I like to think I’m a good mayor and city planner, but if playing Cities: Skylines has taught me anything, it’s that while I can rake in the taxes, I lack the foresight to prevent regular public service calamities. One week the bins are overflowing, the next week, nobody’s come by to pick up grandma and take her to the crematorium. She’s starting to really stink out the living room.
That’s really the beauty of Cities: Skylines though – and let’s not get this game confused with the very similarly named rival series, Cities XL – that your own over-exuberance when laying down roads and zoning for different kinds of buildings invariably leads to unexpected foul-ups that you then have to go in and sort out. If the bins aren’t being emptied, either the nearest landfill is full (that is if you remembered to build one), the incinerator is over capacity or the roads in that area are just such a mess that the trucks can’t come and collect.
Of course, you can try to create a highly efficient and boring grid system, but half the fun for me is in building eccentric road layouts that weave and wander the land before branching out in weird and wonderful ways to cover the land. Placing roads in this game is a joy, and while you can draw straight lines, my mainstays were the curved and free-form laying tools that with a few intuitive clicks let me create the smooth shapes that I wanted. Roads come in all manner of sizes too which you can upgrade on the fly, with single lane, dual lane and triple lane roads as well as one way roads of all sizes and motorways, for those longer car journeys.
There’s similarly intuitive controls to zone for residential, commercial and industrial, which lets people, families and companies move in and sees buildings spring up. Either use the fill tool to colour grouped blocks, drag a select box across the map or paint with two brush sizes to cover the roadside property in green, blue and yellow. Eventually, you unlock high density zoning and office space, but at first it’s all small houses and grubby looking shops. As the land value increases, they’re quickly redeveloped into more appealing styles, though they’ll still have amusingly obvious names like “All The Things Superstore”. You can rename them if you wish, just as you can any citizen, car, building and even animal, but I enjoy their quirky banality.
Your job as the mayor is really to make living in your city appealing to live and work in. That means placing parks and transport links in residential areas, providing enough electricity, water, schooling, healthcare, fire and police services, and yes, making sure someone picks up the rubbish. You can check the info views separately, but going to place the relevant buildings bathes the whole world in white, showing the respective coverage and how far down the road system each can reach by shading them green. Putting important buildings on a main road or in the right spot on a one way system helps them reach the further, but even then, it’s easy to forget and let them get overwhelmed.
Rather than relying on the road network, electricity and water work differently. Electricity spreads from building to building, with pylons needed to bridge any gaps, but it leads to the odd situation where you’re building temporary pylons to reach the handful of buildings that have popped up and are sat complaining in the centre of your new development. Water, meanwhile, has its own underground pipes system for handling both fresh and waste water, with your job simply being to ensure that there are enough water pumps and that they’re placed upstream from the sewage outlets – the game features a fancy water flow model for just such a purpose, though sadly doesn’t match it with air pollution and wind direction.
All of these things are gradually introduced and made available to you once you’ve founded your city, unlocking successive public services as you hit various population targets. However, hitting those targets also lets you start to buy adjacent tiles of land to the ones you currently preside over and for your sprawl to spill over into nearby areas. With a total of 25 tiles to choose from, you can eventually pick up to 9 2x2km squares, reaching a total of 36km2 of building space. It means that even with the same map, you can head in a different direction and build a completely different city.
While you can naturally try to cover this entire area with buildings, it’s much more likely that you’ll have a different focus in different places. The natural resources are there to exploit with industry, and it’s the districts system that lets you push an area’s focus towards oil or agriculture. Simply painting an area onto the map creates a district, lets you pick an industrial focus if you so choose, and you can you then set local, district specific policies as well. It might be a recycling policy and pet ban for an area filled with high rises, tax breaks for big business, smoking bans or, conversely, allowing for recreational drug use.
A side goal throughout will be to unlock certain special buildings, on your way to building some of the game’s monuments. The monuments range from things like a super hospital to a space elevator, but to earn them, the buildings along the way require that you achieve certain goals. Those could be to let garbage pile up until it reaches a certain level in order to unlock a crummy mall, maintaining an unemployment rate of 50% for 5 weeks, or more straightforward goals like having a cool half million stashed in your bank.
Having that much money is hardly difficult though, and even as I throw more and more public services at my city, I still bring in quite sizeable amounts of taxes. Though there’s a supplied mod built in for unlimited money, as long as you can run a profit there’s really no need to bother with it. It’s also rather simple to keep people relatively happy and your populace growing too – though reaching 1 million is a distant and daunting goal – which makes such a mode feel quite trivial and might see me dabble with the Hard Mode mod for my next city.
What’s quite remarkable about Skylines is just how complete it all feels, considering that this is the first attempt at a full scale city builder from the relatively small development team at Colossal Order. Yet when you dig beneath the surface, you can see some weaknesses in some of the systems. Even with six single way lanes to choose from and wide exits, traffic will often merge badly and focus on just some of the lanes, leading to massive tailbacks. You also can’t upgrade between two way and one way streets and it’s easy to accidentally place a one way road going the wrong direction, meaning you have to tear up the road to switch.
Then there’s public transport routes, which can be tricky to manage and alter overlapping routes, and you’re restricted to buses, tubes, trains and boats for inner city life. All the while, the little Chirper notifications are repeating the same old messages about some guy’s cat being saved by a fire alarm or how having agricultural industry is something from the stone ages. Thankfully, you can mute the little birdie.
But these weaknesses are almost a strength. Colossal Order know that what they have is just a starting point and Paradox as a publisher have a tradition of supporting their games with a long tail of content, support and further development well after release. Though not in the game at launch, we can expect to see tunnels added soon, as well as other forms of transport, regional building types and themes to augment the three in the game so far – northern Europe, southern Europe and a Caribbean theme. Skylines could be a very different game in a year.
The community is also well catered to right out of the box, thanks to the built in tools for map and asset creation, so that you can create your ideal motorway exit and save it, or add your own buildings and people models. These hook into Steam Workshop, and there are already a number of shared maps and city save files to subscribe to. Best of all, someone has already cracked the 9 tile limit, and while not supported by Colossal Order, you’ll be able to build a truly vast megalopolis spanning the full size of the map.
Cities: Skylines might be Colossal Order’s first attempt at a city builder, but it already feels well rounded and complete. There are a few areas that need improving and others that are crying out to be expanded upon, but those will come in due course, and what’s already there lets you build vast cities to your heart’s content.