Who knew that running a city was so complicated? It turns out there’s more to it than bunging a few roads down and sticking houses next to them, and as such, despite a few notable exceptions, consoles tend not to be the preferred homes for city building games. As far as this generation has been concerned, gamers have had one option up to now, and that was the decidedly tongue-in-cheek fifth entry in the Tropico series. Cities: Skylines is changing all that, at least if you own an Xbox One, and now console owners can get a taste of the current king of the city building genre.
It’s fair to say that it’s been a few years since my last city building excursion, thanks in part to not having a modern gaming PC, and alongside the RTS, it’s a genre that doesn’t immediately sit comfortably with a console’s controller in hand. Tantalus Media have however done a pretty solid job here at making things as straightforward as possible, though as with the PC release of such a UI heavy game, it’ll take some time to become accustomed to where everything is.
For this Xbox One Edition, the bottom of your screen houses enlarged versions of each category’s icon, which you navigate backwards and forwards through with the D-Pad. This is the easiest solution, and one that on the whole is liveable, though you lose the speed and immediacy that a mouse click would give you. The fact that the cursor isn’t accurate enough when navigating your city can add some frustration as well, and there’s no option to alter its sensitivity.
You will begin to build your city by bunging a few roads down, there’s no escaping that, but then Cities: Skylines tasks you with adding layer upon layer of detail and systems into your city as it grows. You’ll lay sewage and fresh water pipes, as well as pylons from your choice of power plant, before selecting what type of zoning to set along each road, with housing, commercial, office and commercial districts having to work in harmony for your small hamlet to grow into a sprawling metropolis.
From there it’s onto services, with education, law enforcement and the fire department being early necessities before you begin to work on a functional public transport system to get your citizens about. With each citizenship milestone new buildings, services and policies will unlock, enabling further growth and expansion. In practice it’s deep and enthralling, and you’ll find yourself, bleary eyed at three in the morning, working on bus routes.
You have to select the Inspector tab in order to check out a building you’ve already built or that has popped up in a zoned area, which definitely isn’t the most elegant solution when you’re trying to find out what’s going on in that specific spot. Still, as you cycle from Roads through to Monuments, Cities: Skylines doesn’t really punish you for taking your time.
In fact, Cities: Skylines’ overall pace is sedate to say the least. In the move to home console, and its more humble spec, one of the key things that has been lost is the ability to fast forward time. Each day lasts around twenty seconds, and you’ll often find yourself having to hang around for your city to generate more money so you can make the next improvement, or promote the next level of growth. At the later stages, when you’re juggling umpteen different problems as your city infrastructure begins to creak under its own weight, you’ll have plenty to do, but when you’re starting out it can be fairly frustrating how slowly time passes.
Cities: Skylines does do a pretty good job of telling you what’s going on at any moment, even if it does an awful job of introducing itself to you. Emoticons will appear above homes and businesses, calling your attention to various problems, from isolated incidents such as fires, to rolling blackouts due to a lack of electricity – easily done if your city planner happens to inconsiderately decides to build a road through a pylon.
You’re probably going to have to work a lot of that out for yourself though, as Cities: Skylines leaves you to it most of the time. Sure, you can use the Inspector function to check out most things, and holding down Y gives you access to the six main information menus; City Info, Areas, Economy, Policies, Milestones and Info Views, but at the outset you’ll find yourself searching through them all too often in order to find the information you actually want.
This is, of course, if you can actually find the problem; my city had bacteria in the drinking water, which I knew about thanks to the helpful “Chirper” feed that appears every so often, but as far as I could tell it was fresh water going into the system and sewage coming out downstream from this. I also just built another hospital. It turns out I’d polluted everything with my bustling industrial area. Everybody died.
One of the problems that the game has gained in its transition to Xbox One is a loss of performance, though it’s something that you can probably live with. The console simply can’t cope as well as you’d hope when things become too complicated. When the engine is being pushed, such as when you zoom in on the action and there’s a lot going on, at night with the city all lit up, with smog from the factories hanging in the air, or with fire breaking out and your dedicated fire department rushing to the scene, Cities Skylines begins to chug.
On the whole though, if you’re a viewing things at a distance it manages to maintain a much more stable refresh rate. You can pan and zoom around quite happily at a distance, even as your city expands, but you have to be prepared for the crunch when you’re zooming in.
Despite some technical issues brought about by Cities: Skylines’ transition to Xbox One, it remains an enthralling city builder, and one which has virtually no competition on console. The most keenly felt loss is the ability to fast-forward through time, but for those who succumb to its more relaxed pace, Cities: Skylines is liable to remain the best home console city builder for some time.