There are some genres in which few dare to tread for fear of being crushed by the long reigning champion. For city building games there was really no comparison to Sim City, a game that had been around for decades and had captured the hearts and minds of a generation of gamers. However their last release, Sim City 4, showed that even the mighty can fall and the community began looking for alternatives. There have been others that have recieved some praise, like Banished and Anno 2070, but they never tried to beat Sim City at its own game. Cities: Skylines is a new entrant into the city building genre and it takes direct aim at the crown, going right at the foundation of what made Sim City great.
Despite its namesake Skylines is not the next instalment in the Cities series of games (which are developed by Focus Home Interactive) instead it comes to us care of Colossal Order who’s previous titles are the Cities in Motion series. Essentially these were cut down versions of what Skylines looks to achieve, being focused solely on the deployment and maintenance of subway systems in famous locations. Skylines is then a natural progression for Colossal Order, taking their lessons learnt from the mixed reviews their games received and aiming high in the wake of Sim City’s failures.
Skylines is built on the ever popular Unity engine which means, as usual, it has a very similar look and feel to other titles that have been released on it. For a city building simulator this isn’t much of a bad thing as you’ll spend the vast majority of your time at a birds eye view. That being said close inspection of my screenshots from both games shows a pretty similar level of detail with the main difference being Sim City favours a light and bright colour palette whilst Skylines is a bit more muted. Indeed comparing both of them it feels like Skylines simply directly ripped off most of the visual and interface elements from Sim City as even the order of the bottom row is identical. The layout works however so it’s hard to fault the imitation but usually it comes with just a touch more subtly.
As you’d expect Skylines is a city building game, one where you start out with nothing and have to build your way up to a grand town with thousands of citizens. The controls and mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played their fair share of games in this genre, especially anyone who’s spent even a small amount of time with Sim City. You’ll drop down roads, zone areas for certain types of development and deploy services that your citizens needs. Interestingly most of it isn’t accessible to you right at the start, instead the game slowly unlocks things as your population increases. Considering there’s no real tutorial to speak of (those hints don’t really count) this helps in understanding what each of the services does and where the best place is to place them. On top of this Skylines boasts an AI that doesn’t do the things that made Sim City 4 such a chore to play however it still has its own set of quirks, some of which are fun and others which are downright confusing.
Like all city building games Skylines has an optimal configuration for the roads, facilities, zoned areas and transportation but what that is can be a tricky thing to decipher. My first couple towns, which were centred on a main arterial with small roads coming off it, worked reasonably well at the beginning but quickly fell apart once the population started ramping up. The configuration below seemed to be the best one I could come up with, using long main roads without many intersections and having side roads come off them. The main limiting factor is the fact that zoned areas need to be next to roads so there’s only so much space you can pen in. I wholly admit that this was me trying to solve the transport problem with roads alone as once I added in metro lines things seemed to get a lot better.
There’s a few quality of life features in Skylines that makes your time a little easier, like power jumping from adjacent buildings so you don’t have to run power lines all the way through your city to get it going. The same can’t be said for other services though and so you’ll spend much of your time laying water pipes and other various bits of infrastructure to expand your city. That’s not terribly laborious however it does start to lose its lustre after a little while. It would be nice to be able to create patterns that you could stamp down, something which would form its own little mini-game of developing the best city cells to use for your larger deployments. Thankfully that’s something that might end up happening thanks to the already thriving modding community that’s sprung up around this title.
The city simulation seems fairly robust with things behaving how you’d expect them to. It’s a little more logical than what I remember Sim City being with things like the size of the road mattering when you place down a fire station or university. This adds a little more complexity to the city planning aspect of the game but it’s also far more rewarding when you manage to place a single building that then covers your entire city for that particular service. The AI actors are also not functionally retarded and perennially homeless like their Sim City brethren were, going back to the same homes each night and not taking the least cost path to everything all the time. This means that you can stack certain services on top of each other to service a particular need, something you just couldn’t do in Sim City 4.
As to whether Skylines is “the game Sim City should have been” well in all honesty they both play very similarly, Skylines just has the benefit of the hindsight gleaned from the last failed release of its competitor. The main gripes (poor AI, can’t expand, always online, etc.) have all be addressed but they were things that weren’t above being fixed in Sim City anyway. I do like the potential the modding community has though as that could extend the life of this game well past anyone’s current expectations. Indeed just looking through the mods now shows many solutions to the issues currently plaguing players and some interesting concepts for improving some of the core game mechanics.
Which, if I’m honest, are where Skylines is the weakest. Try as I might to understand why certain things are happening in my game, like below where there are dozens of buildings lying abandoned, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s going wrong. Sim City got around this problem somewhat with the advisors, something Skylines attempts to do with the tweet roll at the top, however it’s hard to trace problems to their root cause when all the information you get is “This building is abandoned!”. I know its hard for smaller developer houses to invest heavily in tutorials or helpers like this however this was what made me stop playing as I really could not be bothered hunting around forums to figure out how to stop buildings from being abandoned, make commercial places produce more goods or the bloody lumber yards from burning down even though they had 2 fire departments right next to them.
Cities: Skylines does a great job of taking the fundamental ideas that Sim City 4 attempted and addressing every issue that the community had with it. The resulting game is something that has the same look and feel of its elder genre brethren but has many of the features the community wanted in it. That doesn’t necessarily make it the game that Sim City should aspire to be, indeed Skylines lacks any real originality or direction to where it might be going in the future. It’s a solid title, one that plays a heck of a lot better than Sim City 4 did, however it’s derivative and the onus is on the community to take it in new and strange directions to help differentiate it from its main competitor. That being said it’s still enjoyable to play and most certainly worth its current asking price.
Cities: Skylines is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.