With release less than a month away, Cities: Skylines [official site] could well be creaking under the weight of expectations. 2013's SimCity left citybuilding fans hungry. Cities XXL didn't satisfy the pangs, leaving Skylines in the unenviable position of having a ravenous audience in waiting, the majority of whom have already sent a couple of lackluster meals back to the kitchen.
It could be worse, of course. Everyone could have eaten the first dish that was set in front of them and headed for home. Skylines has a captive audience and at the ParadoxCon last week, I had my first chance to take a close look at what it'll be serving up for them. I played for over an hour, long enough to purchase two extra plots of land and fill them with great looping roads, beachfront residential properties and a couple of graveyards. The signs are very good indeed.
The process of building a city will be familiar to anyone who has ever dabbled with an entry in Maxis' long-running series. Services, recreational areas and unique buildings are placed directly, but the majority of construction is directed using zoning tools – commercial, industrial and residential. The heart of the simulation is in the demand for goods, jobs and housing, and there are three bars at the foot of the screen tracking the current need for buildings in each type of zoned district.
Complications arise as the population grows, and splits off into various segments, each with specific desires and needs. Families want to live in the catchment area of a school and university graduates want jobs that make good use of their education (English Lit grads, like myself, regrettably fail to gravitate toward part time barista roles). Because cities can cover nine plots, each large enough to contain several distinct districts, it should be possible to provide all things to all people.
The zones and the options that open up as population increases are reminiscent of the best of Sim City's history. That's no bad thing, and before I left my city, I clicked through all of the various overlays, highlighting the density of traffic, areas with high crime and pollution, and the flow of water and power. The overlays are useful but are only really necessary when drilling down into the details – the basic view of the city provides an enormous amount of feedback.
Individual cars and citizens (even animals) can be named and tracked as they go about their lives. They're little more than tools to provide feedback, both through their movements and the Twitter-like squawking messagebox at the top of the screen, but they help to make cities feel like living places, despite the somewhat repetitive buildings. The lack of variety is most noticeable in the early stages of a new project, when all zones have similar value and there's no bigger picture to distract, but it's something that Steam Workshop integration should help to address.
Colossal Order are a team of thirteen, perhaps a tenth of the size of the SimCity '13 dev squad, and without the resources of EA to back them. Smartly, they've created systems that drive their cities before spending time and resources providing themes and sixteen distinct cafe designs. Those things will come, provided the demand is there, and I expect the usual mixture of free and paid updates that Paradox apply to their grand strategy titles. Tunnels, for example, won't be in the game at release, but will be added shortly afterwards, for free. A Tokyo-styled reskin of every building in the game might carry a pricetag.
The Workshop and its contents are free, however. I didn't play with the modding tools but, among other things, they'll allow artistic types to import models made elsewhere for inclusion in the game. Even without a fully stocked modshop, Skylines appears to have plenty of content – what it lacks in variety, it makes up for in depth.
There is a sandbox mode, in which every option is unlocked from the start, but I played with progression turned on. Concepts (and the buildings that serve them) are introduced gradually, beginning with roads and the zones that lie alongside them, and progressing to education, healthcare, law enforcement and firefighting. There are several tiers of unique buildings that require the player to reach certain thresholds, including a morbid monument to the dead for the rare murderous mayor.
I had my doubts before playing Skylines. I've always found Colossal Order's Cities In Motion games too fiddly to persevere with for long, and I worried that I'd spend my time with Skylines struggling with the interface. It's neat, clean and attractive though, with water pipes and power lines snapping into position when placed near an applicable node. There's a fine line between freedom of expression and tight control, and Skylines is happily perched on it.
When my city was ticking over nicely, I took a tour of the room to look at the urban sprawl of the other journalists in my session. I'd expected to be disappointed – to see something close to my own 'burbs on every screen – but instead I received unwanted insight into the personalities of my neighbours. One chap had built a Borg-like city of carefully balanced blocks that suggested a mind so ordered it is either sharpened like a scalpel or tensed like a fist. Another had misunderstood several rules of zoning when construction first began, and had a jumbled mess of polluted wasteland shunted off to one side, with grand boulevards sniffily distanced from their own origin story at the other side of the map.
To my right, my old nemesis Fraser Brown (the Scottish chap in this story) had intentionally built his water pump downstream from his sewage drains, feeding his citizens their own poo. We had cities of several types, from my own attempt at a green paradise, with windfarms dominating the open breezy land by the river, to the urban equivalent of The Human Centipede.
It should be added that my city didn't tick over nicely for very long. When I made it back to my seat, citizens were picking up sticks and heading out of town, leaving abandoned homes. The power had run out due to a suddenly booming industrial sector, leaving one entire residential area without electricity. A few new wind turbines remedied the problem but it was a reminder that the movement of people, power, water and cashflow requires attention, and that the city is not a perpetual machine.
There's more, including the policies that add character to a city while providing buffs to certain aspects at a slight cost and public transport (of course) that can alleviate pressure on the upgradeable and freeform road systems. An hour isn't enough time to provide a judgement of the game as long-term entertainment, nor a thorough analysis of its mechanics, but it's enough to dig into the basic structures. The interface, a couple of early niggles aside, is informative and pleasantly tactile, and cities function as you'd expect them to.
If I have a criticism, it's that Skylines feels very much like the game I wanted SimCity to be. It has the scale, and smart systems with legible cause and effect. What it's lacking, in the early stages at least, is a distinct character of its own. It didn't surprise me (perhaps the poo-feeding surprised me) and perhaps it doesn't need to, but I hope that the late game will break the template a little. There's cause to believe that will be the case.
Given the possible size of a city, it should be possible to provide all things for all people. When reaching the limits of the enormous maps, it'll be necessary to use the ability to name and partition districts in order to keep track of various areas with their own income levels and related demands. These districts can have separate policies applied to them, including taxation, allowing for cities with clear class divisions, including gated communities, sterile but pricey inner city developments, and thriving suburbs.
Communities of various sorts and cities within cities. There's a thought. Whether Skylines achieves that or not, it'll almost certainly scratch the SimCity itch and that's a huge relief.
Cities: Skylines is out March 10th.