Cities Skylines Review: Traffic Pile-up on The Learning Curve

With Cities: Skylines, you have the chance to plan the city of your dreams, complete with a complex road sysem and economic infrastructure. However, the game's steep learning curve and vague status feedback might put-off a lot of would-be mayors. How well did our city fare? Our review.

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There's something almost meditative about playing a city planning game like Cities: Skylines. It comes from the satisfaction of watching a well-planned city in action, with the constant thrum of traffic, and its residents doing daily routines like clockwork. However, getting there and becoming the perfect mayor requires know-how and strategy. Although Cities: Skylines gives you the tools you need to build the city of your dreams, it lacks instruction for properly utilizing them.

Building a Skyline

To start the game, you select a map that's full of empty space, then start constructing a town using limited resources. You have to plan out a road system and other infrastructure like water pipes and electricity. Unlike games like SimCity, you don't have to worry about weather conditions or natural disasters. It's always a sunny day, wherever you are, in Skylines. Your city will grow as you designate residential, commercial, and industrial areas. Meters on the bottom of the screen will show what's in demand so that you develop your city accordingly.

New buildings and features unlock as your population grows. Before you know it, your list of concerns will include education, emergency response, and pollution, among a host of other issues. It's your job to keep the city growing and evolving with high end residential and commercial districts, a low unemployment rate, and a road system that minimizes traffic problems while keeping the residents happy.

It soon becomes a lot to juggle, especially when trying to work in mass transit systems as they unlock, like a bus terminal and subway system. You also have to balance between the needs of the demands of the city to maintain a steady revenue. It's possible to have too many educated people in your city, which causes industrial worker numbers to plummet. Then there are a host of other issues your city might be prone to.

Communications Breakdown

The problem with all of this is that Cities: Skylines isn't very good with player feedback. There's a Twitter-like update system called Chirpy, but it's really silly. Messages about trash piling up or rolling blackouts are mixed in with silly messages like what a nice day it is, or someone reporting a lost wallet. There's no way to dismiss all the messages at once (you have to close them one at a time), so it becomes very easy to ignore the Chirpy feed altogether.

Players shouldn't have to rely on Chirpy for city alerts. There should be an advisor letting me know when my landfill is almost full, if power or water consumption is reaching peak capacity, or if my residents are largely over-educated. As it is, no new people will move into my city until I grow my industrial sector. But there's no point in adding more zones, because the existing ones are clearly failing. Meanwhile, building a highway system caused my commercial districts to crumble, when in real life, you would expect the exact opposite to happen.

As you can probably guess, the learning curve is quite high for Cities: Skylines, and it would probably be a good idea to get experience with a less hardcore city planning game before diving into this one. Object descriptions are sorely lacking, and it's often hard to figure out how to work with a building after you've placed it. For example, I placed a bus terminal and created a route. However, there's no intuitive way to delete the bus route and start over as my city evolves. The best I could do was move around the existing route, which can be a painfully annoying task.

I also purchased a train station by accident, even though the map I was playing on didn't have a supporting rail system. Still, having a train terminal that went nowhere seemed to make my residents happy, so I kept it. The game could really benefit from an undo button, especially when planning roads and other infrastructure. Unfortunately, you're limited to bulldozing over your mistakes and getting a small refund.

Stop and Go Motion

The most confusing and irritating aspect of Cities: Skylines is the one feature it's supposed to excel at: roads. Everything has to be attached to a main street (but not a highway). Buildings can only be placed on the tiles on the immediate sides of roads, which encourages grid box planning. Even subway entrances need to be placed next to a road. So, my plans of having a subway entrance come up in the heart of a office sector are dashed.

Skylines offers a host of options for alleviating traffic congestion, but they're often in the form of unwieldy roundabouts that don't fit well into gridded cities. Or they're come in the form of monstrous highway clovers that are almost impossible to place. Skylines could really use a sandbox mode, where players can try out all the city upgrades and learn to use them without worrying about a budget or city wants.

