Cities:Skylines – Xbox One Edition (just Cities from here on out) is an exciting addition to the Xbox One line up, because it brings the promise of a deep and long lasting city building simulation, which is a rare thing on consoles. Unlike the light-hearted and comedic Tropico 5, Cities is a game that goes deep on all aspects of city planning on a grand scale, from laying out industrial zones and setting taxes, to laying out bus routes if you so wish.
The scale and ambition of Cities comes at a cost however, with the Xbox One edition featuring a number of technical downgrades in comparison to the already aging PC version. There's also the issue of mapping such a complex game onto a single gamepad and ensuring that it appeals to the broader and more expectant console market.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with Cities is the fact that it features not only a complete lack of story (which is hardly surprising given the kind of game it is) but also a lack of structure of any kind. There is a basic (yet functional) tutorial baked in to the first thirty minutes or so of each new game, but there are no dedicated tutorial scenarios, and beyond that, there are simply a range of varied free play maps to choose from. Cities, therefore, is the kind of game that has to be able to allow players to create their own stories. Thankfully, it does this exceptionally well, and offers nearly limitless potential for the budding developer.
The simplest and often most successful cities are built in straightforward and efficient grids, but that soon becomes boring, so you'll want to explore other options. You'll want to replicate your home town, or a famous city that you love, or you may simply want to see what happens in a city built that has only railways, and no roads. The flexibility and scope for experimentation is vast, but I am disappointed that there is no campaign, no series of prefabricated cities that need rescuing or disastrous scenarios to recover from. It's all just a little bit too relaxed in that regard – heck, you can even enable infinite money from the outset.
How a game like Cities plays is undoubtedly the most important thing to consider when deciding whether or not to make a purchase. Personally, one of my biggest concerns was how well the game would be translated from the traditional genre control mechanism of a keyboard and mouse on PC, to a gamepad on Xbox One. Thankfully, I needn't have worried, because Cities features perhaps the most masterful demonstration of how to map so many features onto a control pad that I've ever seen. The sticks are used to pan around the map and select things on screen, whilst the triggers are used to provide a huge degree of flexibility in zoom range. The D-Pad and the A button select items from what you could loosely call a construction menu that lies across the bottom of the screen and is navigated with the bumpers, and the X and B buttons enable bulldozing and cancelling respectively. The Y button leads to a range of useful overlays showing traffic, pollution, crime, education and so much more, plus a ton of more detailed general management options. This is where you'll manage taxes, budgets and suchlike.
With the controls so intuitive, Cities feels set up for success, but it still took me several reruns at the first map before I felt like I had started on the right foot. In part, this is due to the lacklustre tutorial system that I mentioned previously. The game informs players of mechanical details such as how roads work and how to connect water or sewage pipes, but it completely fails to help players grasp the more nuanced and specific elements of setting up a city. For example, I quickly realised that sewage outlet pipes should be placed downstream of the fresh water inlet (to avoid polluting the water supply) and I knew how to lay the pipes, but what the game didn't tell me was that pipes of different kinds can't cross, and so it's essential to plan ahead or risk not being able to connect all your zones to these essential services. The same can be said of electricity, because pylons only supply power to zones within a certain range, and can't be placed on roads etc.
A big issue I had to overcome was the desire to build as efficiently as possible from the very outset by cramming my zones into neat, efficient and tightly packed spaces. This strategy proved effective some four or five cities later once I had become proficient at how the game worked, but initially, it was a recipe for disaster because I was simply unable to respond to the mess I had created. Instead, I found success in the first few games of Cities was best found by spacing out my zones, building relatively close to the water source and not necessarily starting out by doing whatever I wanted to do in the long run, like using only clean energy, for example.
Ultimately, however you play in Cities, seeing your design through to a satisfying conclusion will depend on you. There are almost no obstacles to overcome in Cities once you understand how to set up a decent budget and you can manage the nuances of city planning, but that's just the thing. Where there is no real impetus to achieve a set objective, players will need to craft their own and drive them forwards. That's fine if you want a chilled experience, but it might not be for everyone.
Graphics and Audio
Sound is perhaps the worst bit of Cities, although it's hardly surprising given the subject matter. The soundtrack is somewhere between lift music and the soundtrack from a wine bar that doesn't have a license to play anything recognisable. The sound effects tend to be locational, so when you zoom in on a residential zone you hear crickets at night and kids playing during the day, whilst commercial or industrial zones feature tills ringing and machinery crashing. Unfortunately, this zonal approach to sound effects doesn't really work, and you'll often zoom in on one zone then pan the camera, but the game will keep playing the sound from whatever zone you started on. It's a bit weird watching people jog around a beautiful park whilst still listening to the sound of your nearby coal fired power plant.
I can't deny that I enjoyed Cities: Skylines – Xbox One Edition, and I am truly happy to see that this classic and well made building simulator has made it onto Microsoft's console relatively intact. It's especially nice to see just how well the control scheme has been implemented, and even though I have to call out some minor technical issues, overall this is such an ambitious title that the Xbox One performs admirably well.
Cities is relatively complex when you consider all of the many features it includes, so I don't think it is a game that will appeal to everyone, but then again it does provide nearly unlimited scope for experimentation. When I think back to my own experience of playing Sim City on the Super Nintendo when I was ten or eleven, I can only imagine how excited I would have been at the prospect of wielding some of the powerful tools and features that Cities has to offer. I should probably also mention that whilst Cities has a map editor, there is currently no ability to share maps with other players (and indeed there are no multiplayer features at all) but I strongly suspect this will be added in at a later date.
In summary, Cities is an essential purchase for any city building fan that doesn't own a PC and has been longing for a game with more depth than Tropico 5. Thrillseekers and those looking for a challenge will probably want to start elsewhere, although I would argue that Cities offers a welcome change of pace and should be considered differently as a result.
|+ Unrivalled potential for city scale||– No tutorial, campaign or objective structure|
|+ Exceptional control scheme||– Relatively poor graphics and sound|
|+ Lasts as long as you want it to|