Cities: Skylines is a game which will appeal to two types of people. The first, and probably the demographic that Paradox were going for, are the “deep” simulators, those who dive all the way into the fantasy of mapping out the perfect bus route to keep thousands of little digital people happy. And then there are those who want the escapism of building their own city without limitations or consequences for mistakes, and to sometimes call buildings dumb names.
I belong in the latter camp.
Cities: Skylines has arguably held domain over the city building sim genre ever since Sim City tried its best to ruin itself. Almost like a phoenix rising from the garbage fire of Maxis’ 2013 disaster, Cities: Skylines adopted disillusioned Sim City fans and also made some new ones of its own. It’s beloved, and rightly so.
Recently released on Xbox One as, cannily enough, Cities: Skylines – Xbox One Edition, can the magic make its way to consoles smoothly? Yes is the short answer, but it really depends on what kind of magic you’re looking for.
The guys at Paradox Interactive are notorious for not holding the hands of players. If anything, they swat them away with canes. Cities: Skylines is the prime example of that: it’s an often infuriating blend of trial and error as well as Google searches by the dozen. You’re given a relatively small space of land, pocket money from one of Bill Gates’ kids, and a couple of quick tips on how to start out. That’s it. You’re pretty much on your own.
This hands-off approach is going to bewilder a lot of new entrants to the city building sim world. Although I’ve sunk more hours than I care to remember into early Sim City games and RTS titles, I felt utterly lost here. My first city, Buttstank, started off promisingly. It wasn’t much; just a short strip of road, a couple of houses, and some places to shop. Having sunk my budget into building a less dramatic version of Wisteria Lane, I sat back and waited for the money to pour in and for Buttstank’s citizens to lavish me with praise.
A budget deep into the red and a bunch of pissed off little people later, Buttstank was lost. I went through five different cities in the early goings of my time with Cities: Skylines. Knockerslovakia was my favourite of the bunch, a quiet and secluded town that just about got by. Over hours and hours of gameplay, which usually involved waiting (and praying) to see if the budget was balanced as the days ticked by, I expanded bit by bit while introducing policies that would shape the city in a certain way. It was going to be finely balanced between industry and education with tax reliefs for small businesses aplenty, not to mention the slow but steady transition from conventional energy to wind power. My patience was being rewarded with new buildings, attractions, and public services, which all felt like they were truly earned. I could even have cycle lanes. Things were looking up.
But then everything fell apart. My scheme of expanding an industrial zone to help the economy never really came off, the traffic system was a mess, and people were getting sick for no obvious reason. It was Buttstank all over again: a brave new world brought to its knees because nobody had been given the manual. Sure, the game chirruped (more times than enough) to let me know that the citizens were pleased with the energy-saving program, but there was nothing to let me know something was amiss. Panicking, I built a hospital -as if that would fix everything- and quickly went bankrupt. All the hours of building and waiting were lost.
Incensed and a little bit sad, I wandered back to the main menu to start over. That’s when I saw the unlimited money “cheat”. There was no way I could spend the hundreds of hours required to learn about optimum transit flow through various academic papers, or study to become an accountant, so why not? Rockandsock was born and I was its impossibly rich leader.
That’s when Cities: Skylines came alive for me. Its scope was realised much quicker without having to worry about all the variables that are barely explained as the game was boiled down to its purest form: building a city. And what a city I built; something that I would gladly make a postcard out of. People flocked to Rockandsock to see the stadium, visit its theme parks (of which there are about ten), and to enjoy its clean air. I managed to divvy the city up into two sections after progression was rewarded with wider areas to build on. Where it all began stayed the same, a beautiful mix of green parks, riding stables, and skate parks in the middle of suburbia. The upper corner became the industrial area where boys became men and probably unable to breathe properly thanks to the toxic pollution. No leader is perfect.
With the shackles loosened, waiting around for the game to unfold at its meticulous pace didn’t feel quite so torturous. Stuff happens at a snail’s crawl and sometimes nothing happens at all, which makes Cities: Skylines one of the best simulation games to simply unwind with. It belongs to the same small club as something like Football Manager, known for being perfect to dip in and out of while keeping busy with other things. You will be tempted to browse through your phone while you wait, something which the game is happy to oblige.
For such a dense and keyboard-minded game, Cities: Skylines makes a surprisingly smooth transition to the controller. Sure, establishing roads without the help of a mouse is sometimes like pulling teeth, the UI could do with a modernisation, and the framerate often chugs along whenever you zoom in to look at some dogs (which you will do unless you are dead inside), but that’s always been the case for games of its ilk. The next best thing on consoles, Tropico 5, wheezes and splutters while still delivering a lot of fun, so it’s really just par for the course. The day will come when a city building sim works perfectly on console, but it is not this day, as good a job as Colossal Order have done with Cities: Skylines.
I may not have played Cities: Skylines the way sim purists will appreciate, but that’s irrelevant. Even when my city was crumbling around me, I was still having some fun, just not the kind of fun I want out of a game of its kind. Its unwritten rules are too oppressive and its mechanics are too obscured for me to fall in love with its intense realism, but it’s easy to see how sim fans could lose hundreds of hours to it. If you’re like me and want to build lots of really big things without worrying about the money, you should check out the shining example of just that on the current-generation of consoles.
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The barely explained mechanics of Cities: Skylines coupled with the intricacies of running a bustling city may not be endearing to everyone, but once you find out exactly what you want from the game, you won't find a better example of its kind on the current crop of consoles.
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