Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

Cities: Skylines is a game coming in hot. The People want a good city-building game to play, and it's been a long time since they got one. So there's a surprising amount of excitement and expectation for Colossal's attempt at fixing SimCity's mistakes.

Regardless of what you've been hoping for, whether you've been interested in Skylines because of the developer's pedigree (they made the excellent Cities In Motion) or to fill a Maxis-sized hole in your library, I've got some news. Mostly, it's good.

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review


Good news first! If you play city-building games to, well, build cities, this is the best you can get. Never before have I felt like I could just walk up to an enormous tract of land, open up some tools and whatever I wanted, however I wanted. Straight roads, curved roads, designated office blocks, districts with their own tax rules, it's all at your fingertips.

If you despised SimCity for its tiny scale, this is not a tiny game. Skylines begins small, but as your city grows, you're able to unlock more and more of the surrounding countryside. It gets to the point where you can start building satellite communities just for the hell of it, because your primary city is so damn big.

It's liberating. You never feel constrained, like you need to pack a certain area in because you'll run into an invisible wall. I mean, those walls are out there eventually, but I've been playing this game non-stop for over a week now and haven't come close to hitting the map's limits. Trust me, if you've filled in every area you can eventually unlock, you have made one hell of a big city.

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

Above is the result of that week. It's a huge city, big enough that it's spawned secondary business centres and some industrial/rural communities. Below, however, you'll see that it doesn't even take up half the available territory.

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

The game's default difficulty setting is pretty damn easy, and that's good news for artists and builders. I built three cities in total in my time with Skylines, and not once did I run into money trouble. The game's demand displays (indicating how many homes you need to build, etc) did the trick and I always had a steady flow of cash coming in, so I'd always have money for the next road or building or bus station or whatever the hell else I wanted/needed to build.

If you are struggling, though, the game ships with a few mods you can activate to change things up. Some will unlock all the land area, others will unlock every unique building, others granting you unlimited cash, while one flips all that and turns on a "hard mode". We'll get to why this is a bad idea a little later.

Cities: Skylines is a gorgeous video game. Not in a "video game graphics" kind of way; even with the settings maxxed out everything still gets a little blocky (anti-aliasing just isn't really there). But it sets out to recreate the vibe of a model city/toy railway, and it absolutely nails it, from the bright colour palette to the fact it even has a tilt-shift setting in its menu.

This might sound trivial, but it's really, really cool! After all, your job as a player in these kind of games is to operate as a God-like figure crafting a fake city out of nothingness. Instead of trying to somehow depict this as "real", or even video gamey, Skylines shoots for something more tangible, and it plays a big part in how much I enjoyed just scrolling around the streets of my city, basking in the cuteness and order of it all.

You'll do some very big things, like planning entire regions and suburbs, but you'll also be doing some very small things. There's a surprising amount of micromanagement in the game once you progress and pick at it, and while some of it sucks (more on that below), other parts are great. Public transport is one such highlight: instead of just dropping depots, stations and stops on the map, Skylines lets you actually plan out specific routes for each mode of transport. Being able to manually assign bus routes and subway lines feels great, like you've got more precise control over the movement of the people in the city.

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

Probably the highlight of the game for me is just many tools and options there are for customisation. I love how you can painlessly elevate roads to create expressways. I love how you can build sidewalks and paths between buildings, and then drop individual trees to create tiny, freestyle parks. I love how the game has strong Steam Workshop support, where people (or you!) can design their own churches (like the one above), houses and city halls and everyone else can just drop them into the game, adding an insane amount of variety and specialisation to their city's aesthetic. Sounds trivial, but again, we're building model cities here, so the better they look, the better.

Do you know what else is great about building your own city? Being able to name it, and everything inside it. And I really do mean everything. You can name the city, you can create and name districts, you can even name individual stores. It's a simple thing, but letting you name that much stuff really makes you feel like you own the city you've created.

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

The districts are more than just names, though. It always felt weird in other city games that when you set taxes and institute policies, you were doing so for the entire city at once. Skylines instead lets you divide your city into districts — which you manually paint on the map — and once done not just name them, but set their own policies and tax rates, in ways that you'd only want to do for that one specific place. Want to ban heavy vehicles from your city centre? Done. Want to offer free public transport to a struggling industrial area? You can do that. Institute legal drug use on your beachside holiday areas? Knock yourself out.

(This is a 13-minute tour of the city I built for the review. It will show you some stuff I couldn't get around to in the review!)


Now for the bad news. As enjoyable as it is to build a city in Skylines, actually managing one is a different story.

