The City Building Game We Deserved - A Review of Cities: Skylines

By James Tanaleon 23 Mar 2015 0

This is it, ladies and gentlemen. After the debacle that was the fifth installment of the SimCity franchise, the collective fanbase of city builders can breathe a sigh of relief. Already, in the far off distance of cybernetic landscapes, thousands of players around the world are watching their new cities grow out of the smooth, digital earth. Buildings scraping against the sky like colossal Titans and wind turbines shifting in the breeze like merry sunflowers are all chanting a chorus of “Everything is Awesome.” If you have been one of these individuals who has been waiting years for the next good city builder, a spunky Finnish studio named Colossal Order has just granted your wish. But it gets better. This is not just another spiritual successor to the venerable offerings by Maxis, Cities: Skylines offers a unique experience and definitely not in the way that I had expected.



Before we delve too deeply into these rather singular aspects about the game, it would be due diligence to speak about its excellent execution of a classic genre. City builders from SimCity to Caesar II have always been about two diametrically opposing forces fusing together: efficiency and elegance. If one looks at any particular archive of cities that people have created they always have these two elements in constant mix like a tropical storm. The cold front is that calculus of making the most effective city ever. Utilities, transportation, zoning all become exercises in Vulcan “Kal-Toh” where out of a seemingly chaotic mass of options, the player creates an efficient beehive of activity and prosperity. On the hot front there is the endless drive for elegance, beauty, and an aesthetically gorgeous city. I am happy and pleased to say that Cities: Skylines provides this in ample measure. The landscape surrounding the budding metropolis is a great canvas. The trees are beautifully detailed and the flowing water itself has its own dynamic mechanics. Water, therefore, is not just some abstract blue layer sitting on the map, but it has flow that follows the physical laws of the universe and each cell behaves accordingly. 

The default buildings and facilities provided are also amazingly rendered. There is a crisp and jovial feeling to the buildings. I have to be up front, I am a harsh critic of modern architecture and I prefer baroque avenues, but the game entices the player into feeling quite comfortable and satisfied with the building designs. This was definitely an architectural backbone set in the 21st century. It's not just the buildings either, the tiny vehicles and even the people moving about represent a complete artistic image realized by the developers.



It is this image that has made the aesthetic experience of the game to be twice as powerful. Everything in the game from the gorgeous music to the kinetic movements of the elements on the streets speaks towards a singular artistic vision. Colossal Order wanted to give the player a glimpse of a modern, yet clean and green city (unless you really do want to keep those coal and oil power plants). A true metropolis that shines like a beacon on a hill and this is the aesthetic that melds the trees and concrete together into a singular purpose. This is something that would not have been so impressive if it wasn't for the dynamic camera. Being able to zoom as close as we wish and being able to adjust the angle to any perspective we desire allows the player to gain complete ownership of his or her city. The developers wanted us to love our creation just as they've loved creating this game. And it's working. The camera from afar has a hazy quality as if we can truly feel the thickness of the atmosphere between the city below and our view above. The detail and quality of each building is not at all lost at any level of zoom or distance and the user interface matches this futuristic and advanced view of city building. Even the light as it shines on the buildings gives off different halos depending on the tint of the roofs. Gone are the bubbly and cartoonish caricatures of previous city building games and here we have an interface that is something worthy of a mobile phone population.



The impressive aesthetics are definitely immediate upon first going into the game itself, but it does not truly become apparent until the player finally begins to build a burgeoning city. There is nothing like the gleaming towers of the differently designed skyscrapers running side by side. After all, this game is called “Skylines” and it does not fail to deliver in the impressive optical satisfaction. While the haziness is apparent at far ranges, there is something entirely different that occurs while zoomed in: peripheral fuzziness. I'm sure many of you have seen it before since it's been circulating around the internet, but there is a camera effect that some photographers use that makes far away objects look like they're miniatures by playing around with the focus settings. It's this kind of setting that is present in Cities: Skylines to some degree. At first I thought I would dislike this visual mechanic at short range. At first I thought that maybe it was a blow to its immersion, but then I thought about what it was implying. By achieving this level of cinematography, the player can zoom into his city as if he was a Colossus leaning in on a tiny model. True to their studio name, Colossal Order makes the player feel like he's a god of old as he towers above his creation. This may be a small detail but I think this alone is one reason why this game has surpassed my expectations. It is these small details that make the immersion experience unique to other city building games. Other city building games never address the aesthetic relationship of the player to the city, but here we have once again that strategic artistic vision pulling every aspect of the game into cogency.



