A city during the day is a hive of activity as people travel to and from work, tourists go sightseeing, and cars, taxis, buses and delivery vans pack the streets. Yet it all changes with the setting of the sun, and it’s this change of pace which Cities: Skylines’ After Dark expansion hopes to capture.
While After Dark is paid for content, Paradox Interactive and Colossal Order are making some of the more fundamental changes to the game available as a free patch, with both the patch and the DLC going live today.
The day-night cycle itself is free for everyone, and transforms the game’s visuals quite dramatically. The shadows grow longer, the lights in buildings and along streets flicker on and the sun dips below the horizon, leaving you with just the artificial lights. It’s quite simply gorgeous to look at, especially with the depth of field effects and the camera at a low angle. I could quite easily spend hours taking screenshots with the UI removed, capturing the setting sun, the morning mist or framing certain landmarks just right.
However, for quite clear gameplay reasons, the movements of the sun do not align with the passing of days in game time. Whereas a day in the game takes just 10 seconds to pass at normal speed, a full day-night cycle is more like 15 minutes, so as to let you feel some of the gameplay changes that come from the hours of darkness, with some more pronounced than others.
Criminal activity has been altered within the game, so that there is crime even if you have a very good level of happiness within your city, and as you might have guessed, criminals tend to come out at night. The appropriate response is, of course, to have more police cars on patrol and ready to answer calls and put the perpetrators behind bars. They won’t affect your game too much, but with the paid DLC, the prison lets you deal with them in a proper fashion.
The budgeting tab lets you set a separate budget for day and night and manage just such a divide in the services, so that you can push more busses down the roads to keep up with the daily commute, before dialling it back and letting the smaller numbers of night-time revellers rely more on taxis to get home. Similarly, some obvious example ideas would be to have garbage collections at night when traffic is a little bit quieter.
Yet the city is far from dead at night. There might be fewer vehicles overall, but the familiar chokepoints still flare up red in the traffic view, and businesses are still running. Aside from the visual change, it can be hard to see what’s different, even if differences are there. The most obvious one that I needed to adjust for was the sudden absence of solar power, which quite brutally neutralises one of the best sources of energy from the original game and left me struggling for power.
Practically everything I’d discussed up until this point is actually part of the free patch that arrives alongside After Dark, with the DLC tending towards specialist new buildings and a handful of new options for the direction of your city.
In terms of transport, there’s a larger international airport, a cargo hub that combines road, train and cargo ships in one, a bus station that can handle numerous bus routes in a single simple location, taxis, bikes and special roads with bus and bike lanes. With an existing city infrastructure, it’s difficult to know where to begin in integrating some of these options. Certainly, I found it tricky to find a place for the bus station in my network, without doing away with my bus routes and starting over. Switching to the new cargo hub was a much simpler task, however, and so too was putting in place the bus and bike lanes.
Getting your city’s night-life to thrive can also be a bit of a head-scratcher, to spot a location where you think should be the leisure epicentre. However, it’s as simple as creating a district or altering an existing one and then picking from either the new Leisure or Tourism specialisation to have night clubs, arcades, restaurants and hotels spring up in place of the shops that currently make up a commercial zone. There’s also more options along the now more valuable seafront locations, where you can place piers, jet ski hires, fishing spots, and so on.
You’ll probably want to start a brand new city with some of these ideas in mind. You would want to deeply ingrain a bike riding culture from the outset, definitively decide on a hub for your buses, rather than trying to shove a rectangular building into a space where it doesn’t quite fit.
It’s in doing so that you see some of the minor weaknesses which still persist. Creating a road network is as joyously simple as ever, but as soon as you start introducing public service buildings, things can get a little awkward. Not being able to upgrade a road to four lanes because you can’t move a landfill back by a few metres is annoying, as is the traffic’s inability to cut across an oncoming lane to get to where it wants to go quicker. Placing larger buildings on a small incline can look awful, as the ground deforms to try and give it a level platform on which to sit, potentially resulting in flying buses as they try to reach their platform in the bus station. Such deformation also hampers the new seafront buildings and how high they sit out of the water.
Beyond what Colossal Order can provide, they’ve extended the modding tools to account for the new dynamic lighting system in particular, but also with the ability to create entire new building sets and to apply these on a district-by-district basis within the game. That means you can have a European-looking town on one of the tropical maps, but in future, I’m hopeful it will lead to cities which capture all of the neon-lit glories of Shanghai or Tokyo, a visual style which I feel is sorely missing from the night time setting.
Cities: Skylines remains a fantastic city builder, and with After Dark it’s getting even better, regardless of whether you buy the DLC or not. Just the gorgeous day-night cycle would have been a worthy addition, but Colossal Order have shown a degree of ingenuity in tying this to new gameplay mechanics, while also giving more options for players in how they want to run their city.