Wot I Think – Cities: Skylines After Dark

After Dark is the first expansion for Colossal Order and Paradox’s well-received citybuilder Cities: Skylines [official site], and is focused on tourism, leisure and neon-lit night skies. It’s out today, and here’s what I made of it.

What could have been a goodwill-killer has turned into yet another poke in the eye for EA’s approach to ill-fated SimCity. Cities: Skylines had flung the doors open to modding from day one, and by now it’s unbelievably simple to render the entire game essentially unrecognisable, and massively improved, with a just a few clicks. With all this free stuff raining down, what possible point would there be in a paid add-on?

SimCity was a walled garden in order to ensure it could subsequently be nickel and dimed in the manner of The Sims, but first Skylines expansion After Dark proves that philosophy was misguided. It neither interferes with nor is undone by the legion of mods, but instead identifies and fills holes in its central simulation, thus improving the game as a whole.

In a world where game add-ons so often mean #content, DLC with a real purpose stands out a mile. It’s trying to do a whole bunch of things to the parent game, not just cram in a few new policies and some pretty night-time buildings.

First and foremost of these changes is intended, I think, to address Skylines’ major shortcoming, which is that for many folk it wore thin after they’d built their first couple of cities. Expanding, at least in the middle stretch of a game, became too much about repeatedly zoning new areas and connecting up water pipes, rather than exciting escalation.

What After Dark does is offer alternative goals – different ways of expanding, with their own big-building pay-offs. And, most importantly, the option to build a very different type of city, regardless of how many official and unofficial buildings you might have stuffed into it. Though we get some lovely neon lighting to look at, After Dark is not really concerned with the pleasures and sins of the night, but rather on making your city more flexible.

Colossal Order achieve this by fleshing out what was perhaps the weakest part of their game’s simulation – commercial zones. These primarily retail areas weren’t anything to really care about, and had nothing of note to finesse. Efficiency of placement brought in more cash, but there wasn’t really a way to make them reflect your city’s ethos in the same way that tweaking policies and districts for residential and industrial areas did.

Now you can manually tag Commercial zones to be Tourist or Leisure districts, which leads to new types of automatically generated buildings and super-structures in either case, with an emphasis on plenty of colourful night-time lighting. There is perhaps a little bit too much thematic crossover between the two district types – tourists want leisure – but nonetheless you’re likely to find yourself building new, discrete zones which ultimately make your city look more dramatic as well as making you far more thoughtful about how and where you place commercial zones.

Without specifically planning too, I ended up with a marina area on one side of town, designed to meet my residents’ shopping and consumption needs, and a Magaluf-like high-rise hotel nightmare not too far from the airport on the other side of town. While in reality each of these would be horrifying troughs of binge drinking, here they’re about bright lights and big money.

Where airports, mainline trains and cruise ships had previously been late-game fripperies I’d stuck in because I could, now I was trying to place them as soon as possible in order to feed endless visitors into my hotels, beachside restaurants and jetski rental shacks, and to watch those areas rise sky-high in response. My poor residents got short thrift, just sardined into the centre as and when I needed more staff for my vast tourist-trap.

Nothing I’d done or even planned was particularly different from what I had in vanilla Skylines, but I wound up feeling profoundly different about my city. I didn’t much care about its attractiveness, or about the quality of life of its residents: just about whether those tourists were piling into my airport and harbour. Though the space was the same, my city felt so much bigger because it had these new areas. Expansion wasn’t about spread, but about creating districts with specific purpose. More things to thinker with, in other words.

I’ve said somewhere before that Skylines is refreshingly non-capitalistic compared to SimCity: it’s more about the pleasure of tinkering than the hamster wheel pursuit of cash. After Dark, by contrast, turned me into a money monster. I had to feed the beast, rather than just placing something big as a reflection of being on an even keel for a while.

This is a choice, not a mandate: making phalanxes of hotels that spread and improve is an alternative (or additional) way to max out wealth, landmass and access to monuments. If you want to make a more residential and/or industrial city, you still can. You can do both, in fact, if you have the will and headspace to (and if you’re doggedly sticking to building options only unlocking when you hit population milestones, but at this point I’m starting new games with everything available from the off). I enjoyed building philosophically different cities: where once I was building Chicago or Boston, now I was making Vegas and Saint-Tropez.

