Cities: Skylines Review

I’ve learnt two things from playing city-building sim Cities: Skylines.

Firstly, despite what eighties band Starship may tell you, rock and roll is a wholly inadequate foundation upon which to build a metropolis. Secondly, if you’re a mayor and want to know what your citizens are really thinking, you need only look on Twitter. Though in Cities: Skylines, said communication is entirely one-way, there being no option to reply in-game to its virtual tweets. Which is a shame since being able to tweet out #thinkbeforeyoupoop would surely have lessened or even averted the great Sewage Crisis of 2018.

Poopocalypse aside, I managed to keep my city, Whinerville (named for its inhabitants) afloat. Though had it disappeared beneath the stinky wave, I’m not sure whether I’d have been able to muster up the enthusiasm to try again. That’s not to say that City: Skylines is a bad game, far from it; seeing Whinerville from grow from a small hamlet into a bustling metropolis was hugely rewarding. But, be warned, Cities: Skylines requires a hell of a lot of perseverance to push past the first few hours and if patience is not your strong suit, this may not be the game for you.

Whether you’re a pro or a newcomer, you’ll find laying the groundwork for your city is a real rigmarole. The game is a port of a PC title and due to the game’s clunky controls, tasks which would have originally been relatively simple are now far more onerous on the Xbox One. There’s no “snap to grid” option so actually getting a road, power line or pipe to end up where you wanted it to be can be a struggle; I spent a good minute teasing the joystick forward in a vain effort to align a highway. This in turn can leave you with areas of land you can’t build upon because you didn’t place the road at the correct angle.

Equally frustrating, and also a little baffling, is the lack of a time acceleration option. This feature is present in the PC version and could surely be patched into the Xbox One version. This might seem like a trivial bugbear, but it means that you’re left twiddling your thumbs waiting for your city to grow, especially in the game’s opening stages when there are few complexities to deal with. I worked my way through the least awful of the Resident Evil movie sequels while waiting for my city’s coffers to fill up, glancing occasionally back at the screen.

But then, about three or four hours into the game, something happens. Once you’ve pushed through the tedium, City: Skylines starts to show its true colours. Your city has gained enough momentum that it starts expanding not only outwards but upwards.  Sure, you’re still wrestling with the controls as you frantically zone land for housing but you’re doing so with joy in your heart. This is your city, and people actually want to live here! For the truly voyeuristic, you can zoom in to street level and watch people travel to work, which is an amusing diversion, but a God’s eye view will serve you better. Buildings, too, are “levelling up”, increasing in size as the population grows – providing you remembered to build a school to keep them educated, that is. The pings that signal this occurrence become music to your ears.

And then, you start to ponder your city’s expansion. Can it maintain this momentum? What about taxes? The citizens demanded a university but the price of education is so high. Surely you could bring the education budget down a few percent, to no ill effect. And.. no… what…? They’re protesting about high taxes? Don’t they understand the city needs to grow? And what of the brownouts (nothing to do with the earlier sewage incident) the city’s experiencing? You could stick with your green approach and build more wind farms, but coal-powered plants are so much more efficient. Is it worth sacrificing your ethics just to save the city money? What if you built the power plant, but also created a bus service? That’d make it all right, surely?

The beauty of City: Skylines is that while it offers you unparalleled freedom of choice, it’s entirely up to you how deep you want to go. You can even activate an “unlimited money” option if you just want to build a pretty city, though wrestling with the city’s growth and corresponding demands is one of the game’s chief draws. Flicking through the city’s road building options, I noticed I could now build dual-layered multi-lane highways, which would likely improve my city’s traffic flow. While there are plenty of gamers who that would likely appeal to, I continued to build by city using nothing more than standard two lane highways. I was going to build the city my way.

City: Skylines is not by any means an easy game to get into. Those first few hours can be really tedious and the lack of a time acceleration option definitely hinders its pace. Yet, once you smash through the boredom barrier, you’ll find that Cities: Skylines offers nearly everything you could want from a city-building sim. Standing back and admiring your city, knowing that you were responsible for its virtual prosperity, is immensely satisfying. Niche interest it may be, but if you favour construction over destruction, then Cities: Skylines offers a solid foundation for your future metropolis.

Oh, and building a water intake pipe next to your main effluent outflow pipe is apparently a bad thing. Just putting that out there.

Cities: Skylines is available on PC and Xbox One. We reviewed the Xbox One version.