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Wot I Think: Cities: Skylines

Peak districts

Cities: Skylines [official site] feels like the response to a question. That question is “what, exactly, do people want?” By contrast, 2013's SimCity felt like the response to an order: “make them do this.” I don’t wish to get caught up in criticising the controversial EA city-builder, especially in light of the all-but-closure of its longstanding developer Maxis this week, but the ethos of these two games is so very different, even though they’re both in theory offering the same scenario: design a city from the ground up, keep it running, make it richer, make it grander.

SimCity had its own rules, and they came before whatever the player might want. A strict limitation on space to build in, this dependency on building further cities in order to build trade links, and of course the always-online foolishness. The latter aspect aside, it was attempting to do something different with an old formula, but whether or not it did that particularly well, it simply wasn’t what people really wanted. Give me the toybox, let me play however I want to play, and I’ll finish when I’m damn well finished, thank you very much.

Cities: Skylines is an impressive and beautiful game, there’s no question about that. It’s done its homework, it's stuck to traditional guns and it’s pinned the results to mostly excellent presentation. There’s very little about it I can point to say and “nuh-uh” about. At the same time, there is this nagging feeling that everything about it exists to meet the unmet needs of SimCity players and, as a result, it’s hard to put my finger on its own identity and purpose. I struggle to come up with a succinct conclusion to the sentence “Cities: Skylines is great because...” without mentioning SimCity. But maybe “This is what SimCity should have been” is a fine enough purpose, and one which will make Skylines wildly popular (already has, glancing at the Steam charts).

The canvas it provides is the thing to sing about. Skylines has scale in spades: that first dingy conurbation has blossomed into gleaming spires and kaleidoscopic road systems within a few hours. What seems like a huge area to build within at the start of the game soon proves to be just a fraction of the available space. In what seems like a deliberate thumbing of nose at SimCity, you’re regularly given the chance to purchase new plots of land which jigsaw onto your existing ones, as if the game is deliberately egging you on to say “oh come on, there’s no way I can fill that”. But of course you can. That’s what it’s about. That’s what cities are about. They don’t just stop.

There are limits to how big your town can grow, but they’re entirely reasonable ones, and you’re only going to hit them once you’ve built everything there is to build several times over. Frankly, you’ll be out of ideas before you run out of space. There also an endgame of sorts if you want it, with semi-science-fictional superstructures gradually unlocked by meeting certain requirements (anything from enough cash in the bank to filling up tons of cemeteries) and each able to almost singlehandedly fulfil one of your city’s major needs once built. Really though, the temptation to go start a brand new city, based on some flash of inspiration or something you saw in the Steam Workshop menu, is going to hit you long before you’ve ‘finished’ your current city.

Skylines is a tinkerer’s delight, you see. Its tools are clear but flexible, its space is generous and it’s so far away from the rigid grids of citybuilders past. You can create streets and districts in whatever shapes you want, and you can even name those districts.

Such a simple thing, to assign titles to small parts of your town, but it lends so much more personality to it. There’s a profound difference between saying “oh no, the traffic’s backed up between that bit with the factories and those houses I built too close to a landfill” and saying “on no, the workers of Backbreaking Miseryland can’t get back to their homes in Plagueburg.” Naturally, the district system also allows the more sober-minded to get that little bit closer to recreating real-world towns, or the more fanciful to make their own Gotham or Mega-City One.

That’s only part of why I love the district system, which is to my mind the best ‘new’ thing that Skylines does. You define a district by drawing over a part of the city with this brilliantly squidgy paint tool. Its semi-translucent grey-white colour is... unfortunate, but let’s be all innocent and say it’s like smearing jelly over cityblocks. Once that’s done, you can assign policy decisions which affect only it. (You can also assign policies city-wide, then set districts as exceptions).

For instance, I had this district I’d built along the seafront, and what I didn’t want to happen there was to have the view blotted out by row upon row of skyscrapers. So I set the ‘no highrise’ policy, and it remains this cute conurbation of colourful beachfront houses. Then there’s the district with the ‘recreational use’ policy. Bingo, my own Haight-Ashbury. This extends to industrial areas too – you can have distinct farming, lumber or oil districts if you wish. Sometimes the effect of such fiddly is financial, but mostly it’s simply to add life and colour, to stamp more of your own identity onto this thing you’ve made.

Incidentally, you can also rename almost every building in the game, plus every inhabitant and even every car. This is amazing, but almost overkill given the sheer number of moving parts. You’ll be lucky if you can ever find someone you gave a special name to ever again, while only the truly insane will attempt to rename absolutely everyone in town. It’s lovely that it’s there though – just this extra thing to tweak when you’re idling, when you see something that charms or tickles you or just want to send a stupid screenshot to a mate.

It’s just one more sign that Cities: Skylines really wants to be yours, rather than vice-versa. It’s bending over backwards to accommodate its players’ wishes, and it is going to be adored for it.

As for the strength of its simulation, I’d be lying if I said I’m the most expert witness you can get for such things, but I haven’t spotted anything particular egregious. Following people around sees them dutifully move between work and home, while traffic clearly moves or grinds to a halt in accordance with the logic or chaos of your road system. Water, sewage and power modelling seems less elaborate than that in SimCity – you just need to worry about availability and connection, rather than ‘flow’ as such - but I’m not sure that’s any kind of loss. I'm sure other eyes will find shortcuts and compromises in the simulation, but I certainly didn't see any overt signs that it was cheating.

The only thing that might have been a bug I encountered was a train jam. As they exited the map, carrying passengers and cargo out to other, unknown cities, they became backed up into this line of over a dozen stalled trains I could do nothing about because whatever was causing it was out of my city limits, in some place I couldn’t even see. I can’t rule out this being a result of something I did, but even wholesale rebuilds of my own train network just saw the same thing happen again soon.

I’m not worried. There are so many moving parts in this game, and it seems frankly miraculous that this was the only thing to (maybe) go wrong. Often I’d pull out, look at the scale of this thing, all these cars, all these people, all those pipes and think “gosh. My PC is doing all this and doesn’t seem hugely troubled by it.” It looks beautiful and it looks busy.

That said, Skylines’ anti-aliasing leaves a lot to be desired, so I didn’t quite get the crisp model-world I’d hoped for. Also, its faux-tilt-shift camera effect – borrowed from SimCity – seems a bit off. Too often it’d just make whatever I was trying to eyeball appear out of focus. Fortunately there’s a slider for this, which I ended up turning right down, but this does lose a little of the wow factor.

I'm also not sure that the fictional in-game Twitter rip-off is a total success. On the one hand it's a more human way of being notified that there's a problem - someone posts about garbage piling up or a water shortage - but on the other it means hearing the same pretty weak gags repeated time and again. You can pretty much turn it off, but it's a shame it isn't more fleshed-out and varied, given it by default occupies pride of place at top-centre of the screen, offering a notification every few seconds.

These are mere quibbles. You’re going to love it. Skylines is very much the traditional yet hyper-modern city-builder that everyone’s been crying out for. Me, I love it too, though I remain a little haunted by this concern that it’s more of a response game than its own game. In a way, this makes it seem a little unambitious. Even in its style, as gorgeous as it may be it looks and feels familiar right out of the box. We’ve seen what can go wrong when risks are taken with that formula, of course, so it’s probably better this way.

It’s bittersweet, in the week that Maxis died, to see the former king of citybuilders so thoroughly deposed by another. So let’s look upon Skylines as SimCity’s true heir – the line can continue after all.

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