Once you get a feel for the game, Cities: Skylines can be quite satisfying and fun to play. But getting there can feel like trying to build a house without blueprints and only a vague idea of how to use each tool.

Managing Editor
Review for
Cities: Skylines
7
Pros
  • Highly detailed infrastructure system
  • Lots of options for city planning
Cons
  • Not enough player feedback
  • Chirpy system is annoying
  • High learning curve
From The Chatty
  • reply
    April 2, 2015 12:30 PM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Cities Skylines Review: Traffic Pile-up on The Learning Curve

    • reply
      April 2, 2015 1:06 PM

      I disagree.

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      April 2, 2015 1:22 PM

      Eh, I ran into problems with my city, but marking the game down for that is like marking an action game down because you died on a boss once or twice. Overall, I felt a lot more satisfied with the tools Cities Skylines gives you to solve problems than I did with SimCity. Just being able to relocate buildings for a fraction of their cost and getting refunded when bulldozing roads is so much more forgiving.

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      April 2, 2015 1:24 PM

      Not even a single mention of the Workshop integration?

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      April 2, 2015 1:27 PM

      Man, if you had this much trouble with Skylines, SimCity 4 must have been an exercise in futility for you.

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        April 2, 2015 1:28 PM

        Also what's up with this line;

        Skylines could really use a sandbox mode, where players can try out all the city upgrades and learn to use them without worrying about a budget or city wants.

        There are two mods (infinite money and all unlocks) ready to go with the release of the game for precisely this!

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          April 2, 2015 1:34 PM

          This "review" really feels phoned in. I didn't want to shit on it, but it's really short and totally vague about everything.

          "You can build some stuff and traffic is hard" is about all I got out of it. :(

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            April 2, 2015 2:51 PM

            Yeah, Shack reviews are pretty weak. The writing is just average, and it's very difficult (at least to me) to understand the points made. I mean, look at http://www.shacknews.com/article/88195/the-order-1886-review-uncharted-territory as another example.

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              April 2, 2015 3:47 PM

              My major problem is that none of the writers have a distinct voice. Maybe Ozzie and Asif, but with the others I need the by-line to find out who barfed some platitudes onto the page. I don't like to be this harsh, but most reviews have really weak arguments. It hurts their purpose and gives them an advertorial feeling.

              I miss someone unique like Alice. :(

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            April 2, 2015 5:23 PM

            I suspect it's more to do with the person reviewing the game not being interested in simulations. I phoned in a review long ago on GA-Source when I was made to review Dark Reign 2 and I had no interest in RTS games, so the review was pretty basic and showed my lack of experience in that genre. On one hand the review gave the perspective of someone inexperienced with a RTS game, but on the other the more hardcore into that genre got nothing out of it.

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          April 2, 2015 1:38 PM

          That is true but not readily apparent unless you know to look in the mods section. Most games would probably just have it as a checkbox.

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            April 2, 2015 1:40 PM

            It sounds like he wanted a totally hand-held experience. Popups to tell him how to draw his roads, where to place his parks etc.

            What person doesn't at least explore menus when reviewing a game like this? Especially considering the devs explicitly said numerous times prior to release that you could sandbox the game with two ready-to-go mods for infinite money and all unlocks.

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              April 2, 2015 1:44 PM

              I agree, just pointing out that I've seen lots of people asking for a sandbox mode on reddit and on the shack because they didn't think to look at the mod menu.

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                April 2, 2015 1:45 PM

                Dunno, maybe I'm the weird one but when I get a new game I usually spend a few minutes clicking around the main menu and checking out the settings before I hit 'New Game'.

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                  April 2, 2015 1:47 PM

                  I do that too but I don't think to install any mods in my first go-around, especially if I was facing a deadline.

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            April 2, 2015 1:55 PM

            No, it's very readily apparent. It pops a notice up at you upon first running the game that says 'Check out the mods, including unlimited money mode'. I'm paraphrasing, but it explicitly tells you there's an unlimited money mode. And it's a great way to learn the game and/or make crazy cities generally out of my skill level to manage.

