There’s something about a good city builder that evokes that sense of childhood wonder in me, reminds of days spent constructing lumps of nothing from LEGO or Duplo that I would then pretend were skyscrapers or spaceships or effigies of ancient Pagan gods – you know, the usual little boy stuff. But despite the enduring popularity of Maxis’ Sim City series, there aren’t that many games that focus entirely on building and managing a living, working metropolis of your own. Back in 2015, developer Colossal Order threw their hat into the ring with Cities: Skylines, an in-depth but user-friendly city sim. And now, 8 years later, we have Cities: Skylines II, a bigger, bolder take on the franchise.
But while the overall theme hasn’t changed since the first game, Cities: Skylines II has a very different focus in terms of what you’re actually doing. See, in the first game you could build the city of your dreams, of course. And you could manage everything from its road and rail systems to the taxes levied on your citizens. You could even change street names and craft beautiful townscapes. Which you can still do in Skylines II, naturally. But there’s a much bigger sense of “why” in the sequel.
The Lifepath feature is, quite simply, extraordinary. You can zero in on any of your thousands of citizens at a given time and just, well, follow them. I watched Brett Riley of 44 Elm Street leave his house, drive to work at the Medical Clinic in the suburbs, go inside and work his shift, then leave, drive home, sit around for a bit, and then go out for a walk. He walked to a bench, where he sat with another citizen, Alexis Kingsley, who I choose to believe is his secret life coach. You can even follow them all on “Chirper”, the in-game social network where citizens will constantly let you know what they think of you, whether you want them to or not.
What’s wild is that you can do this for everyone in your city. And look, there are flaws. One character I followed changed entirely between entering and exiting a building. And time in Cities: Skylines II is still weird. Individual days count down in minutes and seconds, but months and seasons pass by very fast. Most of my adult citizens had birthdays listed as 2020 when the in-game year was 2023. It’s not perfect – but when you watch people stopping at crossings because the light is red, or running a few steps to avoid traffic, or sitting at coffee shops and going to work, it’s impressive. Taken in snapshots as you zoom around erecting skyscrapers and slamming universities down like empty shot glasses, you can very easily suspend your disbelief.
It comes at a steep cost though. Cities: Skylines II is a game close to buckling under its own magnificence. Performance is incredibly uneven, to the point that the only way I could get it to run smoothly was to play around with the settings and ended up on “low”. And even then it would chug like crazy if I wanted to zoom in or pan too quickly. Textures struggle to appear, and sometimes the game would just freeze for a second or two. My PC is hardly a powerhouse but I recently managed to get Lords of the Fallen running pretty consistently on high settings, so I’m sure it’s not all down to my hardware.
And yet I found myself in a very forgiving mood towards Cities: Skylines II. There’s so much going on that you don’t often feel you have time to idly fret over how it looks. And when you do get a still moment to pause and reflect on what you’ve built, the sense of wonder kind of takes over. When you can pull right back to a satellite view and zoom in to street level in a few heartbeats, it’s hard not to be impressed by it all.
Anyone worrying that Colossal Order might have cut back need worry no longer. From the moment you select your starting landscape, name your city, choose from European or North American visual themes, and drop in, the sense of creative freedom is real. Even playing the campaign tutorials (which I’d advise for newcomers), the game lets you place things more or less where you like and allows you to take over very quickly. In the standard mode you’ll be following fairly straightforward wants and needs, installing Residential, Commercial or Industrial zones and watching them grow. You need power, of course, and water and sewage systems. Your citizens need WiFi, and education, emergency services and healthcare. You can unlock signature buildings, and assign land for farming or mining – and everything you build and connect will be peopled by your little citizens.
Handy infographics give you the inside track on everything from how happy your people are to how clean the water is, how much power everyone is getting, how strong the internet is. Bright colour-maps indicate areas of high or low performance, while icons float above your zones to indicate all manner of issues from a lack of clean water to unaffordable rent. You can micromanage the entire city, or take a step back and focus on the large issues like air pollution and landfill space. Transport systems, including airways and bus routes, are yours to set and control. It’s a hell of a lot to take in, and your first few cities will likely fail.
I reached level 8 with my first city before disaster struck. A forest fire spread out of control, faster than my emergency services could cope. It devoured the tiny island suburb I’d built, and then a second appeared on the mainland and tore through my city, destroying whole blocks and killing my citizens in scores. It was kind of heartbreaking, but I started again, this time overcoming a pandemic to wrest back some semblance of normality.
If it all does get too much, you can choose to unlock everything and begin with infinite money. Far from feeling like cheating, this is essentially creative mode, and allows you to do what you want without fear of bankruptcy. Especially as you can turn taxes right down and endlessly fund education and emergency services without upsetting your citizenry. You can also turn off natural disasters and play in a much more chilled fashion. I preferred this mode because it allowed me to just make anything I wanted, but the lack of real structure and objectives has its downsides.
Cities: Skylines II is a fantastic city builder with an astonishing level of detail. My only real complaint besides some finicky placement issues was that the music is incredibly irritating and plays on a loop, interrupted only by the radio commenters who sadly repeat the same conversations, news reports and observations over and over to the point of apoplexy. In the end I turned them off completely and just listened to music while playing. It was much more enjoyable.
That aside, Colossal Order have worked some real magic with the Lifepath feature. The performance issues will almost certainly be patched – but be aware at launch that they do exist and it’s unlikely to be smooth sailing for a while. Mod support has been confirmed, though, so expect all kinds of crazy shit to emerge in the coming months. As it is right now, Skylines Ii has the potential to be surprisingly pretty. Catch a glimpse of your city all lit up at night, headlights scooting by under streetlights, every building glimmering like a Christmas Tree, and it’s easy to be swept up in it.
While it does struggle under the weight of its own ambition a little, Cities: Skylines II is still a super addictive, easy to pick-up city sim, and if you enjoyed the first game it’s an absolute must-have. It’s also the perfect anathema to all the soulslikes and roguelikes we’ve had recently. It’s a game that demands nothing but time and creativity, and pays it back in dividends.
Building your city is joyous
Creative mode is relaxing
Management element isn’t over complicated
Severe performance issues at launch
Radio repeats too much