When I started playing I thought, “This is the game Simcity 2013 should have been.” After a few hours I thought, “This is better than any Sim City game in recent memory.” At this point I’m thinking it’s probably the best city builder ever designed. It’s been years since I had a game engrossing enough that I was still playing it in my head while I was trying to fall asleep. It really is that good.
Skylines is by Colossal Order, the team behind Cities in Motion. It shows. Cities in Motion is a game about regulating, planning, mitigating, and profiting from traffic. That game was all about designing mass transit in a fixed city. Skylines takes all of that traffic-flow strategy and brings it to a city you design yourself.
The result is Sim City, but with a really good, really engrossing traffic system. Every car is simulated, and you can watch the complex flow of traffic to get a feel for where people are coming from, where they are going, and how you can expedite that. Small changes to the street rules can make huge changes to the flow of traffic.
In the old Maxis games, you solved traffic problems by building wider roads or mass transit. Here you can solve congestion problems with a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer. Maybe making this side-street one-way will cut down on the number of people blocking traffic with left-hand turns. Maybe gathering all these side-streets into one street before you hit the main drag will cut down on the number of traffic lights everyone has to go through.
I’ve heard that a roundaboutThey’re often called a “rotary” in New England. is the best type of intersection for the purposes of keeping traffic flowing, but this game is a perfect illustration of why. You can take a clogged 4-way intersection and (provided you’ve got enough space) turn it into an effortless free-flowing roundabout. It’s not that the game was written with some kind of pro-roundabout bias. It’s just a natural emergent result of the way the cars behave. Like I said above: Every car is simulated. There’s no cheating here.
A Long Digression on American vs. European Road Design.
Roundabouts have a bad reputation in the US for a couple of reasons. One is that we’re not packed in the way Europeans are, so we don’t need them as much. By the time a city is large enough where a roundabout would be useful, it’s already too late, because the roads have already been built and the real estate is too expensive to go around bulldozing stuff to make room for a roundaboutIn Europe, this isn’t a problem because the roundabouts were there centuries before the cars..
Second, navigating a roundabout is a skill. Like any other aspect of driving, it seems comically simple once you know what you’re doing, but it’s actually really confusing and stressful if you’re not used to it. This creates a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem when it comes to roundabouts. Americans don’t build them because the overwhelming majority of us hate them and find them stressful. So when we run into the rare situation where traffic is heavy enough to warrant one and there’s somehow enough room to build one, we still don’t make one because drivers won’t be able to make efficient use of it. It only takes a couple of clueless people to ruin the flow of a roundabout, and in any decent-sized city, there’s always going to be a couple of out-of-towners mucking up the works.
But the biggest reason Americans hate roundabouts is that their first (possibly only) experience with them is in New England in the Boston area. In case you’ve never visited: Boston is a mad vortex of devious roads that have been designed to entrap and devour unwary visitors in their hungry tendrils. The roads are only labeled just enough to trick you into thinking you can navigate with their guidance. And then it pulls you underground where your GPS won’t work, re-labels all the roads, and begins presenting you with branching choices at high speed.
If you ever escape from that darkened hellhole, you and your vehicle will be flung into a roundabout while confused, angry, scared, and where the slightest error will pull you into a one-way toll road going the wrong direction. I speak from experience.
And that’s why Americans don’t have roundabouts.
If there’s any fault I can find with Skylines its that it clings to the Sim City formula more than it really needs to. Stop me if you’ve heard this beforeThat’s always such a strange phrase in the context of a written article. But the entire phrase is kind of shorthand for “We are both aware of this information, but I need to relay it anyway for context.” Language is strange.: You’ve got three main types of zones: Residential (green) commercial (blue) and industrial (yellow). You’ve got three bars that depict the demand for them. You have to lay down the color-coded zones while balancing city-wide utilities like water, electric, sewage, and garbage pickup. On top of this you’ve got city services like fire, police, and education. You boost land value through beautification and you unlock new and useful buildings as you reach various population milestones. And while all this is going on, you have to tame the ever-growing river of traffic flowing through your city streets.
They even retain a lot of the quirky stylistic conceits of Sim City: Coal-fired power plants can barely output enough juice to supply a neighborhood, and cause massively exaggerated levels of pollution. Green power is supernaturally compact and affordable once it becomes availableThis is pretty understandable, from a gameplay perspective.. Fires are ludicrously common. Every industrial building has massive smokestacks that belch black soot into the air like it’s 1930The game begins in the year 2000.. There are no churches. Traffic is a huge problem but parking is a non-issue. It’s okay to dump raw sewage in the river because sewage treatment is an advanced super-technology only available to large cities. Industrial density doesn’t keep up with residential density, so a mature city will end up with something like half its footprint devoured by industrial structures. And true to Sim City tradition, these structures are among the most repetitive and boring in the game
I don’t know that they needed to cling to the established formula quite that hard. It’s not like the Sim City mechanics are perfect or anything. If SimCity 2013 had been good, I’d fault Skylines from being an empty copycat. But since SimCity was a disaster on every level, this feels more like a calculated move to exploit EA’s massive blunder. And that makes me happy.
My biggest complaint about the game is Chirper, Skyline’s in-world Twitter analogue. Enumerating the countless faults with this feature would double the size of this review. There’s a mod on the Steam workshop to kill it. Just get rid of it and enjoy the rest of the game. I have no idea what the team was thinking.
The best part of Skylines is that it humiliates Maxis by delivering on all the failed promises of SimCity 2013. Remember when they claimed “every inhabitant is simulated”? And then when we got the game it turned out people just left their house in the morning, drove until they found a building with an open job slot, and then to go home they did the same, ending up at the first available house. It was beyond stupid, and probably worse than just treating people as an abstraction.
But here, every person is indeed simulated. They have families and relationships. They have a job and a specific house to live in. They’re born, grow old, and die. Which makes it possible to create emergent stories, kind of like playing the Sims and letting everyone run autonomously.
It really is the best city builder ever. Highest recommendation.
 They’re often called a “rotary” in New England.
 In Europe, this isn’t a problem because the roundabouts were there centuries before the cars.
 That’s always such a strange phrase in the context of a written article. But the entire phrase is kind of shorthand for “We are both aware of this information, but I need to relay it anyway for context.” Language is strange.
 This is pretty understandable, from a gameplay perspective.
 The game begins in the year 2000.
A wild game filled with wild ideas that features fun puzzles and mind-blowing environments. It has a great atmosphere, and one REALLY annoying flaw with its gameplay.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
Silent Hill Origins
Here is a long look at a game that tries to live up to a big legacy and fails hilariously.
A horrible, railroading, stupid, contrived, and painfully ill-conceived roleplaying campaign. All in good fun.