Cities: Skylines Review

Played on Windows.
Also Available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, macOS, and Linux.

So we tackle the second Early Unlock of the Humble Monthly Bundle for December 2018, and it’s Cities: Skylines. I’m actually thrilled to talk about Cities: Skylines because I picked it up in 2016, and spent over a decent amount of time with it and now have a reason to pick it up again. But is it really that good?

Well, it seems that again, similar to Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, we need to jump into the way-back machine and take a look at the landscape of gaming when Cities: Skyline was released, or actually started development.

In 2013 SimCity was released. It was the fifth game in the series, and it had issues. It was always online and had issues with servers, and overall didn’t feel as good as the previous games in the series in some ways. There was a huge push for multiplayer but most people didn’t exactly want that type of game. There were even more problems with the launch.

Colossal Order had just finished making Cities in Motion 2, a traffic simulation game which talked about on city management with a focus on just the mass transportation and needed a new project. Somehow they decided to tackle the monolith that was SimCity. And two years later, Cities: Skylines was released.

I bring this up because Cities: Skyline doesn’t live in a vacuum, however, it’s an attempt to best EA, Maxis and their release of SimCity. The fact is, a lot of the game is comparable to the other. Both games are clearly city simulations, and Cities: Skyline is clearly trying to be welcoming to fans of SimCity while improving on it and it does.

City management has never been a massive market for games. This is similar to 4x exploration games or just the civilization games, so the move into the market was an interesting step. I remember playing both Cities in Motion and disliking it, but in the back of my head I was thinking “I wish this was more like SimCity”. So I believe it is a natural progression for the company as a whole and I think it paid off.

Now, Cities: Skyline doesn’t really have a story, it’s mostly about the progression of the player who starts off as the mayor of a small town, or really nothing and then can grow the town as he wants. There’s nothing holding the player back outside of the game’s rules and money so he can build a city he wants to see and that’s a nice feature.

The graphics in Cities: Skylines are acceptable. They look good for a city management game, but they don’t really shine that much outside of a beautiful skyline. Most buildings feel homogeneous and without a hint, most buildings at a distance look similar, so an office might look similar to a warehouse, which is near a similar looking commercial building.

There’s tons to look at and see here, though you can see some of the similar looking buildings here.

At the same time looking at a whole city, or a close-up view of the street is enjoyable. The city does have some life to it and specialty buildings can stand out. You can also watch a great number of cars driving around. When you zoom in close to the street you can even see people. While you can’t always following them around step by step, you can track your favorite people and even name them.

The game also does have a day-night cycle, as well as having a snowfall addition if you have that expansion. However, I have always thought that the game looks best in the day, and the day-night cycle feels like something that inadvertently makes the game harder to play, or at least detect what is going on. That can be turned off but after a while, it almost feels required to be disabled.

The whole key to a city management is going to be the gameplay. The best looking game could be lacking in key functionality that brings the whole thing down. Cities Skylines apparently knows this and really focused on gameplay and created a really impressive simulation of the world.

The beginning of the game starts rather simply. You’re given a plot of land (you can choose between a number of starting maps, and even get more through the mod interface) and start by building roads out from the main highway. You have to connect the entrance and exit highways to your grid, but from there you’re able to play with the road tools.

You can see the long roads, and the fact that some of these do line up and some of these are just slightly off.

The road tools are critical to Cities Skylines, as of course city managers are always going to be about traffic at some level. In addition, almost every usable building has to be connected to the road in some fashion, the exceptions are water and power buildings which aren’t always required to be attached.

The thing is the road tools are good if you want to create a simple line, a curved line, or even a free-form line. If you want a line to be a certain distance in a direction, it’s fine for that. However, the problem is once you try to create a grid. Building zones (RCI) is created based on a grid next to each road, that is 3 blocks wide. This seems great.

The problem with the tool is that you can make really amazing squares and rectangles that make those 3 block areas become 6 block areas by having two roads side by side. However any minor issue with the shape of the road, and you lose space, have a misshapen area, and lose that idea of 6 contiguous blocks in an area. You normally don’t lose much space, usually less than a square, but those imperfect grids do look bad and buildings can only grow in a contiguous grid from what I’ve seen. So those 6 block wide areas can start to grow mega buildings (4×4) if I understand the rules. Problem is imperfect areas lose that ability.

I would have loved to see a simple “Grid” based system where the game will allow you to map out a larger area and it could build a complex grid for it, with that perfect look to it. In addition, trying to make a bridge over another road becomes a thing of frustration due to height, slope and more, and you can make it work, but it too is an exercise in frustration.

The thing is, this is indicative of a lot of systems. It’s nice but there are theoretical better options out there, though you might be able to understand the reason. The roads are imperfect because hills and elevations will change and so two parallel lines might not perfectly match up. The water system tends to need overlap for a similar reason.

