is more indicative of the quality of Cities: Skylines than how people react to traffic instead of the complex mechanics behind them. Those tricky variables are obfuscated, indicated instead through the interaction of the game’s various systems. It would be easy to complain that the AI has bad pathfinding or something, but I don’t really hear that. Citizens, for the most part, take an optimal path to their place of business. Attention is instead paid to a side-effect of those complex systems, something that can be improved on with player intervention.

III: Objective Overflow

The suburb is a place where someone cuts down all the trees to build houses, and then names the streets after the trees. -Bill Vaughan

As I mentioned before, the only objectives in Cities: Skylines (besides the structured scenarios) are the city growth milestones. Besides that, you’re left to your own devices. I hate to draw the comparison again (because nobody likes talking about EA), but while SimCity bombards the player with little objectives and mission-style events to pass the time, Cities: Skylines instead trusts the player to make their own fun. Self-defined creativity is the reward. Indeed, Cities: Skylines is content with simply letting you interact with the game’s systems and mechanics instead of prodding you to engage in a set of pre-defined objectives. And, if you crave some more structure, there’s also a scenario system that gives you a few objectives in a pre-built city. Plus, because of the integrated Workshop support, as well as the built-in scenario editor, there’s an endless amount of scenarios available for anybody willing to crawl through the game’s Workshop page.

Fig.5 Industry, business-as-usual

In a way, SimCity, like all of EA’s other “games,” is structured more like a content-delivery system rather than an actual sandbox. Turns out, people can see right through that crap. The success of Cities: Skylines shows that players crave creative tools to be used as both outlets and sources of personalized play. If someone buys a city-building simulation, they probably expect a simulation game. (It’s sad that I even have to explicitly mention that some simulation games don’t really act like simulations OR games.) Errant Signal covers this pretty well, so I won’t re-tread ground.

Fig.6 Grassy fields as far as can see

Games don’t need to operate on a certain theme or philosophy in order to be memorable; themes tend to emerge from substantial games as time goes on. If a theme isn’t present in the planning stages of a game’s development, then one might become apparent through its development, marketing, or prolonged support. Whether the developers at Colossal Order were conscious of this or not, Cities: Skylines’ philosophy seems to be providing a broad set of interconnected tools for players that are simulated in harmony. Let the player decide what they want to do. Simply add mechanics and systems players want to see in a city-builder and let them create their own fun. This almost mirrors the first SimCity game Will Wright put out back in 1989, and it’s embarrassing that the most recent SimCity game has almost completely abandoned this philosophy.

III.I: Do It With Style

And, this kind of freedom extends to the presentation as well. There’s built-in support for custom colour schemes, assets, maps, and map themes. You can really go to town, literally. The game has remained enjoyable for me, personally, because I installed a bunch of mods, ranging from small island maps to improved citizen AI. Steam Workshop support enables people to submit, modify, and subscribe to any change they want to see in the game. And, that is super neat.

IV: Simulations

A land full of places that are not worth caring about may soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending. - James Howard Kunstler

What is perhaps the most impressive feature of Cities: Skylines is the amount of variables it simulates and renders. Click on any citizen you see and you’ll be shown their name, where they work, where they live, and what they’re doing right now. You can rename people, buildings, and even dogs. This kind of granularity never really lets up, either. You can select a person and click the little tic-mark on their info pane to automatically follow them with the in-game camera.

Fig.7 The suburbs, huddled behind a forest

You can watch as they wait in line for the bus, take a taxi to the airport, play with their kids at the local park, bike through the quay, or walk their dog. This is particularly impressive, as you can have upwards of 600k citizens living in your city. It’s almost shocking, and it really twists the knife into SimCity. I shouldn’t be too mean though; we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

V: Concluding Thoughts

A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination. - Rebecca Solnit

With the amount of “good” that Cities: Skylines brings to the table, it would take a miracle for SimCity to redeem itself in the eyes of the public. The sheer amount of quality on display makes EA’s most recent attempt look like a shallow clone, a shell what-could-have-been an engaging SimCity experience.

Fig.8 The city at night, all lit up

When framed as a direct response to SimCity (2013), Cities: Skylines (2015) can be read as a passion project for those burned by EA’s attempt. But, ignoring context, Cities: Skylines is provides a feature-rich, engaging, and creatively-fulfilling experience to anybody looking to scratch the itch Will Wright left them.

Appendix I: Ways To Play

This game is an absolute gem, and it’s often very, very cheap on Steam. You can buy it from a dozen different places, but I recommend Steam since you’ll gain access to the Workshop.

You can pick it up for less than CAD$10 on a Steam sale, so keep your eyes peeled. I’m hoping that Paralives will do to the Sims what Cities: Skylines did to SimCity. In fact, you can help the developer of Paralives if you like what he’s doing.

Appendix II: Thanking Patrons

I wanted to explicitly thank Kyle Isaac for his continued support of Mike’s Gaming Trove. Support from Patrons helps me set aside time to write these damn things. If you like what you read and want to help out, consider becoming a Patron. Thanks!

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Posted on 01/10/2019

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