Simulation games have, with the odd exception, a stigma as often being intimidating, overwhelming, and inaccessible, so when one rolls along that streamlines things without losing the point of what makes them tick, it’s intriguing, and usually successful. See The Sims, see Theme Park, see the game before us — Cities: Skylines.
Cities Skylines is a city-builder for those who don’t want the hassle of too much micromanagement, but it is still a game that requires a bit of trial and error. It’s got the usual barriers to entry softened, but can it overcome the last hurdle and bring a PC-leaning genre to PS4 successfully?
The simple answer is yes. It should be no surprise in this modern gaming environment, more and more titles considered to be previously ‘difficult to translate’ to a controller, find themselves slotting comfortably into the world of consoles thanks to smart work by developers. It’s why we’ve seen the likes of XCOM, Wasteland 2, Diablo III, and Divinity: Original Sin make the jump in an impressive manner in recent years, and Cities: Skylines is another.
That’s not to say it isn’t still initially a tad overwhelming to comprehend. Despite the various menus, and submenus being mapped rather well to the Dualshock 4, and a neater, cleaner redesign of the UI, there’s just so much of it to learn that it can be a struggle to remember everything the game tells you, more so if you don’t catch that a click of the right stick on any highlighted item brings up useful info for it. Admirable work it may be, but the tiniest oversight can make a huge difference between a prosperous city and a flaming fecal graveyard.
In my first proper go at a city (meaning the one where I didn’t blow the budget in ten minutes and completely ruin the lives of every poor soul who decided my town of nothing was the hip new place to stay), I’d crafted a lovely town by the river, laid out pretty roadwork patterns, slowly built my population up to a decent level by designating roadside sections the corresponding color for residential areas, and followed suit with a healthy shot of industry and commerce to help this community thrive. I was growing fast, and I was rather pleased with myself. Unfortunately I’d built my pipework outlets in completely the wrong place, and put too much housing a bit too close to the chugging smoke of an industrial district.
I ended up with a citywide epidemic of sickness and death via crap-flavored water and cream of death air. I fumbled to fix the damage, but alas, there was no saving a good chunk of the population of Punkerton, and I vowed to not make the same mistakes again. Luckily, I quite enjoyed the thrill of starting from scratch in Cities. Almost as much as seeing a city thrive, but there’s always a sense of quiet despair seeing your hopes and dreams for a plucky young city torn to shreds because you neglected to use logic once, or failed to read a simple info blurb. Ignorance hurts growth and long-term progress, who’d have thunk it?
The game does its best to coax you into its mechanics and early on, offering helpful hints, throwing up emoticons to represent whatever fresh hell your townsfolk are unhappy about, and holding back on certain things until you’ve grown a touch more comfortable managing your humble hamlet into bustling boulevards. Once you’ve connected the electric, fitted the pipes, and slapped down a bunch of industry, commercial, and residential areas. The game throws services at you, giving you just enough cash on the milestone that unlocks them to pick a couple at a time.
You unlock more things for your city as your population grows to a certain number, which will vary depending on the base map you use.. Once Fire, Police, Medical, and Garbage disposal are sorted, you can (if you wish) tackle public transport. This is where things get a touch fiddly, as the game under explains how the routes should be executed, leading to a bit of head-scratching and frustration if you put this off till you grow your population higher still, as you may have to divert your attention away from everything else while you figure it out.
Thankfully, this is less of an issue during the early going. The pace is rather sedate during Cities: Skylines’ opening hours. The excitement of building a new utopia from scratch does diminish after the fifth or sixth attempt, but handily the fast-forward option from the PC version is here from day one (the Xbox One version omitted it at launch) to whittle away the time a bit quicker so you spend less time thumb-twiddling as you look for the next population milestone or next chunk of cash to build something you want.
Downtime gets considerably less of a problem as you grow, as the more you have going on, the more chance there is that something will go wrong. Robbery, fires, landfills groaning with the weight of garbage, dead people stinking up apartments, and businesses failing because of a multitude of reasons. All will pop up and demand your attention, with that emoticon system highlighting where the problems are clearly, and a Twitter-esque feed pop up that shows the concerns and praises of your citizens (mostly concerns) also chipping in. The emoticons are usually easy to understand, and a click of the right stick on an affected area will give you a cleaner explanation of what the problem is if you do struggle to comprehend it.
Despite bulging at the seams in terms of fitting everything comfortably on PS4, Cities: Skylines maintains its hold on the spew of information and management well. The technical side of things however, it where the rivets pop and performance leaks from the gaps. Cities can get quite choppy as you inspect things in greater detail, with stuttering and slowdown plaguing the busiest areas of your lands. From afar, the pressure is relieved, and the pace of the game does at least prevent these technical woes from causing any major harm to your enjoyment, but it is clear a sacrifice had to be made, and this appears to be it.
There’s plenty to love about Cities, it’s utterly engrossing once the loop snares you and makes you its slave to autonomy, and there’s a free and easy charm to it that makes it easier to forgive where flaws are concerned. The range of options allow for both challenge and creativity (you can go in with everything unlocked and infinite money if you wish to build your dream city), and that alone makes it a great entry point to the sim genre in the same manner The Sims does.