But it is not just the player that has been upgraded into a massive scale in this game. The map itself is massive. Sincerely massive. If other city builder games have maps sizes like Range Rovers, Cities: Skylines is an M1 Abrams. Unlike other games that 'chop' up the city experiences into different parcels, Cities: Skylines actually plays the entire city in one interface and one seamless landscape. It's true that access to these other lands requires, at least in the default single player, to 'buy' more land outside of your initial plot, but it is relatively inexpensive and gives the player a ponderously large area to control. In essence, if you've ever wanted to govern a real megacity and not just some small “city center,” then welcome to the game of your dreams. That doesn't mean that the entire area must be homogenized either. One good thing about separating quadrants of cities in other games was because it allowed the player to set different rules and regulations in each area. Cities: Skylines still accomplishes this, however, but in an even better way. Instead of forcing the player to adhere to pre-set districts, you can actually create your own zones with differing taxes and policies by drawing them on the map as if someone was drawing with a paintbrush. I think that they truly made a wise choice by giving the ownership of this mechanic to the player since, now, it allows for the cities to be truly a reflection of the player's desires and design. 

Spatial dimensions are not the only measure of largeness either. Aside from the detail of each rendered object, there is also the depth of information that is presented to the player. Each vehicle and each citizen in the city can be selected for information ranging from their mood to their destination. It's a meticulously astounding achievement. The game truly takes advantage of the advance in computer technology to support this level of detailed immersion. It's also fun to rename the various buildings at one's whim. One rather fun aspect of the game is also being able to follow one of the vehicles around by selecting the pin icon so that you can allow the vehicle to give you a close up tour of your own city. The pin icon itself hilariously reminds me of the pins placed on Google Maps which is no surprise. It seems as if the developers intentionally wanted to implement elements of the truly modern, internet age in which this game is released. Even the news ticker which was so de rigueur in the 90s and 2000s when cable news was a big thing has now been replaced by a bird tweeting news items from the citizens themselves (complete with those obnoxious hashtags). Considering I spend most of my time playing as a Medieval Monarch who receives news sealed in wax from my chancellor, I found this change to be rather amusing, but I let myself indulge the rather idealized view of modernity.



So the size is great, the aesthetics are appropriate, and the immersion is powerful, but how does it run? How does it play? When I entered into this game, I had initial flashbacks of playing SimCity 4 where I basically devolved into doing the same easy algorithm of things over and over again and I thought that this was the fate that I was going to be resigned to here as well. I was very wrong. One thing that this game has taught me is that city building itself is not as easy as it seems. What I could get away with in SimCity is laughed at by the game mechanics of Cities: Skylines. And I think that there is one mechanic that truly encapsulates that difference: Traffic. 

Oh traffic... part of the unholy trinity of urban living along with pollution and crime. Traffic exists in this game as one might expect from any other city builder game. However, one vital difference is that unlike other games which merely represent the traffic as major points of frustration for the citizens of a city, bottlenecks in Cities: Skylines will do everything from stifle production to cause vital services to be blocked. That's right, because each individual car and truck is an actual agent in the game, having traffic means that the firefighter may not reach the burning building in time or no one comes to pick up the trash before it piles up again. Traffic as a real social problem in cities becomes painfully clear in Cities: Skylines for the novice player. I remember as I was playing, my people kept complaining that there were not enough places to bury or cremate the dead. I did what any veteran of SimCity would have done: simply built more cemeteries and crematoria. However, what I didn't realize was that since I had built all of those buildings in a tucked away part of the city, it never solved the initial problem: the dinky access street couldn't handle all of the Hearses flowing by. I thought I had mostly solved the traffic problem in my city when I had built so many subway stations, but I had forgotten that trash and corpses don't travel by Metro.



It was this kind of realistic and deeper thinking about traffic and the actual circulation of a city that makes this game one of the gems of the genre. I am not surprised that they at Colossal Order got this right since they have made Cities in Motion and Cities in Motion 2. Nonetheless, although I may whine about the traffic, this gave me an opportunity to plan my next city district better. Playing around with the traffic ended up being one of the best parts of the game experience for me since it was like trying to solve a puzzle - a titanic riddle of cars and trucks and asphalt. This was the Gordion knot and I was intent on breaking it. To that end, the game succeeds in presenting viable challenges to the player whether it's traffic or power management or how to create successful business zones and residential palaces. Let's not even get into all the fun I had making custom on-ramps for highways. The ability to make roads and rail in all THREE dimensions rather than just two is one reason why this game has already transcended so many expectations. One could literally make a weave out of streets and ramps and this is an amazing gift to give to the player who pines for a sand box game that gives him all the options. 

The level of options is not just restricted to the base game either. Already, the modding community has released tons of various building models and street configurations that are populating the Steam Workshop. Owing to their futuristic outlook, Colossal Order has enthusiastically pushed this level of moddability in their games. They sincerely understand that whatever they have to offer is merely just the base and default for what the player wants and they have provided tools from a map editor to an “Asset Editor” to make custom buildings with. In the end, Cities: Skylines is an empowering game for any player who wants a true building experience.


You can purchase Cities: Skylines here.



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