Skylines asks you to do a lot of tedious stuff, from endlessly clearing abandoned buildings to laying your city's water pipes. Those activities require little strategic thought and seem to exist purely to keep the player "busy" in the most annoying ways possible.

It's a hassle, but it's bearable. Much worse is that the game's traffic system — the current most important system in the game — is kinda busted.

Traffic is the game's primary means of determining how your services respond to their jobs (eg, whether a cop can bust a crime, or whether a fire engine puts out a fire). With that in mind, take a look at this bridge, which despite having three lanes in both directions, has only one being used. And everyone's stuck on it.

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

See all those trucks backed up? There are fire engines, cop cars, garbage trucks and hearses there. Because they're stuck forever in traffic, despite there being TWO EMPTY LANES, the services they're trying to perform aren't being performed. Meaning that my city, in spite of dozens of fire stations and cemeteries, and a 50% increase in health and emergency funding, is drowning in trash. And corpses.

That kind of thing happens all over my city, but the bridge is just the best way of showing you in a single gif.

Note that this isn't a problem with the way my city is designed. There are enough big roads, bridges and alternate routes to service a city of millions here, let alone one with a population of under 100,000. I have parts of the city with a fire station or cemetery on every street corner, and as absurd as that is, those services still aren't being performed.

At times it feels like Skylines is a simulator where traffic is everything, instead of one of many design elements. Traffic should be important, yes, but it shouldn't be having such a drastic and negative impact on other parts of the city.

This kind of thing is heart-breaking, because it tugs at the OCD many city-builders experience while playing. With no "victory" in sight, the goal for most folks in a game like this is just to get their metropolis running as smooth as possible. Cut down on the problems and make everyone happy.

If that's you, there is no happiness with Skylines, at least for now. No matter how perfect you think your city is — or how perfect you keep being told it is via the game's fake Twitter account, which serves as your official feedback device — the bigger your city gets, the more it fills up with CRITICAL RED ALERT BUBBLES, telling you OH MY GOD THIS CITY IS FULL OF DEAD BODIES WHY AREN'T YOU DOING ANYTHING, and you're like I'M TRYING TO BUT THIS IS BROKEN AND *SOBS UNCONTROLLABLY*.

Cities: Skylines: The Kotaku Review

Here's a more nuts-and-bolts example of what I'm talking about. In this small rump area of my city, there are three cemeteries and three crematoriums (highlighted in blue). They're taking up a crazy amount of real estate relative to everything else! Despite this, all those red buildings and skulls are dead bodies, piling up amongst the living, driving down real estate values and making people sick. That shouldn't be happening.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about the trash and corpse problems is that they didn't need to exist at all! They're tedious, distracting and uninteresting at the best of times, let alone when they're messing up your city.

The whole traffic mess is a disappointment, but at the end of my week with the game it couldn't really dent how much fun I'd still had with Skylines. The sheer joy of, well, everything else keept me going long after I'd learned to ignore the fact that my city's living were drowning in the bodies of the dead.

Cities: Skylines — which I'd like to point out was made by a team of fewer than 20 people — is a city-builder's dream. On the whole, it's a bit of a good news/bad news situation, but while it may be a flawed management game, busted numbers and weird traffic haven't been enough to dampen my enthusiasm for all the things it gets right. From the tools at your disposal to the degree of customisation available right down to the tilt-shifted look of it all, Skylines knows exactly what it wants to do (be a game for people who want to build cities, duh!) and just goes out and does it.


    So, "Get it now and enjoy it, and hopefully it'll get even better as they sort out those traffic problems"

    Already sounds better than Sim City.

      SimCity for me was excitement followed quickly by wtf, then lingering hope dashed with a flavour of 'no chance in hell'.

      That's what i did with SimCity..
      Might just wait and see how they deal with bugs first..

        Ah, but with Sim City the review was "Get it now and hope it gets better." - At least here you'll enjoy it, regardless of the bugs.

      and the other thing that was missed is it can be pretty laptop friendly, no online so I have been playing on the way to work on a yoga thinkpad with an i5 and hd4000 on-board graphics. I have a few thousand in my town and its smooth on low settings and 720p. I have read this is the case on the surface 2 up to and above 80000 population and that machine has the same internals as mine. Paradox is renowned for lower end laptop friendly games. My machine has a couple of indies (banished, prison architect and kerbal space program) and a couple of paradox games (this and crusader kings 2) and it satisfies my gaming for my hour and half train trip.

    I was indecisive about whether to get it or not, $29.99 on Steam, plus 20% off from Greenmangaming and that's pretty much sold for me.

    There is a missed opportunity here: all those bodies... could become zombies! When there is no more room in hell/traffic system is busted...