Well, sort of. Skylines’ greatest problem was always its somewhat anodyne appearance, and that hasn’t changed dramatically here. Some of the new night-time scenes, festooned with neon and uplighting, are spectacular, and make the game look better than it ever has before, but it all still feels like a melding of US and Euro architecture with all the edges filed off. I’d love for a future expansion to really focus on tweaking and honing your city’s aesthetic, to truly reflect different cultures and architectural styles, but then again the modding community’s made great strides there already.

Trying to cram in ever-more detail, now that we’ve got zoos and casinos and beach volleyball courts in there alongside everything else, is showing up the limitations of the engine too (or, at least, the limitations of just how much it can be reasonably expected to render at once). Seeing a cuboid polar bear or volleyball players who look like they fell out of a Quake 1 mod doesn’t really create the I-made-this excitement, but instead faint deflation. Skylines was always better at buildings than lifeforms, but with After Dark’s focus now being on things lifeforms like to do rather than simply where they live, work and die, the cracks are a little more obvious.

Long-standing irritations, such as the endless busywork of waterpipes, finickity pylon placement and opaque traffic problems, haven’t gone away (and, indeed, the provision of utilities remains Skyline’s least interesting aspect), but this is really an expansion concerned with filling holes and expanding possibilities, not rethinking the foundations.

It does that very well, both by giving me new objectives and by making more of underplayed features – the novel but hitherto slightly pointless district system also gets new purpose, thanks to the big effects of the Tourism and Leisure concepts.

I’m not sure I’d go all the way to saying After Dark is essential, given I saw every new feature and building it offers within the space of a single (if intense) day’s play, but I think it’s about as a good an expansion as we could have wished for from Skylines. There’s also a whole bunch of smaller new features I haven’t mentioned, such as bus and cycle lanes, taxi services and prisons (intended to reflect rising crime at nights, though honestly this wasn’t something I noticed so long as I was sufficiently zealous about police station placement) and different taxes for night-time businesses, and while none of these are revelatory, combined they feel like a substantial box of new toys.

Best of all, After Dark is a true companion piece to all those wonderful mods, not a misguided attempt to replace them. If anything, we’ll end up with new mods designed to take advantage of After Dark – famous hotels and seafronts, gaudy Vegas strips and maybe even some more convincing zoo animals.

After Dark is, I think, the best possible outcome for Skylines: successfully sticking its hand out for more cash but doing nothing to puncture goodwill in the process. Cue more swearing at EA HQ, perhaps.

43 Comments

  1. d32 says:

    Don’t be too rough, that bear is cute!

    • Gap Gen says:

      Polarising opinion, clearly.

      I think Cities’ simulation is probably also pretty savage on the memory. In my cities round about 80k people the traffic noticeably pauses, causing huge pileups as the cars decide where to go next.

  2. Lolsmurf says:

    Nice review. The only thing really missing somewhat is the explaining of free features that come if you wish not to buy the expansion.

    Is it worth it’s money by the way ? 15 dollar expansion on a 30 dollar game should deliver at least half the content, no?

    • Rizlar says:

      Since it adds a whole night cycle presumably that doubles the content? :P

      • Rizlar says:

        Ah wait, my bad, the day/night cycle is actually part of the free update. Very nice!

        • Renevent says:

          It really is! I mean, you could look at it and say that since you get a lot of the new features for free the expansion actually doesn’t add that much, and isn’t worth it. I tend to see it as being the developers are being extremely generous and giving everyone new features, while at the same time saying “look, we are giving a lot of the stuff away but we’ve been updating the game since day 1, supported modding from day one, and you buying our expansion really helps support us.”

          Personally I feel like the company behind Skylines is awesome, and absolutely have provided tremendous value to consumers. Buying this expansion is a no-brainer for me.

          • Jason Lefkowitz says:

            Yeah, it’s very similar to publisher Paradox’s approach to DLC for their own games Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4: when a new DLC comes out, any actual new mechanics the DLC introduces are generally also pushed out free as an update to the base game. This arguably decreases the perceived value of the DLCs, but I usually end up buying them anyway since they add a lot of flavor that’s tuned for the new mechanics. And judging by the money Paradox has been raking in, I’m not atypical in this regard.

    • Shadow says:

      ’15 dollar expansion on a 30 dollar game should deliver at least half the content, no?’

      That kind of proportionality has never been accomplished, so it’s an unrealistic expectation of any expansion.

      • Bent Wooden Spoon says:

        You weren’t playing games in the 90s, were you?

        Historically it’s been done quite a lot, just less so recently.

        • Llewyn says:

          Do tell. I’ve been playing games since the late ’70s, and paying for them since the early ’80s, and I can’t think of many examples of that at all offhand.

        • Shadow says:

          Why would you assume that, BWS?

