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The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 9th - Cities: Skylines

2015's best simulation game.

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What is the best simulation game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Cities: Skylines!

Alec: Skylines is an odd one, because on the one-hand it seems quite short-lived: you max out your city, unlock everything, bludgeon your way into a mostly functional traffic system, and then you’re done. There’s nothing else to see. Yet on the other hand, it’s a game I’ve returned to several times, for both work and pleasure, and happily started from the ground up all over again.

I think that’s the key: you give it a little rest between cities, and somehow it feels almost as fresh again a few weeks later. If this is indeed happening on a larger scale – i.e. it’s not just my errant memory at play – then Skylines has bottled the lightning that recent SimCities has not. It’s become a perennial in the way SimCity 2000, 3000 and 4. A game you can always go back, and a game that you will always feel better for playing.

Much of this is because Skylines is so gentle. Running out of money is something you almost have to do deliberately, while even the most apocalyptic disaster can be recovered from in a surprisingly short amount of time. Its interest is in letting you tinker and rewarding your time investment with visible growth, rather than punishing you for errors or hanging some sword of mayoral Damocles over your head. Whether this makes it more or less of simulation I’m not sure, but it does mean that it’s simply pleasant to have the thing running. I’m not damning with faint praise: pleasantness is something that games often overlook in favour the tediously ‘visceral’ or the contrived ‘delightful’.

This is why the notorious Chirpy faux-twitter feature was so badly misjudged, of course. For a game that succeeds so well because it doesn’t pester and it doesn’t push to then include something which needles us with constant notifications was bewildering. It’s like watching the Great British Bake-Off but with Alan Carr popping up to badger you to vote for your favourite soufflĂ© every five minutes.

Of course, mods soon made short work of that particular boo-boo, and Skylines is the laconic tinkerer’s toybox it’s supposed to be. I am quite certain I will return to it before long, and that I will probably do exactly what I did in it the last few times, and that I will be quite satisfied by that.

Pip:I haven’t been playing Skylines so much as tinkering with the different colour mods available. Because of that I haven’t actually been playing it as a city simulator but as a 3D instagram sandbox. I appreciate that isn’t the category we’ve assigned it but it’s something which has been surprisingly lovely.

John: I hate city management games. I think I hate management games. I didn’t always, but my theory was that I had a pre-allocated allotment of patience for worrying about such busywork and exhausted it in the 90s. And then along came Skylines.

I’m bewildered that I enjoyed playing it. I’m further bewildered that I played it even though it wasn’t a game I was planning to write about on RPS. And yet there I was, drawing out roads, laying water pipes, worrying about electricity supplies.

I think a large part of it was that it remembered to be simple in the right places. It really was a return to SimCity 2000, where it felt like play rather than work. I am a tired old man, and if a game reminds me of doing taxes, I run screaming from the room. Skylines managed to avoid feeling like taxes – or perhaps even more cleverly, it was playable in such a way that I could avoid doing the taxes.

I am quite certain that Skylines 2 will be a game I want nothing to do with, feeling as it will that it must add Add ADD to the game, leading to elaborating and complicating, fussing and tax-doing. Such is the way of these things, diving deeper and deeper into their own niche until someone else has to come along to be accessible again. But well done Skylines, for being an enjoyable game in a genre I really didn’t think I could enjoy any more.

Adam: Remember that time when anytime someone mentioned Deus Ex, someone else would immediately splutter “BRB reinstalling LOL”? Maybe that time never ended and thousands of people just started prepping themselves for another day with Denton. Sorry, if that’s the case. Or maybe I should say, you’re welcome. Presumably you wouldn’t be going back for another playthrough if you didn’t think you’d enjoy it?

Cities: Skylines has become my new Deus Ex. As soon as I read an article about it (or write one, in this case), I put the evening aside for some urban planning. As a management game it hits the perfect sweet spot for me, allowing me to develop an aesthetically pleasing or unusual city, yet also rewarding efficiency should I choose to be sensible. It’s the game I play when I’m listening to podcasts or keeping one eye on a football match. It was my companion throughout the baseball season, filling the time between exciting moments (and, yes, sometimes that meant it had to fill several days at a time).

What amazes me is how swiftly Skylines can transition from pleasant background noise to incredibly important foreground noise. There have been entire weekends throughout which it’s the soundtrack to my life. It is both the antfarm that I like to watch and poke at, and the simulation that I long to understand and conquer. That it has harnessed modding and digital distribution to become a triumph of the best that is new and old in PC gaming is icing on the cake.

Graham: Glimpse behind the veil and discover how we pick these games: we make a big list of the games we like, we vote, and we whittle it down to the games we like most. Like last year, we then apply awards to those games after the fact – both to cement our recommendation and sum up our feelings. There were a number of games this year that could have adequately satisfied the title of “Best Simulation” – Prison Architect included, to which we awarded Best Management – but I think Cities: Skylines is the only game of the bunch where it’s the simulation I’m most enjoying.

Particularly the traffic. It’s no surprise that developers Colossal Order, previously the creators of traffic management series Cities In Motion, nailed the flow of trucks, lorries, tractors, hatchbacks, saloons, hearses and emergency vehicles through the sprawling metropolises players build, but it’s a matter worth celebrating. It’s not just that the drivers inside do a decent impression of a commuter, appearing to have fixed destinations for work and rest, but that the engine is able to support so many road warriors at once.

It makes your city a hive of activity, an antfarm that’s entertaining to watch, but also means that problems – poor transport links and the traffic jams that follow – are immediately spotted and understood. Tweaking your road network to try to loosen up the blockages turns out to be a far more satisfying and visual problem to solve than almost any other; much more so than balancing a budget or casting area of effect police station spells to cut down on unseen crime.

Like Alec and Adam, I have returned to Cities Skylines repeatedly throughout the year to dabble. For the past ten years or so, I was still continuing to do the same with SimCity 4, the last great city management game and one that was still being held aloft by mods. Now I’ve laid my old DVD copy to rest and Cities Skylines has taken its place.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

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