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Lifewire / Rebecca Isaacs
Easy sandbox gameplay
Multiple city-building maps
Cities: Skylines is the perfect sandbox for someone who wants to dip their toes into a city-building game without the wild scenarios. If you want a more challenging experience, be prepared to shell out for the many expansions and content packs that are sold separately.
When I was a kid, I tried my hand at SimCity 3000, and learned the hard way that I was not good at that kind of city-building game. So when I saw Cities: Skylines promise a more modern take on city-building, I picked it up. Years later, I can finally redeem myself and build a modern city from the ground up thanks to this sandbox city-builder game. At first, it was rough, but in my twenty hours of gameplay, I had a fun experience. Read on for the verdict to see how it stacked up with our list of the best city-building games.
If you wanted Cities:Skylines to have a plot, you are not in luck. Since it’s a sandbox city-building game, the base game’s sole goal is to allow you the freedom to build a city from scratch without any scenario restrictions. This removal of a plot is both refreshing and a curse. Two hours in, and I was having a blast building up roads and commercial areas; a couple hours later, and I could feel the itch to start a new map. There are no real scenarios, without real stakes, which later in the game presented a major problem for me.
Paradox Interactive and Colossal Order solved this issue by releasing a massive amount of expansions akin to the Sims franchise. Ranging from more simple content packs, like Modern Japan, or High-Tech Buildings, to expansions offering more features, like Sunset Harbor and Natural Disasters, scenarios become unlocked through their purchase.
Two hours in, and I was having a blast building up roads and commercial areas; a couple hours later, and I could feel the itch to start a new map.
The game’s menu will let you know which scenarios are associated with each expansion or content pack, so you’ll know what to pick up should you want a specific scenario. While I’m sure this will add hours of gameplay and offer a more challenging experience, I only tested out the base game for Cities:Skylines—though the option of natural disasters would make this pleasantville-like city-builder.
At first, I couldn’t figure out Cities: Skylines. I wanted to love the game because it was a city-builder that was solely there to act as a sandbox. As I began to play it, though, I realized I had no idea how to play this game. Sure, you could build roads as well as residential and commercial areas, but ensuring the taxes associated with these properties turn into profit turned out to be really hard for me. A few tries later, and I decided that I needed to turn to YouTube to see how to start the game.
This rough beginning is something to which I fault Paradox. Every other city-builder I’ve played starts with some kind of introduction, a way to dip your toes into the game without destroying a city homes to thousands of digital people. Cities: Skylines throws you into the experience headfirst and expects you to succeed.
Cities: Skylines throws you into the experience headfirst and expects you to succeed.
Once I got past this bump in the road, though, a modern take on city-building led me to new heights. My citizens “tweeted” to me when I forgot to put in sewer lines. They sent out social media blasts praising new parks I put in, and they also made sure you knew if there were traffic problems. In fact, I never realized how much thought one needs to put into creating traffic lanes and streets until I became mayor of my cities. As I learned quickly, a lot of thought goes into it—and one lane roads are your new best friend.
That was part of the beauty of the 20 hours I spent playing Cities: Skylines, though. Modern times means that the idea of the modern city grows, too. The game starts out with two roads: one leading into town, and one leading out of it. Thanks to amazing local traffic simulations—a quality the game does and should boast of—you’ll have to build your population up to earn the right to build those highways.
The game starts out with two roads: one leading into town, and one leading out of it. Thanks to amazing local traffic simulations—a quality the game does and should boast of—you’ll have to build your population up to earn the right to build those highways.
Along with road options, other rewards come as your population grows: parks, commercial districting, industry building, loan options, even the concept of garbage disposal. I see why they did it. I would have been that weirdo who would have spent the original amount doled out to start the city on the Statue of Liberty just because I could. As weird as it seems initially, this rewards system makes sense.
As with the roads, this game is designed to be in a constant state of construction. You’re going to want to tear out roads and rebuild them. You’ll need to decide how much funding to invest into your local education or your garbage disposal (a lot to this last one). To build up a population, maybe you’ll have to tear out that adorable residential neighborhood in favor of high rise apartments that are designed to attract younger populations.
As much as I wanted to keep that children’s playground right next to the school, building a college campus beside the high school made more sense to build up my education numbers and create high wage jobs—even if the neighborhood released sad faces into the air over the loss. It’s what makes its reasonably fast gameplay interesting, and fun. And because it’s a sandbox, you’re the one who has to make these kinds of heavy decisions.
I went into Cities:Skylines, fully expecting a similar experience to SimCity 3000 (view on GOG). To my surprise, the graphics were fun and colorful. You can’t alter the buildings in any way, but Paradox and Colossal Order both made sure to have an array of color into the designs. In fact, to make the graphics any fancier I feel would have been a disservice to the game. It perfectly balances necessity and glamor.
Cities: Skylines will put you back around $30, which isn’t too bad. However, the issue I take with it being $30 is that it’s only for the base game. You won’t get the extra features of the expansions or content packs unless you can land a Steam sale. For a base game that doesn’t come with any scenarios other than the basic sandbox with a handful of maps, it’s a little frustrating. However, if you’re like me and can spend hours in sandbox games, then the price shouldn’t worry you too much.
For a base game that doesn’t come with any scenarios other than the basic sandbox with a handful of maps, it’s a little frustrating.
Cities: Skylines is a regular city-building game. It doesn’t come with any wild sci-fi fantasy themes, like 2018’s science-fiction city-builder Surviving Mars (view on Steam). In a similar vein to Surviving Mars, though, Cities: Skylines focuses on creating a city-state from scratch. Because it lacks the multitude of scenarios Surviving Mars has to offer, you’ll ultimately have to decide which you prefer: science fiction sized dust storms on a planet just now ready for colonization, or a plain green cityscape ready to be molded into a thriving metropolis. If you want a plain city-building game, then Cities: Skylines might be more geared toward your taste.
However, 2019’s Tropico 6 (view on Steam) really gives Cities: Skylines a run for its money. In Cities: Skylines you’ll never have elections in your city, and your people will be kind even as they gripe about their lack of electricity in their coffee shop. Tropico 6 does not offer that luxury. In its multitude of scenarios, you’re going to anger a lot of people—so many, in fact, that you’ll have to watch out for rebellions and build up forces to fight the capitalists. I’m not saying that it’s easy—in fact, it’s quite difficult at times to manage the factions in Tropico 6.
That’s what makes Cities: Skylines a refreshing take on the city-builder. Because it’s a sandbox city-builder, I don’t have to worry about massive complications in city-building. There are fires and crime overlay risks, but at least I don’t have to lose sleep over whether the militarists will incite rebellion. Once again, if you want a plain city-builder where you can shape the entire course of your city, then Cities: Skylines is your best bet. If you want to “arrange accidents” for communists as well as hours-long scenarios, then pick up the more expensive Tropico 6.
An addictive city-building simulation, but you’ll need the DLC to take full advantage.
For the base game, Cities:Skylines offers hours of creative, fast gameplay. If you want to be challenged more, then be prepared to shell out some extra cash for its large number of expansions. For a game whose base is solely a sandbox city-builder, it’s a great way to let your creativity shine while enjoying the amenities of the modern world for your residents.