Cities: Skylines II Review
From the early days of SimCity, the city building management games have always been one of the most popular options within the strategy genre. Giving players the chance to control and grow a thriving metropolis was engaging and entertaining, as you had to manage everything from placing roads, to public services, to education and tourism. With so many facets to worry about, these games could make the hours melt away. But as the original and mainstay franchise has faded over the past decade, others have tried to take up the mantle. Finnish developer Colossal Order were among the first to jump in, first tackling only the public transport management with Cities in Motion and its sequel, and then expanding to full-on city management in Cities: Skylines.
The original Cities: Skylines was a success, so Colossal Order kept up with development and released hundreds of dollars' worth of DLC over the lifetime of the game. In cases such as this, moving on to a new entry is a tricky proposition, as it's perhaps unreasonable to expect that the entire experience and all the extra content simply carries over, but at the same time fans need a reason to get into the sequel. Skylines II manages to introduce enough new elements and bring back enough features to mostly please returning fans, but those who invested heavily in the DLC will probably want to wait for the sequel to get more fleshed out. For the sake of this review, we'll be comparing the sequel to the launch state and content of the original title.
Once again, players can select from a few different land maps to begin constructing their new metropolis. The map overview presents a general look at the terrain, as well as the raw materials and export options that are available. The selection of maps is decent, but this continues to be a pure sandbox experience. Unlike SimCity and other city builders, this series offers no structured content for players to tackle. There are no scenarios - such as pre-built cities that need reinvigorating or restoring – and no semblance of a campaign. Without a single finished city in-game to mess about in, it may be difficult for some players to get motivated and have something to strive towards.
After selecting your plot of land, you can begin drawing roads. Roads remain the lifelines of the city, carrying not only traffic and creating the building zones, but also handling the transport of electricity, water, and sewage. The road creation tools feel very good to use and they are quite flexible. You can create all sorts of bends, curves, elevated bridges, interchanges, and so on. The game does a surprisingly good job at automatically creating functional intersections, merges, and so on. As you unlock more and more road types, from small two-way streets, to five lane one-way highways, the road network continues to be enjoyable to build and expand on. You can go back and expand road capacities, and the game manages to let you smoothly expand sections or entire lengths of roadways. Considering how important roads are, the creation tools are pleasantly flexible.
While Skylines II remains a game where you can do a ton of micromanagement if you so desire – such as laying individual service lines – it's also quite accessible, in that you often don't have to think about such things in the long run. After connecting the water lines to a source such as underground water or a river, and setting up a place to dump the waste water (hopefully downstream of your intake), your city now has services, distributed by the lines running under all roads. Electricity is another key component, and you can be self-sufficient by placing coal plants or using more eco-friendly options such as wind turbines. The game has lots of eco-focused approaches, from clean energy generation to improved waste water filtering, and garbage recycling. These alternatives help reduce pollution levels and create more sustainable resources that your citizens will appreciate. Overtime, you can also unlock and build improvements for individual service builds, improving their capacity or efficiency.
After a few roads are placed and services connected, you begin designating zones that are attached alongside the roads. These zones range from small suburban housing, to higher density options, industrial zones, retail zones, and office spaces. As your city grows and population increases, these zones automatically construct buildings that allow citizens and businesses to come to life, and you will continuously need to build more roads and expand quadrants. These concepts should be familiar to any city building game fan.
As the city grows, demand for services will also increase. Players will once again need to build police stations, fire stations, and hospitals to address needs. The game still helpfully shows how much area any given building will be able to cover – and one very welcome change from its predecessor is that these services now seem to have a much bigger effective range. You no longer have to spam these buildings all over, as they can cover a satisfyingly large coverage – which also means keeping citizen happiness up is quite easy. Other services also need placing, such as death care, schools, garbage management, mail management, and so on. You can track individual vehicles and citizens, if you’re into that sort of thing, as well as create and designate districts that allow you to implement policies such as gated communities.
Bigger cities also means increased traffic, but again thanks to good road tools, and with good district planning, this is rarely an issue compared to the first game. Proper use of highways, interchanges without stop signs or traffic lights, and the ever-useful traffic circles help relieve congestion. You can also create parking spaces, setup taxi stands, and put down bus routes and tram lines, and even manually create those public transportation routes to service all parts of the city. This route planning aspect grows as you start to build ship docks, rail yards and airports, which allow you to manually connect to the edges of the map and create passenger and cargo routes for export and import. You can also connect to the edge of the map and export excess electricity, water, and city services. There's definitely a ton of options to consider when it comes to citizen movement and services, and working to design and upkeep all these dynamic elements is what keeps the sequel engaging.