But there are other niceties that are frustrating, such as building a power grid with power lines where buildings would one day go. When you do this, the power lines replace the zones, whereas the game would have been better off to replace the power lines with buildings (Which create their own power grid). It’s frustrating to connect the grid to a far off building because urban sprawl hasn’t filled that area yet, but then realizing you will later have to remove those power lines carefully or suffer the dreaded “inefficiency.”

That’s one of the two biggest dangers of CIties Skylines. Your citizens want stuff, such as power and water, then they’ll want fire, police, garbage, health care, education, parks, and more. The list goes on and on. The game does a rather good job of informing you when there’s a problem early enough, and you’ll have a chance to fix it. Even when things go to crap and the game tells you a building has been abandoned, there’s a listed reason as to why, and if you fix that, buildings will return to being occupied before long.

The other danger is boredom. You see, you can map out a perfect city with every resource and more, but it takes time before a city fills up, and a lot of that is just sitting back and waiting. Even if you have plans, the amount of money you have is limited, so often you’ll be sitting back waiting for the next weekly cash drop to come in so you can get that 10k for a medical clinic.

Whether you are waiting for some more money (like my massive 180 thousand dollars hydroelectric dam) or waiting for something to happen so you can respond to it, there’s a lot of downtime in this game. There are three options for speed, slow, medium, and fast, but personally, I find that fast becomes the default option before long, and even that’s a bit slow for my taste. This might be due more to the simulation speed than a developers choice but often times you will have a goal in mind and you will be forced to sit back and wait for it.

I did the math when I did an initial review for Steam. A day takes 10 seconds, so 365 days will take approximately 60 minutes. That’s a long time, but understandable. However, if you turn the speed up to fast, a day only changes to 5 seconds, so 365 days will take 30 minutes. It’s faster of course, but I feel there could be an even faster mode.

But to talk about the wants and needs of your citizens a bit more, there’s a rather interesting way the game deals with “wants” besides little icons on the screen. At the top of the screen, there’s a bird which is called “Chirper”. An oh so clever spoof of Twitter. The game “chirps” with updates letting you know what your populace thinks. This is usually a rather solid system where people will call out a dead person next door that needs to be picked up or similar. At the same time, the messages can be vague such as “What’s that smell next door?” (dead person).

However, a number of these chirps can be confusing. I have one person in my city who always chirps about not having fresh water. I’ve checked that house multiple times (you can click on their names to see where they are) and it’s getting water. I’ve also checked the pipes, and the water budget (produced vs consumed) and everything is fine. What am I missing? Another chirps about pollution which doesn’t have an easy fix.

One piece that doesn’t help this process much is that you start the game with some money and don’t have a lot of services. At the beginning of the game, you have just the roads and the RCI (Residental Commercial and Industrial) zones. From there as your city grows to a new size (by citizen count) you’re given more tools, such as education, garbage, and healthcare, but even there you’re only given the smallest building. You can build a clinic rather than a hospital, or an elementary school instead of a high school or university.

This is how the game progresses, you master the tools you have and grow to the next tier of growth over 13 different tiers, though this ends around 80,000 people which is a large city but hardly massive. The progression though is solid for your first playthrough as it doesn’t overwhelm you.

You can look at these at any time, but here I just reached a little hamlet and can now take loans and do more.

But, I have a mixed opinion on the progression. I do like the fact that the player doesn’t have to worry about fire or police until they unlock, and even then there is a decent amount of growth before it actually becomes a worry for the player. On the other hand, you have to make a lot of compromises early on and place dirty industry next to residential or commercial. You don’t have the tools to make a green city until you hit 7,000 people so you can convert industry to offices, and even so, you’ll have to use weak wind power until you hit 10,000 for a hydro dam or 19,000 for hydro.

In fact, there are a number of problems that don’t have good options. Pollution is always going to be a factor in the game. Even if you somehow could get only offices buildings, which unlocks later, garbage will still exist from residential areas, and people will always die, both create a NIMBY/pollution. Even windmills make noise pollution and there is not an easy way around it.

Some solutions though feel excessively micromanagey, Every 1000 people who are placed, need a medical center. A hospital works better, but is less efficient, as it costs six times as much and only handles five times as many people. Similar issues pop up with police, and fire departments which are understandable, bigger is easier, not more efficient.

However, if your city grows fast and you don’t keep up with your needs, you might run into poor schools. You need an elementary school for every 200 students. The issue is there’s no larger version of the school. The better versions are to move elementary graduates to high school graduates and college graduates, so to keep everyone happy (And your residential zones growing quickly, as well as supply educated citizens for your industries), you need to place a lot of schools. It’s not a very exciting or even interesting problem to tackle after the first or second attempt. You just plop down a lot of schools to get the right capacity. But if you don’t handle it, office and industry will complain about the lack of educated citizens, so it is a requirement.

In addition, there are only two types of RCI zones for each type. There are low or high density zones for Residential, and similar for Commercial. For Industrial, you can zone office or “industry” which is the dirtier type. The issue though is… there has to be a third size, right? Low, medium, and high? Agricultural, office, and dirty industry? No, unlike Simcity and most of these games, there are only two and it feels like it’s missing an intermediary level.

