Cities: Skylines

Cities: Skylines is a city building simulator, much as the name implies. Now, when you think "city sim", chances are a certain series comes comes mind. However, where the last entry in that particular franchise was a disappointment to many, can Cites: Skylines come closer to living up to our hopes? I was excited to find out.

If you never played a game of this genre before, the goal is simple in theory but harder to master: start with an empty plot of land, try to build a thriving, growing city. You zone for Residential, Commercial, and Industrial areas, and they fill out according to demand. A meter at the bottom of the screen indicates what is currently in demand. Residential provides workers for the other areas. Industry provides the goods that goes to the Commercial zones.  If connected to outside the city via highways or cargo harbors, industry can also import and export goods.

Demand naturally will change over time as you build. Buildings (with few exceptions) must go by a roadside. So the roads provide, in essence, the framework for your city. Placing a road shows a grid next to it, and these are the areas you can start zoning for the above mentioned areas. Residential and Commercial zones can be High or Low density. Think high rise apartments and corporate buildings versus simple suburban homes and local stores and diners. Industry is slightly different, with instead of High Density Industry, you zone for offices instead. Office Zones provide jobs, but they do not produce goods or pollution.

Shortly after you have residents in your newly established town, it doesn't take long for them to start complaining about things (very true to life!). Power and Water are basic necessities. Water is fairly straightforward. Using water pumps near the shore, or water towers elsewhere, you connect pipes from the pump or tower throughout the city making sure all buildings are covered, then out to a drainage pipe or treatment plant. Treatment plants reduce the amount of pollution going back out. It's normal for your plain drain pipes to spew a sickly shade of purple liquid, giving you a visual that you might want to try to keep the pollution in check. You also always want to make sure your drain pipes are down stream of your pumps, otherwise you actually will pump dirty water back throughout the city.

Power options are more varied, from coal and nuclear to greener options like wind, solar, and hydro power plants. Hydro plants are a bit risky if you aren't careful, due to the dynamic water in the game. Unlike many other games of this genre I played, rivers aren't just "water tiles" for show. Your dam will affect the current. Placed well and you will simply see one side of the river lower. Placed not so well, and you will see water divulge across the dam and flood areas, potentially wrecking havoc on your growing town.

Once your Plant is up and running, all you have to do is connect the power lines to nearby buildings. As long as buildings are within a certain range, you won't need additional lines. Each power plant has its pros and cons -- some produce less electricity, but also much less pollution. Some might produce plentiful electricity but are expensive to maintain.

Those are just the basics. Crime is ever a problem in a city, so making sure you have efficient police coverage is crucial. You also need good coverage of firemen and garbage trucks, and make sure schools cover the residential zones well enough; some industries will have to close if they don't have enough educated workers. Other times you might have a problem of industries not getting workers because your town is TOO educated. Medical needs are another problem you will have to concern yourself with, as well as cemeteries and crematories to handle the dead.

While sludge coming out of your drainpipe and the ground turning sickly colors is a visual indicator that pollution is getting a bit high, the game has several useful view modes for seeing traffic, crime rates, water and power coverage, education levels, land value, and all other city service coverage at a glance.

All the while, all this generates traffic. Traffic can become like an emergent puzzle if you didn't think far enough ahead. Sometimes it might be as simple as making your highway entrance a little longer, other times you might have to relocate your Police station to delete a section of road and install one with more lanes. Public Transportation can help in that instance too; placing a depot and stops around the town to designate Bus Lines. Placing a metro station is just as simple only they run underground so they don't add more vehicles to your roads. You can also make overpasses and such. You can also use train's and rails, and, by making them elevated, ensure the cars on the roads below don't have to stop for traffic.

After your city is a little bigger, you'll get the ability to create districts. These are areas of town you brush over, and you can set policies for just that area. Maybe you want one part of your commercial area to have more tourists. Make it a district and activate the "Recreational Use" policy just for that area. Place a heavy truck ban on certain areas with too much traffic. Set the industrial type to agriculture if there are fertile lands in the zone and so on. Policies work like to ordinances in some other games, but can effect ether the whole city or just the districts you choose.

Unique buildiings give you a sort of goal to work for. There are five monuments. The Hadron Collidor, Fusion Power Plant, Space Elevator, Medical Center, or The Eden Project. Each of these grants a huge bonus Medical Center acts as a hospital for the entire city, The power plant makes you never have to worry about energy again, the Eden Project ups land value, the Hadron Collider takes care of education while the Space Elevator promotes tourism. In order to build each monument, you have to be able to build all 6 of its corresponding unique buildings. That's not so easy as they all have a requirement that must be met for you to build it, such as having 300 city service buildings, or 5000 elementary school children.

There is a nice level of customization to the game. You can click on buildings, districts, and even citizens to give them a more personal feel. The included map maker is also nice and easy to use with its tools to lay out a custom map, and if that wasn't enough you can even import height maps from outside of the game. Once your map is imported all you have to do is set the sea level to be where it should be and then draw your connections for highway, sea, and air, and you are ready to play on your personalized map. Clicking on buildings and people will give you more info on them as well, such as the education level of the workers, where the citizen resides, and so on.

The last time I was excited for a game like this, my enthusiasm was somewhat dashed with the small scale you had to work with. The map in Skylines is much bigger, giving you plenty of room for your city to expand. Many different buildings and features are locked at first, making you work your way up through various population sizes before granting you accessed to things like police and fire stations. One of these things you eventually unlock is the option to purchase more "tiles" to build on. You start off with one plot of land. Each map is divided into 25 tiles which you can purchase up to 9 of for a truly massive city.

Things start off small then grow ever upward and outward. Trying to balance your budget and not grow before you can afford to becomes a real challenge. The economy panel helps you see where your budget is going and allows you to adjust taxes as needed. You can set the tax rates for individual zone types, and another screen gives you tools for adjusting the budget of individual services. More budget for the police, for example, means they will have more patrol cars; less, and you might save a few bucks but might also see a increase in the crime rate.

The fact that you can mod the game will add near infinite replayability. I've seen things from simple cheat mods (click a button to add more money) to more advanced mods that let you take a helicopter tour through the city, or switch to a citizen's eye view. You can import new parks and other buildings players make. Don't like that mod's disable steam achievements? There's a mod for that. Think your computer can handle a massive city even bigger than nine tiles? There is a mod for that too, allowing you to use up to 25 tiles. You can import custom assets other players have made and use in your town. Are you a huge fan of the movie Back to the Future? Then replace the courthouse unique building with the Hill Valley Clock tower, and get the DeLorean Vehicles to have the familiar cars driving through the city. The Steam Workshop has an ever expanding list of Mods, Assets, Maps, and such for you to tinker with.

The normal game mode has you unlocking things in a particular order as you get more and more citizens. However, if you feel stifled in your creativity with such limits, the game came with a mode for everything already unlocked, combined with an infinite money one to create a true sand box experience. (Although, Unique buildings still have to have their challenges met)

Colossal Order seems dedicated to the future of the game which always makes a purchase feel worth it. The most recent patch at the time of this writing added, among other things, the ability to lower your roads to make tunnels instead of just making them more elevated, letting you make even more elaborate traffic systems, as well as new maps with 72 new buildings that give your town a more "European" style. This game managed to be everything I had hoped it would be and then some, with all the wonderful attention to little details and customization options. Fans of the genre wont want to miss this one.