City builders were once bundled into the strategy gaming scene, but recently they have evolved into a genre of their own. These games primarily focus on planning, building, and maintaining a city and its people. It may not sound like much, but the best of them manage to make it an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience. Cities: Skylines comes to us from developer Colossal Order of Cities in Motion fame, and it just might be the best city builder yet (as long as multiplayer isn’t important to you).
New games of Cities: Skylines begin with very simple options asking the player to choose a map and city name; both of which are customizable. There are two things to think about on this screen before setting out; natural resources, and traffic type. With each map selection you are given a set of bars indicating the type of natural resources and connections available to you. Even though these only come into focus if you have a certain type of city in mind before setting out, they are still important in terms of what buildings will be easier to use. The second point of interest is a tickbox giving the option to enable “left-hand traffic”. In addition to making things realistic for international players, this does more than simply change the visual look of your city. It will have a major impact in the way traffic patterns behave, especially when dealing with public transit.
The map world can take a little while to initialize, but once we get to building the city there are zero loads. Before I begin to cover the meat of the game it needs to be said that Cities: Skylines absolutely nails game pacing. It does this by initially limiting available controls and construction options to the absolute minimum until we reach a certain population. This trend continues through to the late game and has the combined effect of discouraging out of control financial failure, and giving us a concrete goal to unlock the next tier of our city. (There is a pre-installed mod that unlocks everything from the start if that is something you want to try.)
These goals and unlocks are not arbitrarily selected but instead expand in a logical way. The first set of tools available are simple housing, business, and industrial zones along with roads, water, and power. The only constraint for your city planning is your roads will have to connect to the nearby highway in some way, but beyond that you can opt for a grid style street system or a wacky one that makes no sense to anyone other than yourself. This is easily enough to get off the ground and have a general plan of how you want to build and expand your city.
Zones consist of three possible types; residential, commercial, or industrial. Each of these will have a couple tiers for low and high density as the game progresses, but all are incredibly easy to use. After laying your desired road system it is just a matter of selecting the zone and “painting” the section along each road. Buildings will automatically appear sporadically as demand for them increases. Be mindful of adjacent zones as some homeowners may not enjoy being next to a factory. Specific structures like schools, hospitals, and parks are built individually and can be placed along any road regardless of zone. These will obviously be more or less effective depending on where they’re placed.
After the first milestone you are given access to things like taxes, loans, garbage, healthcare, and education. This would have allowed you to get a grasp on your populations behavior and where your shortcomings might stem from before thrusting you into this next tier. When these are unlocked you are presented with a rather beautiful achievement screen and have access to the base level buildings in each aforementioned category. As expected when these services are unlocked, the events requiring their existence also begin to occur. People start getting sick, citizens will protest a lack of schools, and garbage piles up. Citizens will also complain quite often if they feel taxes are too high, so be sure to manage your income with their happiness. These naturally become increasingly more complicated as each milestone is hit, and more people flock to your city during the game’s progress.
Fortunately, city management tools are plentiful and there is no shortage of information available to accurately determine what you need to do next to keep your city funded and citizens happy. As expected we are given graphic overlays for water pipes, power lines, and operating ranges of the various other services, but we are also given tools to view many other useful information. With two clicks we have access to things such as noise pollution, happiness, zoning, and traffic patterns. The two that I use most often are noise pollution and traffic patterns. Most of the other things I can manage pretty well, but I always fail to adequately plan for increased traffic load while expanding my city. Noise pollution maps are useful for determining just where to place residential zones so owners don’t get angry about their property being super noisy.
Citizens have two main ways of informing you of their current feelings toward anything you do. The first is the typical popup above a house that may be on fire or containing a complaining resident. Clicking on a property that has an icon will give more information on the nature of that complaint such as the taxes being too high. The second feature is called “Chirper” and is brilliantly implemented. It is an integrated social media source that citizens will use to express positive or negative feelings on actions you are taking. For example, when placing a few new wind turbines to increase the power grid we may be greeted with an update about how great clean energy is. Alternatively, if we fail to maintain appropriate sewage systems then the people will surely let us know about a lack of clean water. Occasionally there are random messages unrelated to things you’re doing and offered up a few genuine laughs while playing. The Chirper is without a doubt the most interesting feature in the game.
Cities: Skylines is not only a spectacular addition to the city builder genre, it is a brilliant game on its own. The game’s perfect pacing and wide selection of services will offer a challenge to fans of all skill levels, as well as providing new players the tools to be successful. Not forgotten are the long time more hardcore fans who will easily find equal parts enjoyment and challenge, especially with the included mod offerings and hardmode toggles available. Coming in at $30 it is a top-tier game at a very affordable price that towers above our expectations.