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              April 2, 2015 2:17 PM

              I don't remember that, was it in at launch or was it added in a patch? Either way, clearly it can be missed judging by the number of people who had to ask how to enable sandbox mode.

    • reply
      April 2, 2015 1:32 PM

      + Mod Community

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      April 2, 2015 1:40 PM

      High learning curve?? Really? Have you played a city building game before? It's basically SimCity lite with more traffic problems. It's really hard to lose money in this game.

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        April 2, 2015 1:44 PM

        The more times I read this review, the more I am disappointed that it got published on this website. It's like Steven played it for about an hour, had no previous knowledge of what a city-building game is, and didn't try to learn from his mistakes the first time on a second playthrough.

        In Cities, your first map will fail most likely, but then you learn and go crush the second map...

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      April 2, 2015 1:43 PM

      I agree that the game isn't very clear about what you need to do, a common fault in European simulators and management games. Also, an undo button would be great. I see several points in the review that indicate a lack of exploration on your part. Deleting bus routes can be done from one of the info views, only one of your screenshots seems to have any sort of grid planning going on and there are mods that ship with the game and enable sandbox mode.

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      April 2, 2015 2:01 PM

      I realize that a lot of people love this game because of nostalgia, but a 7? Come on! I'd give it a solid 9. Hell, knock a point off for the nostalgia factor and give it an 8.

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        April 2, 2015 2:06 PM

        It is in contention for my GOTY.

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          April 2, 2015 2:18 PM

          Mine too! That's why I would personally give it a 9. Def a GotY contender.

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          April 2, 2015 10:47 PM

          It's managed to keep me up nights. Takes a lot for a game to do that these days. Also, thud is totally right!

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        April 2, 2015 2:08 PM

        Nostalgia? What is nostalgic about it? Its like saying people like the new COD because its an fps and they loved doom growing up so they were feeling nostalgic.

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          April 2, 2015 2:09 PM

          Maybe he means because it's the first good city sim since SimCity 4, which is over 12 years old.

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          April 2, 2015 2:21 PM

          I started with Simcity 2000. I played with friends because I didn't have a PC that could run it. It was a major component of my PC gaming experience, hence I look on city building games of it's type with a great deal of fondness and nostalgic feelings.

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          April 2, 2015 2:49 PM

          If anything, it's most reminiscent of the SimCity that came out just a couple years ago.

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      April 2, 2015 2:12 PM

      It has a Sandbox mode, just enable the unlimited money and unlock all mods.

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      April 2, 2015 6:03 PM

      I don't think I'd agree that the learning curve on this game is high at all. It was pretty easy to jump in and just play. Within the first couple of hours I started playing my city was making a pretty solid steady income, and I've never gone into the red since then. If anything, one of my only complaints about the game is that it's a little TOO easy.

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      April 2, 2015 6:12 PM

      Did Steven even play the game?

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      April 2, 2015 8:18 PM

      Steep learning curve?? Terrible review.

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      April 2, 2015 9:56 PM

      I did not enjoy this review, nor did I find it representative of my time spent with the game.

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      April 2, 2015 10:53 PM

      #hottake

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      April 3, 2015 5:57 AM

      Gotta say I disagree with the words of this review. I think the score is okay (Assuming we're thinking of it as a real scale of 1 to 10 and not a metacritic scale of 99% of games fitting between 70 and 100) and a fairly accurate representation. The game is very very fun, with some frustrations and limitations. 7/10 seems fair.

      But man a steep learning curve? I felt like the first five minutes could have been better, maybe include a breif tutorial. But after that I picked up everything easily without even having to look stuff up.

      Also a lot of the problems you mention are totally already fixed with mods. Don't like Chirpy? Disable it, or better yet use the mod that filters out the flavour tweets and only puts the status updates ones in. Roundabouts too big? Download some of the awesome roundabouts pre-created in the workshop.

      The game comes pre-loaded with a mod which lets you do the sandbox mode you described, all you have to do is turn it on.

    • reply
      April 3, 2015 5:59 AM

      7/10 is like 3.5/5 which is low IMO, its easily 8+