Updated: October 26, 2015
Until not that long ago, for me, SimCity 4 was, and largely, still is the ultimate city-building game simulator. In a twist of magic and style, it set the standard for urban building, offering huge areas with interconnected regions and limitless god-like fun ability to terraform and architect the perfect city. You also had mods, which made the awesomeness even more so. Then, in 2015, I purchased Cities: Skylines.
After almost a decade searching for a game that could match SimCity, there finally seemed to be one that might deliver the promise. The challenge was immense. I had spent 3.5 intense years creating my San Francisco region in SimCity 4, with its 60+ districts and 4.5 million people. And with the new HD version on Steam, which fixes a ton of CPU and graphics related problems, the challenge became almost impossible. But I gave Cities: Skylines a chance.
Cities: Skylines is very much a game inspired by SimCity 4, including the daunting mission of having to learn everything, very quickly. If you have never played any urban simulations before, you will find yourself wondering what needs to be done. In a nutshell, you need to connect your roads to the highway. Mind, one-way roads will point in the direction you build them, so make sure you don't create a collision-course road network.
Once the roads are there, you can start zoning. Again, similar to SimCity 4, you have low and high density zones for residence, commerce plus offices and industry. Then, you can also mark parts of your map as districts, which can then specialize in specific production, including agriculture, ore, oil, and forestry.
The next step is to add all the facilities your citizens need, like power, water, garbage disposal, clinics, fire brigade, police station, educational institutions, parks, monuments, and more. The idea is to have a smart and elegant infrastructure that can support high traffic while providing the residents with the peace and quiet and leisure they crave. Of course, it gets more complicated than just that. Public transit comes into play, and you can dot your roads with bus stations, being mindful of how you plan your routes. It is all too easy to get confused and end up with convoluted or incomplete bus lines. Trains and metros are another option, with the former taking precious overground space. Planes, oh yes.
Noise and pollution are critical factors to the success of your urban endeavor, because your people will not be happy living close to large, busy intersections, airports, or garbage dumps. Likewise, proximity to heavy industry and sewage will reduce the value of the land, make people unhappy and sick, and cause crime to rise in affected regions. You can mitigate by carefully distancing living areas far from your manufacturing backbone, with lots of trees and parks in between, but then, there will be more strain on your roads.
Access to cemeteries and crematoriums will also determine the well being of your fledgling town. Just like in real life, people will die, and someone will have to come by and collect their bodies. If left unattended, your city will become unattractive, and there might not be enough workforce for your businesses. In turn, this will lead to partial coverage and availability of essential services, creating even more dissatisfaction and land value depreciation. It's a vicious spiral.
It is critical not to place your waste upstream of your fresh water supply, because you will end up with everyone getting sick all too quickly. But that's almost trivial when you take into consideration the complexity of all your other tasks, to say nothing of taxation, limited budget, and municipal policies.
That escalated quickly
My first attempt was clumsy. All too soon I realized that proper city building requires a lot of forethought and maybe even some formal schooling. But even if you do have a degree in civil engineering, you won't find it easy to master the city building. Yes, you can plan everything, but you cannot predict how your folks will behave, and how the traffic will flow. In the end, much like in real life, neighborhoods will grow bigger and more congested, creeping out, merging with others to become one large, blurred metropolitan area.
Roads will become quite busy, and you will have to upgrade them, create new routes, add more lanes. All of it helps, but then, you will be forced to redecorate, tearing down buildings, causing disruption to peoples' lives. Much the way it is in any big city. Luckily, both road and rail can go underground, so you can burrow below buildings without ruining the landscape too much, and you can also use elevated passageways to create a multi-tiered network. Roundabouts also help, quite a lot really, but still, you will never ever have a jam-free city.
My second city was a much better endeavor. However, this one also exploded from a neat, grid-like, well-planned neighborhood into several twisty, windy, crowded boroughs, touching and merging, with tons of ugly roads everywhere. Noise dappled my city, and there was thick, heavy pollution on the outskirts. Luckily, I had the privilege of using the infinite money mod, which allowed me to use clean solar and wind power. Just imagine what the urban landscape would look like if I was forced to only use narrow carriageways and coal plants and only a rare plot of greenery here and there. This game will make you respect your mayor and his/her engineers.
Fun, fun all the way
Hours swiftly bled by, and I was having more and more fun. After about 40 hours spent perfecting my little experiment, the city population had swelled to a respectable 120,000 people, I had dedicated ore and forest districts, and my traffic was reasonable, especially in the later, newer, less-grid like parts. Still, some areas remain ultra-congested, and I am not sure I will be able to resolve the problem any time soon.
