Cities: Skylines II Review – Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

    Title: Cities: Skylines II
    Developer: Colossal Order
    Release Date: October 24, 2023
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Paradox Interactive
    Genre: Simulation, City-Building

Cities: Skylines owes its existence to a close call. Publisher Paradox and developer Colossal Order, known for the Cities in Motion series, were initially hesitant to proceed with the project. The fear of the revived SimCity’s dominance in the market nearly led to the cancellation of Cities: Skylines. However, history had different plans. The troubled launch of SimCity (2013) paved the way for a newer, fresher challenger, so with player feedback from that disaster in mind, Skylines was released in 2015 and quickly sold over a million copies in its first month.

Now, Cities: Skylines II is upon us to deliver some much-needed updates to the foundation of the series, along with a graphical overhaul. And, keeping with series tradition, the team has paid close attention to what the players want and have come to deliver.

A World of Possibilities: The Immensity of Skylines II

Reviewing a game like Cities: Skylines II is no small feat. The complexity and the vast array of approaches players can take make it nearly impossible to provide a comprehensive review. Each player’s city-building journey is unique, and the time it takes to craft just one thriving metropolis could span the entire review period. Plus, the game itself is enormous, especially for newcomers to the city-building genre. While I had some experience with games like Rollercoaster Tycoon, Cities: Skylines II belongs to another stratosphere altogether.

Cities: Skylines II is an immersive rabbit hole from which I may never emerge—a profoundly addictive loop ready to bear the weight of players’ dreams and innovations.

With these factors in mind, the best way to approach this review is to embark on a journey, playing the game and sharing the experiences that unfold. To guide us on this journey, we’ll delve into various aspects of the game and how they contribute to the overall urban development experience.

A Blank Canvas: Choosing Your Starting Point

Cities: Skylines II offers a selection of different pre-made terrain maps, each with unique characteristics. I chose the river delta as my starting point because it provided ample room for expansion and the advantage of easy access to water, a vital resource for any thriving city.

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As a newcomer to the game, I found the provided tutorial to be quite thorough. It offered a comprehensive understanding of how to build and maintain my city without making me feel constrained. The game’s progression mechanism is a stroke of design brilliance. It unfolds seamlessly as your city grows, ensuring you’re never overwhelmed by an avalanche of new options because you always get to determine what comes next.

With each level your city reaches, you gain unlock points. These points serve as currency for advancing along the progression tracks for various services the city provides and expansion points to expand your buildable territory. For existing players, this is going to be the really exciting part because it’s the most direct answer to what they’ve been asking for.

Beyond the Horizon: Escaping Limitations

The original Cities: Skylines had infrastructural limitations that couldn’t be entirely modded out. As your city reached specific population or building limits, the game’s performance deteriorated. On the other hand, the sequel aimed to eliminate these limitations, and it’s evident when you zoom out and witness the vastness of the available space.

The buildable size of the game’s maps is truly mind-blowing, offering endless possibilities. While this enormous canvas could be intimidating for a newcomer like me, the initial city size is manageable and provides an excellent starting point.

Learning the Ropes: Navigating the Complexity

Upon returning to the tutorial, you’re gradually introduced to the fundamental mechanics of zoning, power supply, sewage management, and other essential aspects. The gradual unfolding of these mechanics allows players to establish their networks before diving into more complex challenges and learning how they can do everything more efficiently. For example, and this is genuine gameplay advice, I found that it’s beneficial to default to medium-sized roads unless you’re exclusively building a residential neighborhood. This choice ensures smoother traffic flow and better city planning, a lesson learned through experience.

Skylines II is ‘like the first one, but bigger’ and successfully upholds the legacy of its predecessor while raising the bar for the city-building genre.

The gradual pace of the tutorial ensures that the complexity of the game doesn’t overwhelm players. Learning how to balance the city’s different needs—which expand into education, healthcare, network coverage, and more—feels like a gradual and manageable process. This approach successfully guides players into the deep complexities of Skylines II without making them immediately feel like they’re drowning in responsibilities.