          Expansions were relatively uncommon in the 90s. Perhaps Starcraft’s Brood War came quite close to the aforementioned ideal proportionality, essentially doubling the single player campaign’s length while costing I think 3/5 of the original game ($29.99 vs. $49.99). But could it be said to have added the equivalent of 60% the original game’s content, considering the multiplayer was only modestly expanded?

          Can’t think of any other examples.

      • EhexT says:

        It was standard fare for THQ Relic for one thing. Their RTS expansions usually had at least a campaign as long as the base game and half as many races, for half the price. A ratio that should shame Blizzard (1 campaign, half a dozen units – laughable) into the ground.

  3. BathroomCitizen says:

    If Cities: Skylines replaces SimCity, now we just need a game full of goodwill that replaces the evil The Sims.

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      Harlander says:

      People: Lifelines?

      I’d be pretty happy with Collosal Order eating all of Maxis’ lunch if this standard of quality can be maintained.

      Which means a SimIsle ripoff, aww yeaahhh

  4. phanatic62 says:

    Do you need to start a new game to take advantage of After Dark? Or does all of the content become available to existing save files? My wife and I were building a city together, but I ran out of steam a while back. New content might be just what I need to get back into it, but not if I have to start a new city (new baby makes replaying the early game unlikely at best).

    • neems says:

      I just loaded an old save, and it looks like the content is available. Certainly the day / night cycle and the zoning specialisations were there.

  5. SuicideKing says:

    Didn’t they tweak traffic a bit, to react to the day/night cycle?

    • FriendlyFire says:

      Yes, traffic is affected by day/night, being lighter at night generally speaking, but with peaks in nightlife districts.

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      Bluerps says:

      I think that happens automatically, due to how the simulation works. At night people go to different places, so different traffic patterns develop.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Styxie says:

    To be fair to the game, you’re not supposed to be able to zoom in that close to the models, it’s a mod which lets you do that. Most players will never get that close to the bear cube.

    • Gap Gen says:

      There are some nice touches, like teddy bears walking alongside kids or people getting on motorbikes with their dogs.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Oh also (not graphical, also I don’t think the dog on a motorbike renders either) people arriving at the airport going straight to school, like they’re commuting by plane or are just cutting their holiday super fine.

  7. FriendlyFire says:

    The one thing I still miss from SimCity 2013 is the aesthetic. Say what you will, it was a really pretty game. The art style was more defined and much less clinical, they managed to make a better skyline appearance (more delineation between downtown and residential, higher highrises and larger buildings in general, etc.) and the engine was much more advanced.

    Give me that in Skylines and I’d never look back, except perhaps for the occasional longing of a MegaTower (which is a pretty fun idea).

    • Pantalaimon says:

      Sure, graphically Sim City was relatively good looking (although I think aesthetically a fully modded Sim City 4 still has it – and Skylines – beaten), but it’s not really fair to say it was more advanced than Skylines given that the simulation was relatively non-existent. Skylines actually bothers to simulate the minutiae of the city and that takes up a fair chunk of the processing time. It’s a trade off that has to be made, and given the choice I’d rather have a living city with people holding down jobs, living in residences, and using the city infrastructure to travel around, rather than shinier graphics and flubbing it all, like SC5.

  8. Punning Pundit says:

    If they ever do tinker with the aquifer and plumbing mechanics, I dearly hope they call it the “Kitchen Sink” expansion.

  9. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    I have to disagree with you on the traffic problem.
    If you’re having tissues with traffic you simply aren’t doing it right; the cims, much like us, will opt for a vehicle if there isn’t a solid public transportation system in place. You really need to spend a lot of time and love working out your public transport, trains need to be connected to metros need to be connected to buses need to be connected to pathways. All of which needs to be fed by airports and boats of course. Only then will your city flourish, and your cars flow nicely.
    Turning off traffic lights in big intersections helps too.

    • fish99 says:

      I saw some traffic issues when I was playing it, where you’d have a 5 lane motorway but a huge tailback in only one lane and the other lanes all empty. It’s like they all get into turning lanes far too early, and everyone takes the same shortest route rather than seeking out other routes and filling up the available roadspace like real cars do.

      • SuicideKing says:

        Yeah, that’s indeed what they do. One mitigation is to use highway ramps so that they don’t wait at the point where they join the new roads. Oh and, use the traffic conventions (left/right handed) used in your country, you’ll tend to make better road layouts (or so I found).

