It has been a long, long time since the fandom of the very niche city building genre had anything to be truly excited for. Back in its heyday, the SimCity series reigned king of simulators, with millions of players fervently sinking hours upon hours of time building (or destroying) virtual cities. The series helped establish an entirely new take on video games: one where they didn’t end, but went on for as long as the player wanted. It also helped spawn plenty of spinoffs, including The Sims, the best-selling PC game franchise of all time. But after SimCity 4 and its Rush Hour expansion pack, good city building games have been few and far between, especially ones that focus specifically on building and maintaining a modern metropolis. Sure, there have been a few games that have given a fresh spin on the genre–the Tropico series has the player acting as dictator of a small developing island nation, and the Anno series sees you trying to build the perfect futuristic utopia–but as far as a game that allows you to build a full-fledged city analogous to one that exists today, the pickings have been slim…so slim, in fact, that SimCity 4 has continued to thrive to this very day despite being over a decade old. An alternative appeared in the form of Cities XL, and while it gave players the ability to create massive, gorgeous cities, the game itself was buggy, the UI was highly unpolished, and the whole experience was devoid of life. And when the fifth SimCity game was finally released in 2013, its city sizes were so restrictive and its simulation so broken that it may have very well put the SimCity line to rest for good.
Luckily, another alternative has come to claim the throne, and might just have a legitimate chance to do so. Cities In Motion developer Colossal Order has given the world Cities: Skylines, and it comes with plenty of features that make it truly primed to take over the genre. Fans of the genre will find plenty of familiarity here; you build roads, designate zones for commercial, residential and industrial buildings, and watch your city grow from tiny hamlet to towering metropolis, all while trying to maintain and balance various infrastructures. It’s all pretty standard fare, but Cities: Skylines makes a few interesting tweaks to the formula.
For example, instead of having one single square plot of land, Skylines allows you to purchase up to 9 city tiles within a 5×5 tile box. The tiles can be arranged however you so desire, allowing you to break the square mold and create a nebulous metropolis that stretches along a riverbank. Speaking of rivers, the flow of water from high ground to sea level is a major factor to consider when building your city. Not only do you have to build water pumps and pipes to have a functioning sewage system, but C:S also introduces drainage pipes for all of your water to dump waste material. Correct placement of these is vital, and unless you enjoy brown water, you’ll want to make sure all of your drains are downstream from your pumps. You can also build dams along rivers to help generate electricity, but if you’re careless, you could easily find your streets flooded (and if you’re really careless, flooded with waste water). The death of citizens is also something that needs to be handled properly. Morbid, perhaps, but unless you build cemeteries and crematoriums, you’ll find those piles of bodies becoming a true hazard.
Of course, at the center of every great city building game is a good transportation simulator, which makes all the experience Colossal Order has in creating the Cities In Motion series invaluable. There are plenty of options to move your virtual people (Cims) around town, from roads to rails to bus to pedestrian walkways. Roads come in various sizes and shapes, from two- to six-lanes, decorative or utilitarian, and can be raised and lowered at will. Bus stops can be placed on any ground-level road, and bus lines can be drawn, named, and given a unique color for easy identification. Rail lines can help clear your road of freight trucks, and can also be raised. Airports, ships, and subways are all also present here. The amount of options for transportation shouldn’t come as a surprise considering who developed the game, nor should the fact that they are all simulated beautifully. Things that were merely cosmetic in other city simulators, such as the timing of traffic lights or the acuteness of rail curves, have an effect in how transportation flows. You can even check how full each individual bus is in the game. Depth like this is the sort of backbone a city building game needs to ensure longevity.
Is that it, though? Is that what will help carry Cities: Skylines for years to come? Of course not—at least, not on its own. No, the thing that will keep C:S relevant is the fact that it is so incredibly fun to play! I had forgotten what it was like to be so engrossed in a game that I stayed up for hours against my better judgement to play it, but Cities: Skylines made me do just that (it was those bus lines, I tell you! I had to get them just right). The city feels truly alive, and not just superficially. You can follow any vehicle on the road to see where they are going. You can watch a person leave his house, hop on his bike and ride away. I’ve even witnessed a Cim running down the street to catch a bus before it pulled away. Everywhere you look, there are small, individual stories being told, and the truth of the matter is that that’s why people play these types of games in the first place: not simply to build something, but to simulate it. Not just to plant buildings, but to watch them be torn down and built up again to suit the needs of the Cims. Not just to create a city, but to watch it breathe and grow and live. That’s what a truly great city builder needs to be able to provide in order to stand the test of time, and that’s probably what Cities: Skylines does better than any other game in the past decade.
It has its flaws, surely–there are no disasters to quench your destructive thirst with, it’s not quite as pretty as a modern-generation game ought to be, and the buildings repeat themselves way too often–but C:S is perhaps the best hope our niche genre has at carrying out the legacy of the golden days. The burgeoning modding community will see to it that Skylines, like SimCity 4, lasts far longer than perhaps it should, with mods that do everything from add custom buildings to opening up all 25 available city tiles, and even adding a crude flight simulator. Cities: Skylines is a shining example of the type of experience the simulation genre can provide…and it will only get better from here.