Cities: Skylines - The True Successor to SimCity 4
SimCity is the kind of game which doesn't require a big grand revolution, only an evolution towards the right path.
Old SimCity 4 is still a very good game in its own right and an excellent time waster for sim fans such as myself, but its advanced age (seriously, it’'s from 2003, a time of Windows XP, PlayStation 2 and H-bomb-proof Nokia cellphones) make its limitations increasingly visible.
The urban mobility tools are particularly affected, suffering from the Californian roots of Maxis; the Rush Hour expansion is essential to get them to even an acceptable level. Yes, the fan-made Network Addon Mod helps a lot, but due to the game's innate limitations it just doesn't offer as fluid an experience as the default toolset.
So, when Maxis announced that it would release a proper successor ten years later, people rejoiced. Yes, it was 100% online, but this little piece of information still wasn't enough to make the optimists among us lose faith. We were used to such things as top-notch localizations, ample regions available for development and llamas, tons and tons of llamas. What could possibly go wrong?
"How to turn a well-beloved gaming studio into a source of endless embarrassment: Part II" (Part I was launched by Blizzard roughly a year earlier)
The launch fiasco generated great dissatisfaction among fans, a huge loss of trust and, worst of all, every single YouTube gaming channel in existence trying to crack a joke about it.
What alternative was there for us disappointed folk? Cities XL was the best candidate, but its performance issues are still not addressed to this day (much of the problem is that it cannot use more than a single CPU core at all) and the developers have followed the questionable practice of relaunching the same thing over and over again with minor changes. Being a city simulation fan in 2013 was enough to shake anyone’s faith in capitalism.
Two years later, however, this arrived:
Cities: Skylines is not revolutionary, and doesn't pretend to be. It has the same basic concepts designed by Will Wright in the late-eighties: residential, commercial and industrial zones with variable densities, a diverse array of power plants, public services such as schools and police, parks to increase terrain value and so on. However, while 2013-spec SimCity restricts you to bit-sized interconnected cities for a more "social" experience, that being all the rage at the time, Skylines provides you some (expansible!) land with highway and train connections... and that's about it. Plus, it is quite a steal even at its full price of $30.
Everything else consist of refinements of these basics. Your building options are slowly but steadily unlocked as your city grows which allows a more organic development, and road construction has plenty of variety and is not restricted by a grid any more. Zoning follows a grid system, but it's shaped by the roads around it, public transportation is managed by easy-to-create lines (to be expected from the studio behind Cities in Motion) and you can subdivide your city between districts with their own regulations. It's not a very different experience, but a much more pleasant one. Like the Internet with a broadband connection: same sites as before, but much quicker, and you don't need to disconnect when your family needs to call.
City simulators are renowned for seamlessly teaching concepts of urban planning to its players, and Skylines improves on that. As ever, try to create gigantic high-density zoning blocks and traffic issues will be inevitable. Try to solve it with wider streets alone and your buildings will suffer from lowered land value thanks to the added noise pollution - or worse, traffic might increase because this new road is a better option for people of other regions! All in all, this makes it the perfect present for that car-hating hardcore cyclist friend of yours.
I'd like to gift this game to two people. One is the head of my home town transport department. The other one leads the construction department.
Many of its inevitable limitations can be somewhat overturned without much difficulty: there is ample support for mods and custom buildings, allowing even for major interface changes. The vanilla experience is quite pleasant by itself, though, so you might not feel the need to try out all that extensibility.
All that thanks to a 13-person Finnish crew with the help of the Unity engine - yes, the same one used by those dozens of low-effort Slenderman games played by high-pitched YouTubers with their face on a corner of the screen. Cities in Motion gave them the expertise and confidence to aim for something bigger, but it was only after the latest SimCity tanked that publisher Paradox Interactive agreed to finance it. The genre maker did not have a firm grasp over it any more. They even have a healthy interaction with gaming media, through specialized sites, Twitch and YouTube, and once they got the necessary hype, their success was almost inevitable.
Twenty-six game hours later, I'm still on my first city: little Wololopolis, with a population just over 32,000. Games like this allow you to savor them without the need to rush through, and to freely experiment. In fact, its main issue is the rather low difficulty: a reasonably well-planned city is always in the green, and after a certain point money stops being an issue.
Maybe the simulation parameters are not perfectly well-tuned. Maybe our real-life mayors are actually incompetent. Maybe, thanks to your lifetime term of office, you don't need to hand overpriced contracts to campaign donors. Who knows? Even then, this major weakness for those well-versed in the genre and used to, say, the vanilla SimCity 4 difficulty level might be overturned by a mod or two.
Meanwhile, my small town keeps growing...
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