Republished on Wednesday 29th April 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of May's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
In terms of city-building games, the PlayStation 4 – hell, every console in general – is pretty light. Simulation games as a whole seem to be married to the PC, the complexity of running a metropolis requiring menus, precise clicks, and control systems that simply aren’t compatible with the simplicity of a controller.
Cities: Skylines, then, has found a gap – no, a canyon – in the market, but its lack of competition hasn’t made developer Colossal Order’s task of porting the highly complex urban planning sim to PlayStation any less... colossal. The sheer amount of variables to keep track of when creating your town – from population happiness and electricity demand to crime and pollution – demands precision control over every aspect of city maintenance. Having the streets flood with poo just because you can’t find the menu for sewage pipes would be as frustrating as it would be hilarious.
Thankfully, Colossal Order has done an excellent job at creating a control scheme that is simple to operate, yet carries out complex tasks. Road-building, often the fiddliest and most tedious task when it comes to city-building, is easy as streets automatically snap and curve when connected with others. Buildings are easy to manage, too: you can decide the nature of the buildings on one street, whether you want it to be residential, commercial, or industrial, by filling in the street with a sector’s corresponding colour.
In fact, colour plays a huge role in maintaining your city. There are over 20 different colour-coded views to look at your city through – you can look at your city in terms of pollution, for example, and the intensity of the colour green will show where pollution is affecting your city most. These minimalistic views are often prettier than looking at the city itself, as the graphics look a bit dated when zoomed in.
Still, there is a nice tilt-shift effect when you zoom into different districts in your city, as well as a sound change that corresponds to the type of district that you’re inspecting. Zoom into a residential district, for example, and the droning sounds of traffic will be replaced with the sound of dogs barking and people chatting. It’s little touches like these that Colossal Order has used magnificently to make cities seem more alive.
Though the interface is a little drab with grey menus aplenty, it’s incredibly simple to use. Every type of building, from rubbish tips to police stations, is accessible from a toolbar at the bottom of the screen, while holding circle brings up a radial menu that allows you to manage the finances of your city. How much different sectors are taxed, how much funding each public service gets, getting loans and bailouts from banks – every fiscal function is there, allowing you to micromanage the financial situation of your city in case you start losing money. Trust us when we say that it’ll happen a lot.
The constant financial peril that you always seem to be in makes Cities: Skylines makes a much more difficult game than first anticipated. Even when choosing the easiest maps with the most natural resources – a high wind speed, plenty of water for sewage disposal, etc – it’s still quite challenging to get a city started, especially if you make it too large, too quickly. It’s very easy to get into debt in the early stages of city-planning – in fact, the hardest part of the game as a whole is the beginning, which can be a turnoff for players who want a more relaxing experience.
After clearing that first hurdle of bankruptcy, however, the game’s difficulty generally tones down the larger your city gets – all thanks to the milestone system. Upon hitting certain population levels, more services and buildings are unlocked that help keep your city afloat, generally getting more efficient and profitable. You’ll start off with rubbish tips and sewage pumps, and end with rubbish incinerators and water purification stations. Yes, we know it sounds incredibly boring – city-building games are for a certain person, after all – but the feeling of running a finely-tuned city and ironing out problems is pretty fun.
In fact, the only major issue with Cities: Skylines is the technical aspect. At night – which is a shame, as this is when the game is at its most beautiful – there are quite a few framerate issues when zooming in and out, and dynamic objects such as wind turbines have weird stuttering effects at times. It’s a shame really, because in terms of gameplay, Cities: Skylines is an incredibly hard game to fault.
With Cities: Skylines, developer Colossal Order has laid the foundations for the city-building genre to return to consoles. Simple controls, immeasurable details, and accessible gameplay all ensure that the urban planning sim is a fun yet challenging experience.