You can still do a whole lot to make things easier for yourself and your citizens. One of the most powerful tools in your arsenal are foot pathways. You can build them anywhere, connecting neighborhoods and roads. They can also go over the roads and railway, or even underground, so the change to your setup can be minimal. Your citizens will gladly walk rather than drive, even if you give them free transit, and this lowers the noise, pollution and traffic. Planting trees everywhere also helps, boosting clean air, health and happiness.
Monuments, once they become available as you unlock achievements through your progress in the game, are also quite useful. They can attract tourism as well as add a small boost to your business and science, so you should carefully plan their location, close to popular destinations and commerce centers, but then not too close to your residential areas or busy roads. How can tourists enjoy a monument if they can't get to it?
Education is another double-edged sword. You do want to have smart people in your city, because they have more lucrative jobs, they pay more taxes, and the crime levels will be lower in more educated, affluents areas. But then, your schools and universities will keep out pumping fresh brains, regardless of your job demand, so you might end up with an overqualified workforce, and your industry will starve.
It is critical to balance the city-wide share of intellect, much like in real life. Some people can be professors and computer programs, and others will be cleaning streets, driving lorries, and delivering pizzas. There must be a right proportion of everything for your city to function properly. You must also be mindful of the city's natural cycle. Sometimes, small changes, especially in the educational sector, may take a long time to come to bear, and consequently, it can be months or years before you see a reversal of the said change. Meanwhile, your businesses will suffer, and you might be tempted to overcompensate, compounding the issue in the long run.
The worst and probably the best part of this game is that it never ends. Cities: Skylines is a simulator of urban life, which comes to bear through your architectural whim and creation. Even if your neighborhoods are all squeaky clean right now, they might not be in a few years. Garbage piles up, you will need more power and more pumping stations to keep up with the growth in population, the traffic will fluctuate, and your cemeteries may get all full. You will have to adjust and change and trim and tweak, pruning an odd building or two, adding more roads, widening existing thoroughfares, planting a big roundabout in a previously quiet suburban locale, forcing people off busy highways into small neighborhoods. It's a game of unpredictable compromise, of balance, of imagination, and future planning, with a great dose of lovely chaos.
The devil is in the detail
Cities are supposed to be loud and messy. And the game does well to project that feel. Decent graphics, combined with the tilt shift effect, creates a sense of reality. But there's more. So much more. It comes down to the angle of your on-ramp and off-ramps, the placement of railway tracks and signaling, the distribution of your different businesses. How well have you planned your bus lines? How close are the buses to their depot? How far do people have to walk or drive to the nearest hospital or school? Can your firefighters get to a burning building in time to save it from ruin? Abandoned buildings have a detrimental effect in their vicinity, attracting crime and lowering land value, which then has a cascading effect on the surrounding shops and houses.
Cities: Skylines does not have an objective. Which is why you cannot win. There's no way to have a perfect city that needs no fixing. There will always be something small, something seemingly insignificant that can be tweaked, and you cannot predict the long-term implications and complications of your actions. It's the butterfly effect, and it comes to bear in every way and sense possible. When you realize we're talking about a computer simulation and not real life, it almost becomes spooky. And beautiful. Definitely beautiful.
Cities: Skylines is an awesome beginning of a marvelous project. But there's more to be done. Sometimes, the game stutters a bit, especially when there's a lot of rendering on the screen. The music is very similar to SimCity, which means it's quirky and melodic but somewhat non-characteristic. The regions you have are nice, but they are much smaller than SimCity 4, and you cannot connect multiple cities at the moment. An ability to auto-intersect roads would be great. More recreational venues and monuments, please. All that said, I have no real complaints, more sort of a grand, exciting wishlist. And of course, this is just the first of many articles on the topic. There's a lot more to come, so if you're thinking, but why didn't he mention that, wait and see.
It has been a long time since I've gone to sleep waiting for the night to breeze through so I can play the game in the morning. Either I've grown older or the games have become less exciting. The answer is the latter, because it happened again with Cities: Skylines. The game evoked that childish thrill, made me daydream of my urban plans on my way to work and back, before sleep, or while strolling around in the park. It has that magic, and it just means whatever else was there on the market simply wasn't good enough.
Cities: Skylines offers an almost divine blend of fun, logic, brutal long-term cause-effect complexity of deep simulations, beauty, and freedom. You can do so much, and even if you replay your maps over and over, there's always something new and fresh happening. Yes, I do want mega regions, and I want more crazy stuff, but the way it is now, we can safely and accurately deduce there's a bright future for Colossal Order and Cities: Skylines ahead of us. This is definitely one of the better game releases in more than a decade. Most warmly recommended, but only if you have the stamina and intelligence to cope with the challenge. 10/10. Off to build some more.