Developer: Colossal Order
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Format: Xbox One, Microsoft Windows (Reviewed), Linux, OS X, Mac OS
Released: March 10, 2015
I find the concept of freedom in video games a fascinating one. A vast majority of games are, by their very nature, governed by rules and narrow in scope. Maybe you have to shoot all the things or solve a bunch of puzzles. There are many games, however, that give us a lot of freedom – relatively speaking, at least. City builders – a sub-genre of simulation games – are a prime example of this.
Cities: Skylines burst onto the scene in March 2015. It came out just two years after EA Games released SimCity, the fifth instalment in the long running franchise. I mention this as the former seems to address many criticisms fans and critics alike made for the latter upon its release. There’s no requirement to be always online, the amount of space available to build on is very generous and the AI behaves in a logical and intelligent manner. Cities: Skylines is a case of a smaller company showing an established, AAA developer how things ought to be done.
The goal – in as much as there is one – is to build a city. By reaching certain population targets you can unlock new buildings and gameplay elements, but this is optional and can be disabled from the main menu. Your first goal is to build a power station and lay some roads. From there you zone parcels of land into residential, commercial or industrial areas in classic city builder fashion, giving your residents somewhere to live, somewhere to shop and somewhere to work. You can then lay water and sanitation pipes, building inlet and outlet pipes to pump clean water in and waste water out. As the game progresses, you’ll unlock police and fire stations, hospitals, schools and so on – everything a growing city needs. You’ll also be able to build parks and public transportation that boost your resident’s happiness, which in turn gives you nicer and more upmarket buildings.
The Twitter-like chirper gives you status updates from your residents on their mood / needs, such as when there’s a lack of a particular service. This is a great feature in my opinion, though I’m aware that some players are less enamoured with its habit of repeating itself and the way it mixes useful information with funny-yet-meaningless flavour text. As with other games in the genre, Cities: Skylines offers a number of overlays that let you better analyse things like traffic congestion, pollution levels and resource availability. It can be a micro-manager’s wet dream if you so choose, but you’ll rarely find yourself overwhelmed if that’s not your particular play style.
The graphics are adequate but not outstanding. There’s a minimalist, pastel coloured aesthetic that feels a bit artificial, like those plastic cars and people you can buy for train sets, but this works within the context of the game. As of September 2015 a day/night cycle has been added to the game, which I feel really shows off how aesthetically pleasing the graphics can be. The music is repetitive but soothing, and the game’s user interface and building tools are intuitive to use.
Cities: Skylines is probably the best city building game in recent memory. It feels really satisfying to watch your city grow from a small town into a sprawling metropolis, while also balancing the needs of your city’s residents with your own ambitions. In a way, Colossal Order has simply built upon the foundation laid down by genre heavyweight, Maxis. There’s nothing new or revolutionary here, nothing we haven’t seen before in other city builders. But what Cities: Skylines does differently is take all of these well-worn elements and wrap them in a package that just “works”. It’s almost everything you could want in a city builder and it’s a joy to play and tinker with. It might not offer complete freedom, but it comes tantalisingly close.