    Last edited 12/03/15 1:24 pm

      I guess wait for the inevitable DLC?.. I mean if a dedicated train sim can get a zombie expansion...

        Dunno. The game features community workshop, probably won't take long for some clever modders to be able to do something like this. DLC not necessary.

        Last edited 12/03/15 3:25 pm

          unless there is DLC for assorted disasters ala classic SimCity which, combined with the workshop support, could give people tools to easily make all their own Godzillas and evil space robots and alien monster swarms without having to dissect all the code themselves (and of course it should have superheroes just to balance the scales :p)

            OH MY GOD YES. This would be so much fun. A disaster Mod XD This needs to happen.

    The traffic AI sucking that bad isn't something I've experienced, but I've only played for a few hours (city of around 4000 people). I read some stuff on the forums indicating that traffic issues were actually fixed but only within the past few days, so pre-release versions had the bugged traffic... can't verify if that's true or not, but as I said, anecdotally I haven't noticed anything wrong with traffic AI YET.

    I actually disagree about water/garbage/corpse management being needless busywork. One of the things that I really liked about the earlier Sim City games was the relative difficulty in balancing your budget (at least early on) and you need to have these kinds of services in the game to keep adding cost as your city expands. But I guess if you're more interested in the sandbox-y aspects of city-building games than their management-y aspects I can understand not wanting to deal with these things.

    But yeah, the game is real good. I see it as a best-of-both-worlds situation between SimCity 5 and the Cities XL franchise. It combines most of the things I liked from each of those extremely flawed games into one game that's actually pretty damn good.

    I think you've sold this to me.

    Hell, it's a Paradox game, I should have bought it months ago.

    Bought the game last night, started playing at 8:30pm, finished up at 1:00 am, and I am now at work half asleep. This is a must buy.

    I have a city of 10k people, and haven't encountered traffic issues. I find the games traffic model far superior to the 2013 Sim City, especially road creation. Also, first City builder where you can select which side of the road cars drive on!

    Last edited 12/03/15 1:44 pm

    The traffic is not "all kinds of busted", it's just realistic. If you put intersections all along major routes between industry and commercial areas, it'll back all the way up. If you provide a nice uninterrupted highway with on and off ramps in it's place, you'll have no issue.

    Way too many people are too quick to condemn the traffic in this game. It seems to stem from the fact that it is a good simulation of it and people are not used to that.

      Can't say one backed up lane with 2 empty lanes is realistic in any way - hopefully just a pre release issue and by the sounds of it sorted already.

        That is perfectly realistic if all those people want to turn right. The trick is to look at why they want to turn right and then work out what route you can encourage them to take instead (they will heavily prefer larger roads, so often making roads larger or even smaller can break up the problem into smaller traffic streams.)

          I think you need a very clever AI to make use of those 2 free lanes. Maybe someone should create a SteamWorks plug in to mimic Sydney's crazy lane merging driving.

          This is spot on. I had some pretty bad traffic issues. I changed the way the city flowed, used one direction multi lane roads and alternate routing for people wanting to exit. So far it's been pretty realistic imo :)

      I thought I read the dev has acknowledged an AI issue and is working on a fix? I've run in to the same issue mentioned here where all my traffic sits in one lane despite having numerous free lanes they could be taking.

        iirc they have acknowledged an issue with traffic using one lane, because the agents pre-compute their path and cannot change while in transit. They have patched a lot of stuff already even in the days leading up to launch, so it may have been resolved by now.

        The issue with traffic backing up in general, however, can be largely resolved through planning of road layout and basically setting your city up with a proper road hierarchy and not just making a grid with heaps of intersections as was the status quo in Simcity 4.

        The road planning aspects do make the game more difficult than other city builders, but I quite honestly like that aspect of the game a lot...

        Last edited 12/03/15 4:11 pm

      A traffic jam spanning an entire bridge despite two empty lanes that could be used- that's your idea of realistic? Yes you should expect delays if you over-do the intersections, but cars should at least use the lanes that are there before this becomes a problem. Why even have a 6 lane one-way road option otherwise? Why have any option other than single lane roads? (Granted, multiple lanes are occasionally used, but the system definitely needs some work).

        The issue is most likely that they're trying to make a turn down the road where you can only turn from the left lane.

        You've clearly never driven on real freeway interchanges then?
        What happens when 90% of the traffic wants to go right, and only one lane actually goes right? Sure, you get people waiting until the last minute to squeeze in, but ultimately you are bottlenecked by the one lane accommodating the traffic going right.

