The announcement for Cities: Skylines saw Paradox Interactive and developer Colossal Order pick up their slingshot and head out to do battle with the city simulator Goliath that is SimCity. It felt like almost every single bullet point on the back of the box is a little dig at how EA stumbled so badly last year, from offline play to mod support, but it does genuinely give them a golden opportunity to take advantage of.
Whereas CO’s previous games, Cities in Motion and its sequel, both dropped you into the role of a real world city’s public transport magnate, Skylines pulls the focus away from the nitty-gritty of bus timetables to put the construction and management of the whole city in your hands. It’s a genre in which it’s difficult to be too adventurous with the game mechanics, and so there’s a pleasing familiarity to how it all works.
Once you’ve picked an area in which to found your city, you lay those first roads from the motorway, to provide the backbone to your transport system and the city layout. It’s entirely up to you whether you go with the rigid and efficient grid system of many U.S. cities, the chaotic sprawl of European cities or something altogether more unusual. As you can see in the trailer above, there’s a lot of flexibility to the road building in this game.
With the initial layout set, you then need to set residential, commercial and industrial zones, which will see houses and businesses spring up. You can zone for both low and high density versions of each, letting you pick a focal point for your city’s development, and there’s a healthy number of options in the zoning tools, whether you want to paint them in with a brush, zone whole blocks at a time or be even more granular in your approach. Your next job is then to provide them with utilities such as water and electricity, before turning an eye to public services in the form of education, healthcare, police and so on.
If you’re familiar with the genre, you’ll probably feel right at home with how the game plays and how the systems work, but it should also be pretty easy for newcomers to pick up and play. Laying water pipes and hooking up distant power stations are perhaps the most abstract, but then there’s common sense things like putting the sewage outlet downstream from the water pumps and trying to keep smoggy industry away from residential zones.
Of course, the game will try to help you out with certain tasks, so when you have the coverage of a police station represented in real time before you place it, it removes any real guess work. Often, this kind of government building or utility placement will strip away the textures and the colours of the city, leaving you with quite a bare infographic styled view in which to make your informed decisions – this did admittedly look quite reminiscent of SimCity. There’s also a feedback system called Chirper – the inspiration for which I’m sure you can all guess – where the populace post messages about what’s being done well and what needs to be improved.
Most impressive for me was the manner in which your city can expand, pushing up to a simply vast 36km2 area, made up of your choice of nine tiles from a grid of twenty five. It’s an interesting system which means that you can play from the same map several times and pick different subsets within.
Given the scale, it’s not really how much space you have to play with, but what you can then do with it. Thanks to a districts system, you’re able to carve up the land into distinct and nameable areas and get a lot more granular control over your economy, in particular. It might be that you set more favourable taxes for businesses in the city centre, to keep the bankers sweet, or you set different rules on foresting, to keep that particular industry happy with you but not impact the populace. Then again, maybe you just want to mess with your populace and ban pets in a particular neighbourhood.
There’s a lot of flexibility there, as your city grows, and as you head towards the end game, your options go further than the usual large sports stadiums, big casinos and so on. A fusion plant will eventually become available to you, for example, to provide near limitless power and free you from certain gameplay constrains.
One of the most exciting things for diehard city builders is bound to be the extensive mod support. It seems that it will be possible to add to practically every aspect of the game, whether it’s something simple like creating a new city decoration, to diving into the map editor (in lieu of having randomly generated maps), or creating your own custom buildings, vehicles, and even entire themes to complement the handful included in the game. Everything will be shareable via Steam Workshop, too.
While there should be a decent variety of styles included, the mod support should help flesh out the game’s visual content early on, as Cities: Skylines is really setting the foundations for CO to build upon in future, while also aiming for a $30 price point. So there are a few odd omissions at this point, like the lack of trams to go alongside buses and underground systems, but Paradox as a whole love to engage and listen to their fans, so features and content that are in high demand could quickly climb to the top of the list for addition via both free patches and paid expansions.
While the comparisons to SimCity are going to be inevitable, they work in Cities: Skylines’ favour and Paradox knows it. So there’s naturally a nod and a wink to the offline play and the map size, but looking beyond that, there’s also some nice ideas like the districts that could help it stand on its own two feet.