Game Review: Cities: Skylines – Steam

Title Cities: Skylines
Platform: Steam / Windows
Available on OS: Windows, Linux
Genre:city builder, resource management, simulator
Date completed: Is it possible to “complete” this game? (200+ hours and counting)
Game number:10 of 1005 steam games (< 1%)

Summary review: A typical Paradox game with some non-intuitive menus and options, for those into these sorts of games this is about as good as they come.
Graphics: May look rough at first but it gets the job done. And once a city gets to 50k population you might be glad your PC isn’t melting from extra graphics fidelity.
Music: The default is very much ambient and calming music. There are other options for music as well as DLC for more music. You may find it better just to play something in another window if you really need music while playing.
Controls: Keyboard and mouse works perfectly for me, no flaws.
Replayability: Somewhere between “none at all” and “like game version of heroine”.
Total score: 80 / 100 – I’m really split on quantifying htis game with a numeric score. On the one hand it’s hard to give an addictive game worth of 200+ hours of play a mediocre score, on the other hand the interface and menus are non-intuitive I feel like I’m playing a meta-game even figuring seemingly out basic concepts. Does it deserve a lower score for this “unnecessary barrier to entry”? Probably.


Introduction

The review will probably make it clear, but this only refers to the Windows/steam version of the game. The game console version is a much, much different thing.

If one was to look at my accumulated play time of 250+ hours for this game on steam one might conclude I’m some kind of expert in Cities: Skylines. But one would be wrong.

Truth is this game actually incentivizes leaving the game running over night/all day. I have a lot of play time established even acknowledging this. But even if my total play time were “only” 100 hours it would seem like I would know everything there is not know on this game but it still feels like I do not in fact know anything about it. It feels like I just bought this game yesterday and I’m still learning it even after all this time.

This game, if it’s not obvious from the title, is essentially what a lot of fans only wish modern SimCity was like. Note that I haven’t actually played the latest SimCity as of this writing, only read the many reviews panning it.

The basic premise of the game is to start with an empty space of land and some starter money and build and manage a giant metropolis with 100k+ citizens all while making a more money then is being spent.

The challenge comes in laying out the city and providing the resources as well fulfilling citizen demands and not going bankrupt. In this game, unlike reality, there is no deficit spending at all. There is an emergency bail out loan that kicks in once if you go too bar into the negative, but that’s it.

Paradox and Paradox

The developer of this game is a European company called Paradox Interactive. I’ve ended up purchasing a number of their games and it’s always the same experience: how do I play this effing game? This question is usually followed by many loud curse words and either lots of youtube videos or a complete uninstall of the game. You might say the company name isn’t just a name but a description of their barrier-to-entry philosophy as a whole. This one I kept playing. Feels like I’m doing a research paper on how to play this game sometimes. Take notes, read wiki entries, watch videos…repeat. It’s as much a hobby as it is a game.

At the start of the game almost everything is disabled. In fact you have to make at least a minimum amount of road to unlock slightly more road options. You do get an inlet/outlet of AI control vehicles. And it is nice to be able to freeze time while deciding on the next move to make.

I found the game quite challenging at first both because of learning the basic mechanics and because a lot of the options very unintuitive. For instance when laying down one way road and I end up with an arrow pointing the wrong direction, how do I change the arrow direction? Is there a right click option? A tool tip? Maybe an animated line in the shape of a box pointing me to the right place to go? I mean literally any kind of hint how to fix this? Well the answer is no, to all those questions. After a long time of not looking at this game I had re-look it up: it’s the “upgrade road” option, which doesn’t even hint that’s what’s going to happen as I point at the wrong way portion of road. So it’s “he “upgrade road” option and a right click to reverse a one-way arrow. It just seems like things like this are unnecessarily cryptic and unintuitive.

I recently watched a youtube video that went through different ways of exploiting this game’s mechanics to get lots of money through the use of excessive toll booths and making citizens walk to and from work through a park that charges money.

I didn’t manage to reproduce this idea but I did start to use a lot more toll booths. I learned to leave excess room at the start of the city so when I do get to the population level required for toll booths it’s that much easier to delete roads and insert them for traffic going in and coming out of the city.

