This time last year, I reviewed Cities: Skylines. I played it, I loved it, I tried some early mods and then I moved onto other games, never to return (or so I thought). Now, with a big expansion out today, I've decided to head back to Corpsetown and see how everything has been shaping up in my absence. Given the problems I had with traffic and, well, corpses in my original city, and with my memory foggy on the state I'd left the joint in, I feared opening my save to find an Animal Crossing-style apocalypse, every house filled with dead bodies, every industrial building rotting and vacated. And, even though this game doesn't run on a persistent real-world clock like AC does... that's exactly what I got. I'd left my city in ruins, and returned to it in ruins.
While I could have just scrapped it and started over, I'd sunk a lot of time into that city! And being a resident of planned city Canberra myself, I trusted my own designs more than the quirks of the game's AI, so instead of starting anew I methodically bulldozed thousands of individual buildings (the game's mods for this weirdly never work properly for me), some because they were empty, others because they were full of the dead and dying.
Let it never be said I was a merciful ruler. My quest here is to build a pretty city, not a caring one.
By hacking away at the dead, I was hoping that any and all improvements and additions to the game's AI in the year I've been away, whether as part of patches or updates, would grow back in their place. And hey, whaddya know, that's exactly what happened.
Mere minutes after my ruthless urban renewal project, new homes, offices, shops and factories were springing up in their place, only this time — even though I intentionally didn't touch my roads or services, as part of the experiment — they housed the living, and not the dead.
Sure, Corpsetown would still have problems with traffic, and sickness, and crime, but this is part of living in a big city! Any incidents or outbreaks that went down from here on in were easily fixed, unlike the great plagues and traffic snarls that so marred my great city courtesy of the game's launch AI.
So, 12 months on and we were off to a good start. The game's improved code was a lot smoother (and less apocalyptic) than the old. Excellent. But that was only part of the deal of revisiting the game. What about the new stuff.
I'd missed one big expansion (After Dark) and was getting hold of a brand new one (Snowfall), so there wasn't just new code to play with, but a range of new buildings, considerations and effects. Many of the things you notice immediately are simply cosmetic, throwing in a range of weather types (like rain) and lighting conditions (like darkness). Snow aside, they don't really do anything, but it's nice having them there to break up the monotony of staring at the same light and colours forever. The sunsets are particularly glorious.
There's now a temperature gauge in the game that tells you how hot or cold things are getting. Nice for smalltalk around the office, sure, but it also drastically effects things like power usage, as people rush for their air conditioners in the middle of summer. Heating is especially a concern in winter, and there's now a whole new building tab for pipes and boilers you can run across your city to keep people warm.
Which brings us to snow. It's a disaster, in the best way possible. I briefly started up a new alpine city just to get a taste for it (It Never Snows In Corpsetown, as it's on the beach; you only get downfalls in winter landscapes), and it's a lot more than a cosmetic effect. As mentioned, there are heating costs involved, and their drain on your power (and finances) during snowfall is considerable. Snow also clogs up the roads, bringing back those inescapable traffic snarls.
Yet none of this feels like a drag. It feels like a challenge, like a very gentle form of SimCity's disasters, a wrench thrown in your plans that can actually be solved through planning (and a fleet of snowplows). Cities: Skylines has always been a great plaything, but its management — especially testing the player's ability to react to things out of their control — has always been a bit lacking. Snow goes some way towards addressing this, provided you actually play on a map that supports snow.
Going back to After Dark, which first introduced the shift from day to night, I'm actually not a fan of the evening colour change, since it can make some aspects of the game harder to see. I did, however, appreciate the ways that expansion went directly after the vanilla game's biggest shortfall — transport — by adding a ton of new stuff like bike lanes and taxis. Snowfall also adds trams, which are great.
While most forms of transport in the vanilla game could easily be built on and around your existing road network, trams require a very distinct set of planning and management, as you need to build entirely new roads and ramps to accommodate them. This was a bit much for me as far as Corpsetown went, but the little winter hamlet I built to test snow ended up being quite the idyllic Swiss retreat, with its cute lil' tram system winding its way down the streets (and doing a great job of shuffling passengers around, leaving the roads free for garbage trucks and snowplows).
However, the biggest change I noticed 12 months on was how the game's mod scene has simply gone from strength to strength. Whether it be maps, cosmetic landmarks or buildings that help overcome AI shortfalls (or create new challenges of their own), if there's anything you feel the core Cities: Skylines experience is lacking, chances are there's a very professional, polished mod out there that's got your back.
Which, duh, that happens with a lot of games, but it's so central to the Skylines experience (and it's a credit to developers Colossal Order and Paradox that this was such a big deal) that access to mods is baked right into the game's main menu. Need a church? Type of road? Custom fast food joint? Underground car park? Designer crematorium? They're all there, a few clicks away, an endless sea of tiny expansions and updates that don't cost you a cent. Mods may have been there on day one, but now, one year later, there are thousands of them.
Aside from messing with the snow, I spent most of my time back in Cities Skylines with both After Dark and Snowfall in Corpsetown, testing how much benefit/challenge all this new stuff brought to my existing city, since I'd built that using the vanilla game.
I'm pretty happy with how it all turned out.
When I reviewed Skylines, I didn't necessarily love it as a city management game, but as a giant toybox, the best game on the market for people who just wanted to build cool shit, rather than spend hours adjusting budget sliders. One year on, my opinion stands, if a little enhanced.
This was already one of video gaming's great sandboxes. Now, thanks to its raft of additions — both official and unofficial — it's a little bit greater.