        I guess the only way the traffic in Skylines is unrealistic is in how polite and patient they are! :p

      Late reply, I know. But I've only just recently been playing the game and have noted how realistic the traffic actually is. I think that's why people say it's 'broken', because they aren't used to games being so brutally realistic, and being 'balanced' for them, lol.
      [Maybe it's a reflection of *real* politicians..... simply add lanes to freeways to solve traffic problems! [seriously]. Totally ignoring the actual behaviours of the drivers and where they actually want to go!]

      One of the best feelings I've had was last night noticing all my traffic nightmares, then re-engineering the intersections, adding heavy traffic policies and adding rail cargo stations between industrial areas. When I slowly noticed all my red areas disappearing, it was fantastic!

      Last edited 17/03/15 9:04 am

    the traffic problem you have is of your own making.there are quite a few people out there complaining about it but most of the instances it is a reaction to their layout close to it and an impact of stuff happening a few streets over. Many examples on reddit of what causes it. In your instance does your freeway seriously have no ramps? Then where you do, the orientation could be makign it worse.

    the traffic is this game is way ahead of where Simcity was on day one, strange how you don't make that connection. Actually everything about this game is way better than Simcity on the day of launch and months after.

    This game is brilliant. It works on day one (massive rarity these days). it allows modding. It has a sense of humour. Looks great. Lets gamers own their game (in terms of modding), a rarity these days. Basically the devs want us to play it and break it and given us the tools to do that.

    Sure it has a lot of tweaking and bug squashing, freeback to be taken on board. But once again this game does something that Simcity didnt... devs who realise players are smart, not just dollars signs, they want to hear what you dont like, and if they dont agree you can just do it yourself.

    The fact a group of 13 people can make something on par with a juggernaut like Simcity and completely beats them at their own game is stunning. yet further proof that this industry is really starting to push back against AAA gaming.

    Last edited 12/03/15 1:56 pm

      There's a unnerving trend in big gaming today where the companies try to define how the game plays for the players, rather than focusing on how the player plays the game. Sequels in particular demonstrate a willingness to throw out everything players enjoyed about the previous games to make way for convoluted systems.

      Dragon Age 2 - Throws out most of the Roleplaying in a Roleplaying Game.
      SimCity - Throws out the City in, well, having a City, just to make neat little boxes and multiplayer.
      Warlords of Draenor (and most of the previous xpacks) - Removing of aspects of the game players enjoyed instead of building upon them.
      Command and Conquer 4 - Throws out base building/resource harvesting/making sense...and practically the entire game in favor of some class/king of the hill type system. Still don't get why.
      SWTOR - Turns an awesome and timeless single-player RPG series into an MMO, where I think many would have been happy for a 3rd single player game.

      I'm glad there are little groups willing to demonstrate exactly why players enjoyed certain genres of games by keeping things simple and enjoyable, yet using the new age of technology to add more features to improve upon them. Large companies are seemingly getting blind to simplicity.

    I haven't really invested any time in a city builder since sim city 3000 but this does look pretty fun, I'm sure the kinks will be worked out soon enough. I'm particularly keen to see what sort of mods come of it.

    I'm enjoying it. I've found that it lacks difficulty though once your city gets going you can just keep expanding which could get monotonous if you aren't in to the design aspect and are playing for the management side of things. Overall though it's the best city building game out there and it could easily be priced higher than it is and still be good.

    Last edited 12/03/15 2:17 pm

    I've been out of city builders for a while (last dabble was with Cities in Motion for playing with light rail networks) and back in the day stopped playing Railroad Tycoon when it became too much 'tycoon' with not enough 'railroad', but you sold me on this one with the line about a tilt-shift setting! :p

    Put a few hours in yesterday, and loving it thus far. I'll admit my first attempt failed miserably as I didn't pay attention to the traffic flows, and was irreparably bankrupt before I'd even unlocked the ability to borrow money. Learned very quickly that more lanes doesn't always mean better traffic flow - if everyone wants to turn right, why would there be traffic in the left lanes? Also learned to avoid making intersections and traffic lights wherever possible - they break up traffic flow, which can lead lead to congestion.

    Second city is going far better - small town of 8k people, with industry separated across the river. Extensive use of one-way roads to control traffic flow, however having difficulties getting service coverage because of them - I've had buildings burn down directly across the road from a fire station because the trucks couldn't cross two lanes of sparse traffic. But that's my fault - need to either put in some through-roads and hope it works, or knock it all down and start that district again.

    And that's part of what I'm enjoying about it - expanding generates more traffic, which stress-tests your roads and eventually presents weaknesses in your initial design, so you trace the problem to its source, and figure out how the hell you can fix it.

    Seems good, might wait for a few patches to fix the tedious piping and other tasks, along with the traffic glitches.

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