What am I playing this week? Putting on my Mayoral hat with Cities: Skylines

It’s a pretty rich time for releases, from indie game producers and from the big name studios. The January drought is over, and many companies try to get out their game selections for the Steam spring sale for the exposure that Steam can bring. So I get a few juicy games that have entered my library, including a few new titles from A, AA and Triple A producers. One game genre that until now left my library was the City Simulator genre. EA pretty much had a stranglehold on this genre with the Sim City franchise, and as someone that refuses to support EA due to their various customer and employee issues I pretty much ignored those games. When I heard about all the initial DRM, online only, and limited gameplay of the most recent Sim City games, I smugly considered my bias justified. It did cut me off from a time-killer game, but since I thought there weren’t any good choices out there, I was fine with that.

Then Colossal Order, under the heading of Paradox Interactive started letting streamers pick up their new City Simulator, Cities: Skylines. I’d seen their previous attempts in the genre with their Cities in Motion games and wasn’t impressed, but the videos and the streams I watched perked my attention. The graphics were nice, the interface, simple and it looked like they spent a lot of time really thinking about real working cities and developing their game around it. I didn’t get early access, but it piqued my attention enough that I purchased the game day of release, and well, a good chunk of my free time has now been dropped into an addiction that I shook a long time ago.

If you’ve never played a city simulator before, the premise is simple. You get to design a city, end of statement. You start with an initial budget to get started, and your goal is to build out your residential, commercial, and industrial sectors to encourage people to move in, so your city keeps growing and remains profitable. Along the way you unlock various kinds of public utilities, parks, unique structures, public transport, and you get to manage the taxes and public policies all in a bid to keep that growth up, and keep your people happy. There is no real endgame, unless you consider making every special building, including the game’s versions of ‘wonders of the world’ your end-game, because it is really about the process and about the management, not the goal.

Most sandbox games frustrate me because not only is there no goal, but there is no real direction. City Simulators don’t seem to cause me that problem, because there is always that impetus to grow your city. There are always problems as well that you have to think about to solve. For example, you have to monitor and manage a traffic grid. I’m sure we’ve all driven through a city, gotten stuck in traffic, and swore that if you had the chance you’d be able to design it better. Let me tell you, after fighting with traffic jams and grids in Cities: Skyline, believe me, you can’t do it better. You get the frustration of watching huge traffic jams build up, but you always feel like you have agency because you can try again and again to get your designs right to get the BLOODY TRAFFIC FLOWING AGAIN. Ahem, yes…you get to confront other simplified issues of city management, including water distribution, power distribution, trash and pollution management.

One of the most important parts of any game like this one is the user interface, or UI. Colossal Order obviously takes that to heart, because the UI in Cities: Skylines is simple, but effective. You can find anything along a bottom taskbar, separated into categories based on their utility, roads, fire control, trash collection, health, etc. There is also a policy menu, where you can customize the ‘rules’ of your city. For example, you can ban pets in certain districts, or you can demand recycling, or reduced water usage, power metering, all of which have different effects on the growth and profitability of your various districts. There are also overlays for all your various metrics, traffic, fire and police coverage, overall happiness, land value and property values among others. Colossal Order could really have screwed the UI up, and happily, they did not.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect. Laying roads can often be difficult, as the game makes it hard to understand sometimes why a road is perfectly acceptable in one place, but not acceptable in another because “something” is blocking it. It’s also sometimes hard to understand why your city refuses to grow. One of my cities is at roughly sixty-thousand population and it’s just stalled there. There are three meters that show you the demand between your residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, but it doesn’t give you any hints on how to create demand where there isn’t any. This is a bit of an overlook I think; especially when I look at all my metrics and my population is overall quite happy. It can also make things a bit frustrating when you don’t know what direction to expand when your city stalls out.

I would like to say graphics don’t matter for city sims, but you do have to make a stylistic choice in your style. Colossal Order did spend a lot of effort making sure Cities: Skylines does look very good. It’s incredibly satisfying to switch over to cinematic view and do a flyover of your city. You can also click on any person in your city and follow them throughout their day. This is a small touch, but I really like it as a way to build at least some kind of personal connection with your population. You can also rename anyone, or any building in your city, but considering how much population shifts, finding a person you’ve named is never going to happen again.

Colossal Order has done something I didn’t think was possible, break EAs strangle-hold on a style of game that EA has sunk money into. Backed by Paradox Interactive, they’ve cracked into the market by making a friendly, well-designed, and so far well supported game. They’ve even stated that the community and publisher support for Cities: Skylines has fought piracy of the game, since Steam’s community development workshop has created so much content for the game in such a short time that pirates have simply not found it worth it to keep up. I know that I’m glad I paid the money for it, and it’s going to be in my library for much longer than a week…after all, a mayor doesn’t abandon his loyal citizens, does he?

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