        • Gap Gen says:

          Yeah, there are ways to analyse the traffic and optimise the system, which granted is at least part knowing the way traffic is modelled in the game. Stuff like removing bottlenecks further up, even removing exits that are making congestion or replacing highways with slower one-way roads to prevent fast traffic piling up as it slows down to enter the city. Also never allow your heavy traffic to cross urban areas, always force it to use highways. I generally don’t have too many issues with single lane tailbacks in roads I haven’t messed up somewhere, but there are ways to force the engine to use all the lanes with some thought.

    • SuicideKing says:

      And in the game.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      If the player opts for realistic, traditional euro style city layouts they will face traffic issues at some point. Even if they opt for a grid system they will have to deal with conjestion and that requires a massive amount of pre-planning.

      You’re right that there is a method to designing the transport network but not every player is opting for a utilitarian efficient modern city from the get go. It’s not accurate to say people are ‘doing it badly’ if they’re designing their city in a more organic manner. That after all is the strength of this game versus Sim City – you’ve got freedom to design your system and your design actually plays out differently.

      At any rate, both groups of players will run into traffic isssues at some stage, no matter what design philosophy they opted for. I always find when the modern, zoned grid system fails, it fails in spectacular fashion and solving the problem is more akin to software debugging since you have to try out a lot of small incremental changes. The more organic city layouts can often solve their problems relatively simply by adding non existing highways, bypasses or upgrading roads, something that is less of an option for a hyper-efficient tight grid layout. But nonetheless, I do think that solving the issue is a real challenge and the game probably doesn’t do a very good job of helping players in these situations.

      • Gap Gen says:

        My go to pattern is a pod city, with separate zones linked to a common highway network. That way only a certain amount of traffic is ever using the smaller roads. Even in non-pod cities I still isolate industry and heavy commerce in my traffic plan. You still have to be careful, but it’s easier to manage than one big sprawl.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Also it’d be interesting to take an existing city with a bad road network and some unmoveable historic buildings and try to make sense of it. Might actually go back to my first city that I left in a horrible gridlock and do this.

  10. fish99 says:

    To me the problem I had with this game was just the general lack of challenge. It’s just a little too chill, like even when you get stuff wrong there’s no real bad consequences that you can’t recover from quickly. Maybe it needed some pre-set objectives or challenge maps, or natural disasters. Even something simple like having fires spread to neighbouring buildings would have made quite a difference.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      It’s a difficult design issue though, isn’t it? Citybuilder game saves are long term time investments for players, they can spend hundreds of hours on a single map. Having it all fall apart when they’re essentially doing a good job running things is not what I’d describe as fun.

      I think it’s extremely difficult to add even small challenge elements to city builder games without making the challenge too back breaking. Especially when these challenges then scale as the city grows.

      That said I do agree with your opinion. When I think of Skylines, I consider it to be a sandbox game with almost no player challenge. It’s not true to say that there’s no thought needed when playing the game, though. You can still invest time thinking about how to design your city. It’s mostly just that, even if you do a terrible job of planning it, it will still function, and if you do a really good job of planning, it will only function a little bit better. It’s not a game of extremes. I’m okay with that, because I have spent hours and hours in paused Sim City games thinking about city design and frankly it’s not really as much fun as Skylines.

      The one exception to this and the part of the game I do have issue with is that there’s a certain point in the game where suddenly your city has expanded beyond the scope of its existing design and you have to remake the transport and utilities network. That part of the game is incredibly challenging, probably too challenging, even, just because designing road networks is an unenviable task given all the possible permutations.

      So whilst I appreciate that the simulation is complex enough that the traffic matters (unlike Sim City – although even vanilla Cities Skylines flubs it by deleting stalled traffic after a certain time period), I think the developers could do a better job of graduating the difficulty creep in this part of the game, and offering better tools for desigining your transport network. As it is, Skylines exists in a weird binary state where there’s either no challenge or incredible challenge, and the choice exhaustion of the second part can be a bit crippling.

    • ludde says:

      I don’t understand why this isn’t recognized more. I’ve a really hard time keeping interest once I notice you can just do whatever and it won’t make any real difference.

      I had a lot more fun with SimCity 2000, SimCity 4 and so on precisely because I had to fail and figure them out.

  11. Gap Gen says:

    I wonder if they’ve tweaked the simulation. Like I said above I’ve had some issues when my city creeps above a certain number of people and the agents take noticeably longer to respond, clogging up highways as cars literally stop and pause to think with tailbacks growing behind them. It’d be nice to have it scale up better without this issue, but I get that sometimes in sims there are hard limits to what a CPU can pump out.