I GOT 99 PROBLEMS, AND THE WORST ONE IS GRIDLOCK TRAFFIC

 After a few hours of Cities, watching traffic flow like this is highly comparable to an intense, psychedelic dream-state.

After a few hours of Cities, watching traffic flow like this is highly comparable to an intense, psychedelic dream-state.

CITIES: SKYLINES Review.

 

Simulation games present an interesting design issue: a balance needs to be struck between accurately simulating what the game is supposed to -- building cities, T-boning pimp wagons, following dance steps -- and creating a gratifying play experience. I’ve never actually built a city in my life that wasn’t made out of Lego bricks or D&D character sheets, but I get the impression that Cities: Skylines manages to realize many of the inveterate puzzles of urban planning without turning it into a chore. Indeed, from micro to macro scale, the core design theme in Cities: Skylines seems to be a tightrope-walking, house-of-cards, mixed-metaphor balancing act.

In Cities, your task is to lay down the groundwork for a city that will attract and sustain the largest possible population. The casual passage of time in the game is when the buildings rise up and the traffic flows among the streets, but the real work takes place in hour-long pauses spent masterminding intersections and balancing zones, civic services, and taxes. The transition between the long pause and the resumption of space-time is the moment where you see whether your choices have had any effect. And even as an action RTS gamer, this unremarkable moment brings me incredible satisfaction when I see my plan work out.

These euphoric moments are owed largely to the depth of Cities. Everything is interconnected. Individual civilians have names, jobs, and troubles. Building a network of pedestrian walkways will alleviate commuter traffic. Dead civilians need a hearse to conduct them to the cemetery. Small foibles can add up to crippling frustrations, sometimes to the extent of a plummet in population and income, and the mass destruction of your city by tornado and UFO abduction (actually Cities: Skylines lacks Sim City’s destructive gratifications), and doing the legwork of investigating what’s going wrong, and then tentatively correcting it for the desired result, presents a calming puzzle throughout the development of your city. While a solution may solve your initial problem, all factors are intermingled, and you can cause backswing problems to arise elsewhere in your city. This is especially true when attempting to reroute high-traffic streets - much of the time all you can do is forward traffic to other intersections, rather than eliminate it. As the city sprawls - your citizens will demand more Industrial, Commercial, and Residential zones, which requires connections to the road network, water, electricity, fire and medical coverage, and probably a bunch of other shit - the urban Jenga tower begins to sway further and further from side to side, and those incremental inefficiencies have greater and greater impact.

 I think my early experience with the game is accurately conveyed by my save file names...('crazy noobtown', 'grbg???','NewSave'',ooo','real town', 'slightly less crazy' and 'ugh' respectively.

I think my early experience with the game is accurately conveyed by my save file names...('crazy noobtown', 'grbg???','NewSave'',ooo','real town', 'slightly less crazy' and 'ugh' respectively.

For me personally, difficulty level is hugely influential in my reaction to a game. Challenges need to be solvable without being cursory, and they need to ramp up steadily. With a few exceptions (hello, 90-degree highway merges), all your troubles in Cities will have been caused by you. Each city is first founded on an empty space, and problems only arise as your growing network of infrastructure begins to tie knots in itself. In this way, Cities maintains a caliber of difficulty while still being completely relaxing. There’s no one to blame for any of your problems but yourself; and there’s nothing stopping you from re-paving Spaghetti Junction other than a few minutes of income or an instant loan. Now, don’t get me wrong. When you start Cities, you will fuck up in ways you don’t even understand. I think I founded 7 cities in my first 2-3 hours playing the game, oftentimes running out of budget for water and power before ever unpausing the game. Other times a pandemic will sweep a suburb, killing everyone within weeks. There will be gridlock traffic jams made up of nothing but emergency vehicles and garbage trucks. Sixteen-wheelers will spend hours traversing the aforementioned Spaghetti Junction just to leave the city. And I think everybody, at least once, will place a water pump downstream of the sewage outflow pipe. But the patterns of reasoning the game nudges you towards make no problem unsolvable. With a click you’re able to query map templates to indicate pollution, traffic density, public health, and other factors; you can also query individual civilians and vehicles to find out where they’re going, and if & why it is they’re struggling to get there (This is a task that real-life traffic engineers are sometimes required to do). Thus the problem-solving rubric of diagnose, prescribe, apply seems equally essential in both virtual and actual city management.

I cringe to use the word for a game I’ve enjoyed, but I might hazard that the way Cities highlights real-world problems in an interactive medium, could categorize it as edutainment. I mean, after these long, sexy nights of infrastructure engineering, when I crawl from my lair and cringe at the sunlight, I look around and start recognizing the principles I’ve learned from Cities at work in my actual city. Commercial zones tend to buffer residential from industrial. Highways and roundabouts are spatially inconvenient, but functionally crucial installations in every city. Public transit can cause as much traffic as it’s intended to prevent. Perhaps these are all obvious truths to any driver; but Cities projects into your mind a kind of bird’s-eye view of city networks, makes you aware of why cities are the way they are. Sometimes they’re all sprawled out because, at the time those roads were built, explosive growth in the future had not been anticipated. Other grids, like major downtown urban districts, tend to be densely organized and well serviced. Sometimes the geography itself makes it impossible to keep everything connected and organized. In any case, it just ain’t easy.

I enjoyed Cities for its tasteful difficulty curve, its relaxing gameflow, and its edutainment value. The game's threshold of worthwhileness fluctuated up and down for me over the course of my first few sleepless nights playing it, but there was this one highway intersection that I paused the game to perfect for about 30 minutes, and the feeling of satisfaction following that, about 5 hours into the game, assured me the game was worth the time. I'm pushing 19 hours now and though my city is nothing to boast about, I'm starting to see that growing your city is sorta-kinda more of the same after first few thousand citizens, and my worthwhileness factor is starting to top out a bit. So if you're looking for a fun and bright city-building experience for 5-19 hours, then I would recommend Cities Skylines.

I purchased Cities: Skylines on the Steam Summer Sale (now it's 32.99) and have played 20 hours total, using a few cosmetic mods, as well as an auto-demolisher tool for abandoned and burned-down buildings.