The export and import business can be supplemented by placing resource gathering farms in specific locations – such as lumber, live stock, oil, and other minerals – and designating their gathering area perimeter. This allows you to fulfill the city's resource needs (seen through easy-to-understand menus), and export the rest. These farms almost give the game a larger feeling of scope; not only are you managing a growing metropolis, but you can also place down farms on the far outskirts of the city and create little nearby villages to achieve a suburban rural feel.
The immersiveness is helped by the game's solid presentation and audio design, with nicely detailed building exteriors, good variety for the structures, and the occasional thrills of natural disasters. There are occasional visual glitches if you zoom to street level to observe traffic flow, accident response, and other events, but at birds-eye view everything seems to flow nicely. The few included radio stations offer different types of background music, as well as occasional and slightly annoying host interludes to mention generic events in the city. The Twitter-like feed from your citizens also returns and it's nice to see praise for city services – but some messages don't make sense, such as complaints about noise or pollution when your industrial area is far downwind of the city.
The growth of your town earns experience points which eventually lead into reaching specific milestones. At each milestone, you get an increase of cash loan amount, new roads and other buildings, as well as research points. The points can be spent on a few short development trees that also unlock even more road types and structures. The unlock system and the resource gathering gives the game a small RPG-like feel during the early to mid-stages of the city development.
At its core, then, Cities Skylines II doesn't really introduce anything ground-breaking to the series or to the genre. But there's nothing wrong with that – high quality, deep city building games are not as common these days they once were, and so getting a new opportunity to spend hours designing a thriving metropolis is just what some players want. However, the game does run into issues the longer you spend time with it.
The tutorial system could be improved. It chooses to throw a bunch of text boxes at the player – in small font – and rather than showing you how to do something step by step, you just click through the messages and then place down the desired object. The initial tutorial only covers the basics, and new messages pop up throughout the game when you get new structures or services. And again, with no existing cities to mess around in, it can be difficult to truly gauge how you should build as there are no examples to learn from.
Budget is another area that is frustrating to deal with. It seems that no matter what, you will always be in the red. You can crank tax rates on office spaces and businesses as a whole, or further fine-tune them by industry. The biggest profits will usually come from citizens, but their taxes are fine-tuned by education level instead of income, which is strange. You can decrease the budget of public services, and increase user fees, and sell excess electricity, water, and services. And yet none of these steps will usually put you into break-even or profitable territory. Perhaps this is somewhat expected, as your loan budget keeps growing with each new city milestone, and you can't truly go bankrupt as the game has "government subsidies" that keep you afloat, but it's just an annoying aspect of the experience to always be in the red. It's never clear if you're just missing some aspect of the finance mechanics, or you did something wrong and overbuilt, or if indeed there is a bug.
Skylines II unfortunately falls into the situation where you are sometimes not sure if there is a bug, or you're just doing something wrong. Without any info screens or tools to help understand the root cause of the problem, it can be frustrating to try and work through issues. In another relevant example, you can see if you are importing or exporting goods, but there is no indication of how this affects the budget – if it all. Elsewhere, your citizens may be happy and be fully covered in public service areas, and yet homes can become abandoned, factories lack workers, businesses complain about a lack of customers, and people refuse to attend high-level education facilities despite being happy with the system, all despite steady population growth. There's just a lack of deeper explanation to some of these issues, whether they are macro or micro. And then you find out that you've actually hit a bug, and a feeling of discouragement sets in. Sure, this is a complex game with many moving mechanics, and some very detailed simulations, but if some of them don’t work properly and the game gives you no indicators as to why, it can turn into frustration really quickly. There is an option to play with unlimited funds and all structures unlocked from the start, but at that point it becomes even more of a sandbox and only appealing to the most casual players.
It does seem that the title would have benefitted from a few more months of development, to iron out these issues. The developers themselves admitted as such – especially when it comes to PC performance. Skylines II has a variety of performance hiccups, and they only get worse as the city grows. Constant stutters, framerate dips, and visual hiccups. It's playable for a while, but the bigger you grow, the more of an issue it becomes. Once again, if the game had any pre-built cities, you could have at least loaded one up and evaluated the performance for yourself, but instead it's the sort of problem that you only discover later on. And there's nothing worse than having to stop playing when you are finally reaching megapolis status.
And that's the thing with Cities: Skylines II. It is, underneath its issues, a good game that you want to keep returning to. Creating a functioning city remains addicting and enjoyable, with great road tools, flexible micromanagement options, and easy to understand graphs and mechanics. But as you delve deeper and the hours begin to stretch, that's when the bugs and unfortunate issues start to crop up. With more polish, at least some structured content, and better tutorials, this could have been an exemplary city building management sim. But for now, it's just a good simulation that fans of the genre should enjoy, but newcomers should probably wait for a few patches.