Tone it down?

I should probably mention it’s possible to toggle on “infinite money” for a new city. I mean when the game first starts turn on infinite money then start a new game. This way you can learn how to lay out roads and the mechanics of some of the late game things like mass transit without having to worry about wasting what little money you have bulldozing and re-building over and over.

I wish I had done that when I first started this game as I think I would have learned it more effectively.

Here’s your sign and other tales of AI

The basic “game loop” of this game is to gradually grow the population of your city. The more the population grows the more things get unlocked and the more things are unlocked the more your city can grow. It’s a never ending feedback loop. You are of course completely and the mercy of the AI in order to do this.

This is where roads come in. Otherwise known as the bane of existance. Why, given 6 lanes worth of options, do all the cars line up in one lane for an intersection. Why?

Funny story actually, I inadvertently discovered the junctions function in one of my games. This shows you all the stop lights and stop signs on the map and allows you change them. This may not sound significant but…holy crap. It was like an entire new game had opened up in front of me. Thanks to finding the basic functionality of traffic control.

Traffic control is a constant nightmare. Just when you think everything seems to be running smoothly the city will grow or something will happen and traffic will be backed up on the freeway for miles.

Community mods: The hobby to the hobby

There are of course a great many mods for this game for “quality of life” improvements. Things to change the traffic AI, how intersections work, a complete overhaul of the mass transit systems. Some of these have entire communities and wikis just to themselves. And like a lot of other games will long lists of mods some of them will conflict with other mods. Which leads to the dreaded load order/depedency head aches which leads to yet more mods and external programs just to track incompabilties and proper load orders.

Lets just say you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind dealing with all that…or you’re not. You don’t have to use mods of course. I would recommend the at least turning off the game’s most annoying feature: the chirper. This is a twitter-inspired “feature” the game has to give you something of a stream of issues your city is having. I find it incredibly obnoxious. And load order mod, even if you have very few if any mods, is a good idea just to improve initial game load time.

Actually there’s one mod I have installed that changed how “Metros” work (apparently that’s another term for “subway”). The Metro trains never spawned and I didn’t understand why. Turns out the mod had changed the game to require a metro station. Could have had a little tool tip that mentioned this minor detail instead making me scroll through support threads from 2016 – 2019 but it’s fine. I also have this intermittent problem of the bus line creation icon randomly disappearing. This is the fault of probably the same mod and it’s also frustrating. Such is the life of a Cities: Skylines player.

Creativity and the “M” word

There is actually a separate mode to this game. If you just want to make an incredible creation of a city concept in the shape of a yin-yang symbol or whatever. Texture the map with different brushes, drop in buildings of different types and release it to rave reviews on reddit.

Like Minecraft. The “M” word is Minecraft. Youtube has some incredible videos on this game. I really recommending looking them up.

Now some negatives…

It might seem the whole review was nothing bug negatives but really they are more grievances about a game I’ve put untold numbers of hours into.

I wish the menus and mechanics were more intuitive, I wish it was easier to figure how what a clearly troubling issue actually is rather than trying to find it in a hundred different obscure places, I wish in general the barrier to entry weren’t so incredibly high.

Conclusion

I’m not sure if it’s the difference in cultures between Europe and America or something maybe this is just the way the developer targets a specific group of customers but I can only say I wish this game was more intuitive and leave at that. It seems like there should be a version of this game that doesn’t require making it hobby just to learn seemingly basic things. It shouldn’t be some kind of cult life style just to learn how to play a city builder.

Basically this game is a completely addictive time suck that will require family intervention. Can’t recommend it any higher.


Metadata

Method of control used Keyboard/mouse
Controllable via both one analog stick or digital four-way (“HAT”) n/a
Hardware requirements: Relatively low to run, relatively high for large cities/many mods
Supports 21:9 aspect ratio screens?yes, native support
PCs tried on ~2019 era core i7 laptop/nVidia GPU at 1080p (full screen) recent alienware laptop
Works with 4:3 screens n/a
Initial setup requiredAt least turn off the chirper and/or this game is nothing but setup.
Playtime200+ hours
Steam UID 255710

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