A City Unleashed: Navigating the Challenges

As your city begins to take shape, Cities: Skylines II reveals the depth of its gameplay. You’ll need to pay close attention to various metrics, such as the city’s education level and how close your schools are to being overpopulated. More residents mean more students, which gradually makes building additional districts a necessity to maintain the city’s growth.

Moreover, monitoring your city’s power generation is essential. Juggling these demands becomes more challenging as you address various problems and random disasters that can arise. Pop-up notifications across the city inform you of these challenges and require your swift attention.

However, this stage of the game was where I encountered my first road bump – I don’t feel that the game is good at helping the player understand how to generate revenue. While you receive a cash bonus with each level-up, there’s a point where your expenses may exceed your income. My attempts to increase tax income without raising taxes too quickly proved unsuccessful, and no matter what I tried doing, my finances were still in the red.

While Skylines II might serve as a foundation for future expansions and fan-made content, its out-of-the-box offerings are accessible to newcomers, ready to provide endless possibilities and countless hours of creative enjoyment.

To overcome this financial challenge, I resorted to constructing extra environmental power plants. By exporting excess electricity, I was finally able to restore financial stability. This solution came after building several cargo export networks and dedicating space to the logging industry. These decisions felt like logical responses to the game’s mechanics and its revenue system, but they didn’t seem to bring in additional cash – building more power plants almost feels like the brute-force method here.

Another unusual aspect of the game is its unquenchable demand for industrial zones. It often seemed that no amount of industrial buildings I zoned could ever be enough. As soon as the demand bar was depleted, it would promptly begin filling up again, much more rapidly than the other bars. My rationale was that the influx of new residents necessitated job creation, but commercial buildings in the city frequently reported not having enough customers, which made me confused about the relationship between the increasing population and the supposedly failing businesses.

Despite these quirks, my city rarely faced severe problems, and these oddities didn’t hinder its development. They were some of the game’s more confusing elements, but they didn’t ultimately cause my city to fail, so they’re not huge problems.

Room for Improvement: Optimization and Performance

While Cities: Skylines II is a fantastic city-building experience, it does have some downsides. One significant issue, which, fortunately, could be addressed in future updates (and so isn’t affecting my score, as the developers are already working on it), is the game’s lack of optimization. This was probably the reason behind the recent significant delay of the console versions, as neither of the most powerful systems on the market meet the equivalent “recommended” specifications.

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Looking at the Steam page for the game, it’s evident that Skylines II recommends a high-end graphics card or equivalent that less than ten percent of Steam users currently possess. The minimum requirements are more reasonable, but even with my PC meeting the recommended specs, I had to adjust my settings from the default level to prevent performance issues. While this optimization concern can potentially be resolved in the future, it raises questions about the decision to launch a title with such demanding hardware requirements.

An Immersive Rabbit Hole: A City-Building Odyssey

Cities: Skylines II turned out to be precisely what I feared—a deep and immersive rabbit hole from which I may never emerge. The process of expanding, constructing, developing, and troubleshooting all blend together into a profoundly addictive loop that’s bound to improve with the contributions of modders.

The experience presents itself as “like the first one, but bigger.” This alone is enough to satisfy the millions of existing series fanatics. But the game is more than that; it’s accessible to newcomers, even if a few logical leaps are necessary. While Skylines II might serve as a foundation for future expansions and fan-made content, its out-of-the-box offerings are ready to bear the weight of players’ dreams and innovations.

Despite its few peculiarities and performance issues, Cities: Skylines II successfully upholds the legacy of its predecessor and raises the bar for the city-building genre. Whether you’re a seasoned city planner or a newcomer ready to embark on an urban adventure, Skylines II offers endless possibilities and countless hours of creative enjoyment.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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