Cities: Skylines is walking into a slightly gloomy landscape. The city-builder genre is mostly a desert, punctuated only occasionally by flashes of creativity. Even Maxis has fallen by the wayside, shut down, leaving behind the disappointing SimCity.
Forget all of that. Skylines is an elixir concocted by Finnish alchemists, made from all the ingredients that a great city-builder needs. I’ve been kept up again and again, fashioning my urban utopias, and when I do sleep, I’m haunted by roundabouts and sewage pipes.
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In early 2013, I played a preview build of Cities in Motion 2, the previous game developed by Skylines dev, Colossal Order. Ostensibly, it’s a game about running a transport company and making it a successful business. Underneath that, though, is a game where every resource at the player’s disposal goes into keeping the blood flowing through the arteries of a city.
Each stretch of road, every bus stop, every link in the transport network is important, and even small changes can have meaningful results. As I fiddled around with the game for the first time, trying to get an old lady to use my bus, I started to wonder what a full-on city-builder developed with this eye for detail and this obsession with the veins that fuel cities would look like.
It looks like Cities: Skylines.
Everything in Skylines starts with a road. The very first thing you do is drag out that first stretch of tarmac from the highway, the first little piece of the city. Eventually that will connect up with elevated intersections, roundabouts, bridges and other roads both small and huge. Everything grows up around them.
After that first tiny bit of road construction, the city is ready to be built. With time and patience, anyway. Building it is like filling in the gaps between the roads. Residential, commercial and industrial zones can be painted next to them, or fine-tuned thanks to a zoning tool that allows you to customise the area by filling in the entire thing or painting each small square individually.
If there’s demand for the zones, people will move in quickly, and houses, shops and factories will spring out of the earth. A place to stay, a place to work and a place to shop -- that’s three needs covered, but citizens need quite a bit more than that. They need electricity, water, waste disposal, healthcare and schools. Even when they die, they still need things. Well, they mainly need somewhere to go, like a cemetery or crematorium.
That equals a lot of management, but finding problem areas isn’t a chore. Icons appear over buildings where there’s a need going unmet or action that needs to be taken, while a big list of overlays can be applied, so you can spot trouble clearly. These start off simple. People want education, you build a school. There’s not enough electricity, you build a new wind turbine or power station. But as the city expands, the problems might remain the same, but the sources become more complex.
Usually, it all comes back to those roads that I keep going on about. If your citizens are wading in rubbish, then the obvious solution is build a new landfill or incinerator. That’s expensive, it will cause more unsightly, unhealthy pollution and it might not actually solve anything. Landfills send out trucks to pick up rubbish, but if the road system is a mess and there’s congestion everywhere, then they won’t be able to do their job effectively. Rubbish continues to mount, people leave, the city goes bankrupt.
Fiddling with the roads means that future won’t come to pass. Some one-way streets might help, or a roundabout to help the traffic flow into different streams. There’s certainly no dearth of options. When managing a metropolis, trying to figure out which option will work best is the tricky part.
The flexibility of the road tool makes laying out a city intuitive, even when it’s challenging, as you try to make the absolute most out of the space. It’s surprisingly easy to make elaborate tarmac lattices, even if they might not be very effective roads. By toggling snapping off, you can get even more freedom, since the roads won’t automatically attempt to snap to a grid. A traffic overlay displays the most congested spots, then it's just a matter deleting the old road and replacing it, or adding new routes.
All of that is a concern for a more experienced mayor, though. Skylines starts off slowly, teasing with the promise of something huge later on when you zoom out to look at all the plots of land. One plot in Skylines is the size of a SimCity town. There are nine plots in each city. It’s huge. But you only start off with a single plot.
New plots and new buildings, often advanced versions of earlier ones, unlock when the city reaches specific population milestones, providing a steady stream of new toys to play with. Special, usually massive, buildings unlock after different criterias have been met, like having a lot of commercial buildings. It stops mayors from blowing all of their cash on buildings that the city can’t support. A 1,000-person village doesn’t need an airport.
It’s when you hit the 8,000 mark that Skylines starts to let you really create a city. That’s when high density zones and offices can be laid out. More people get squashed into the same area, which means more traffic and more pressure on services. But by then, there’s a foundation that can support it because the suburbs and industrial areas have already been developed.
When a city is managed well, it evolves. Residential, commercial and industrial zones with high land value, where the citizens have all of their needs met, essentially level up. They become shrouded in scaffolding, and when it comes down, a bigger, spiffier building stands in its place. Placing zones helps a city expand out the way, but taking care of the people in those buildings is what makes the city grow upward.
No matter what size, Skyline’s buildings are attractive, detailed models, sitting somewhere between SimCity’s cartoon aesthetic, and Cities XXL’s more realistic one. You can zoom in close to street level, and watch the crowds swarm around buildings and the reflections on the grocery store windows.