In fact, I almost imagine it will be patched in one day, many other features are. Unfortunately, the main menu of the game shows a bit of a problem with Cities: Skylines. It’s filled to the brim with DLC. There are 7 pieces of major DLC that cost over 10 dollars a piece, most cost 15. To be honest, they don’t include as much as I would imagine for that price. The leisure industry, for instance, is added with the After Dark expansion is fine, but having played the game without it and with it, I don’t know if I really need the leisure industry.

Similarly, with Snowfall, you get heating, slightly expanded mass transportation, and a snow plow depot. None of these really feel necessary though and at fifteen dollars a pop I really don’t think I’d recommend any of the DLCs, but the platform does advertise them as you boot up the game, every time.

Though before I get too mad about the DLC, I do also have to say there’s Mod Support and while it’s not as far reaching as the DLC, as you can’t add a new environmental type or whole new types of buildings, but modders have modeled new buildings and enhanced some buildings and players are able to easily pick up mods for the game.

While I am not a fan of a game being a strong DLC platform to sell more, I do have to admit that the base game of Cities: Skylines does stand well on its own and I can forgive it. Especially when the game does have such strong mod support, but it is something I am disappointed in because it’s been 3 years since launch and I don’t know if we’ll ever see Cities: Skylines 2.

The thing is I find I do want Cities: Skylines 2, there are a number of issues with Cities: Skylines that isn’t perfect. The speed of the game is understandable, but the roads are frustrating at times. I had this issue when I originally wrote a steam review in 2016, and I still have the same issue. There are some really interesting ideas that can be expanded on. The school system also needs expansion to be something better.

While mods can do some of this, mods can’t do it all, and fans shouldn’t be responsible for making a good game great. I applaud them when they do but games need to stand on their own, not rely on their fans to do so. I’ve said this before and I stand by it.

Here’s two imperfect bridges, They don’t match but I’d love to replace them but that will cost more money. Not a lot but it’s sad it’s so hard to make bridges like this.

There are a couple of other minor issues, such as not having a proper Undo function. I tried to build a highway incorrectly, and then tried to make a bridge over a second road and both times I did poorly. However, the game doesn’t have an “undo” function so I was stuck with my crappy road because I forgot to save before I started a major project and I didn’t have a recent save. Undo would be really useful here and I understand why design might be resistant but without one an unknown purchase can hurt a player’s bottom line and without a way to recover the money (the bulldozer doesn’t appear to return the cost of the road), experimentation doesn’t work as well.

Another minor issue is that some maps don’t seem to have all the connections. I was looking at a rail depot and seeing that it could bring in people from connections outside my city. Sounds great but I didn’t have a Rail connection so that was effectively worthless to my city.

Finally, Monuments and many unique buildings are mostly visual. Every monument has a massive boost for the city, but they take quite a bit to build and there’s a lot of intermediary steps. The “Monument” feels like the end of the game, but to me, it just doesn’t feel particularly monumental, nor something I was excited to chase.

I have called out a lot of Cities: Skylines in this review and the fact is, I do have a lot of minor criticism, but it’s minor. I adore building large cities in the game. Dealing with these minor problems of healthcare, fire, police, and even water and power are interesting and they force you to decide what type of city you want. There’s a really interesting district system that I rarely use but can be used to paint and name different parts of your city, and apply different tax and policies to the entire area instead of only the entire city.

While I have a lot of issues with the road system, I have to admit it’s really easy and intuitive to do everything except draw those perfect lines. Traffic seems to be smart and only becomes a major issue when you have a huge city, and there’s more for me to attempt. The entire experience of Cities: Skylines makes you feel powerful, and limited in all the right ways. I feel like a mayor of a town and it’s a town I want to see grow.

The fact is, Cities: Skylines isn’t perfect, if you can’t tell from the review, but I bought Cities: Skyline initially because I wanted a city management simulator and was hoping it would replace my desire for a new SimCity, and it’s done that in a way that both Tropico and Anno haven’t, As both are resource focused and building heavy rather than zoning.

If you miss SimCity or just are curious about what it feels like to run a city, check out Cities: Skylines, it does everything you want and more. As such I am giving Cities: Skylines a


For all my complaints that’s a high score. The fact is Colossal Order did a lot of good right out of the gate, and maybe they’re suffering in my mind for it. I want Cities: Skylines to be better than it is, but much of what I dislike about the game is core to city builders, they are micromanagement heavy. Still, I think this is a game everyone should check out as it definitely is one of the shining examples of why city management games are still fun in 2015 and even 2018. That’s something that is worth a look.

Final Thoughts: Easily one of the best city management games, if not the only pure one left. Build a city of your own, and watch it grow. This game was made as a response to SimCity and instead replaced it.

Stats: 31.6 hours played 42/97 achievements (quite a few of those are DLC related)