While the original Cities: Skylines practically brought its breed of open-ended city builder back from the dead (after SimCity 2013 killed it), Cities: Skylines 2 is a sequel that often feels like it took more steps back than it did forward. It’s full of exciting and gratifying new mechanics for managing your economy and creating more realistic metropolises. But it also asks you to do a lot of busywork if you don’t want the end product to look horrendous on close inspection, and sacrifices some of the user friendliness of its predecessor to fit in more bells and whistles. I’m not ready to tear it all down, but right now there’s an unsightly case of urban blight that’s going to take some major technical renovations to clear up.
I’m going to spend a lot of time criticizing Skylines 2 here, because it is certainly disappointing given what I’ve come to expect from Colossal Order. But I do need to say up front what Skylines 2 is not – and that’s a bad game. It’s perfectly serviceable. In some ways it’s genuinely innovative and pushes the entire genre forward. I can recommend it pretty easily, as long as you meet its fairly steep technical requirements. My Ryzen 7 3700X and RTX 3080 were able to handle it okay on just shy of max settings, even as my cities’ populations were getting into the tens of thousands, but the devs themselves have cautioned that optimization is still a work in progress and they won’t hit the benchmarks they were hoping for on a wide variety of hardware by launch.
And I’ll get into more of what I think it does right in a bit. But oh boy, there is a lot of unfortunate stuff to get through first.
THE HOUSE ON UGLY STREET
My single biggest issue with Cities: Skylines 2 is that, if you’re not extremely careful about sculpting the terrain beforehand, your commercial, industrial, and low density residential lots will end up looking completely atrocious. Dumpsters leaning at impossible angles. Wood piles floating in the air or clipping into the ground. Parking lots that look like they were painted onto the side of a hill. It really doesn’t meet the standards of visual attention to detail I’d expect from a veteran studio that just got done running the bases after a home run of a game in the same genre.
The fact that so many of the larger-scale towers and skyscrapers look amazing compounds this problem, because the care and fidelity on display encourages me to zoom in and see my city at street level. There’s even a built-in cinematic camera and photo mode for exactly that. Changing seasons can treat you to lovely autumn forests and snowy holiday wonderlands. Why would you go to the trouble of making this signature apartment building so detailed and attractive, and then allow the parking lot across the street to look like something out of an M.C. Escher painting.
Just to make sure I was being fair, I reinstalled Skylines 1 and looked back over some of my bumpier builds, and there were some little issues with buildings clipping into the terrain. But at least the lots themselves always seemed to be level. The props on them were pointing in the right direction. Building on hills could deform the surrounding terrain significantly, but it looks so much better than what we got in Skylines 2 instead. I simply can’t look at a loading dock leading directly to a drop-off into a yawning abyss and call it an overall improvement.
Plus, the lower detail level in Skylines 1 made it so I wasn’t scrutinizing everything so closely. It was just charming. And I’m starting to think there might be some value in that. Maybe Skylines 2 has landed in some kind of civic uncanny valley.
The second big problem that feeds into this are the pre-made maps that come with Skylines 2, which almost all have very little flat area to build on. Even the river estuary, inspired by real-world Shanghai, which should be pretty flat. The terrain is all out of proportion vertically, as if they multiplied the height of everything to make it look more dramatic at a glance, and far too hilly to host a modern mega-metropolis. That means if you want to avoid those hideous-looking lots, you have to do a tremendous amount of terraforming first. Again, being fair, the land sculpting tools are easy to use and it’s free to move dirt around, which is some consolation. And I suspect once community maps start coming out, there will be some made to be more “builder-friendly.” But for now, planning out a new district requires so much grading and leveling that I found it kind of a slog. I wanted a city management game and instead I got bulldozer simulator 2023.
These might seem like nitpicks, and for the first few hours they are. But the whole reason I play these types of games is to make cool-looking, semi-believable cities, and Skylines 2 has made it so much harder for me to do that to my own level of satisfaction than it was in Skylines 1. These issues are always there, throwing a huge, soaking wet blanket on everything else. Weird lighting, bizarre-looking water physics, creepy children, and the fact that my citizens seem to glob together near certain buildings in what I can only describe as a Yoga Homunculus don’t help, either.
But hey, the cars, trains, and larger buildings look great. No notes there.
As far as what Skylines 2 does well, I appreciate the nods to realism that make me think about my city in real-world terms. You can’t simply zap electricity from a large power plant directly into someone’s house, so you need transformer stations to go from high to low voltage. Borrowing one of SimCity 2013’s only good ideas, Skylines 2’s system of base materials like grain and stone being mined from special resource areas and reprocessed into more complex goods by your industry sector is brilliant, and adds a new and rewarding economic management layer to each build. Creating small farming communities connected by trains to deal with the high demand for grain made the whole region feel like a web of interconnected commerce.
Cities Skylines II Screenshots
At the same time, I was highly disappointed that residential taxes can only be set based on education level, of all things. Not on citizen wealth. Not on zoning density. Not even by defining a custom district. I can tax each individual type of industry based on what it produces, but residents solely based on how many degrees they have? Frankly, I kind of hate this.
SMALL TOWN GIRL
The larger scale of cities is another double-edged sword. I almost exclusively played Skylines 1 with the Realistic Population mod due to how comically detached from reality residency limits could be in the vanilla game. Skylines 2 has definitely moved toward more realistic occupancy and employment numbers for each building type, and I adore the fact that you can now zone mixed-use buildings with commercial on the ground floor and housing above.
But the huge footprints for things like city services are very hard to find space for, especially given all of the terraforming I mentioned earlier. The only passenger train station, for example, is enormous. Look at this monster! The only high school building available takes up multiple city blocks, so forget about trying to fit it into a small town. If Skylines 2 gets the same support Skylines 1 did, I’m sure DLC, free updates, and modders will work these issues out eventually. There are glaring holes in the selection. But when I take a step back I have to admit that the number of assets we did get – between zoned, ploppables, and the fantastic signature buildings that can tie a whole neighborhood together – is generous compared to vanilla Skylines 1.
Chirper, Skylines in-universe version of Twitter, also seems to be completely disconnected from reality. That may help it seem more realistic compared to its real-world counterpart in 2023. But it sure is annoying to constantly hear citizens complaining about #crime when I have a two percent crime rate. Or lamenting how the city is way too loud, when I can look at my nifty overlay and see that the only place with significant noise pollution is right next to the power plant, far away from anyone’s house or any shopping areas. Just don’t hang out there, Kyle!
I also need to give some credit to the interface, the more flexible road and transit tools, and little quality-of-life additions. Some key features that were added by DLC in Skylines 1, like industry areas and trams, are now part of the base game. Traffic AI is much smarter and will use all lanes. Seasons change on every map based on real-world climate data, with weather and time of day affecting citizen behavior realistically. There is a lot to like here, but it’s just hard to enjoy to its fullest when I have so many distracting issues with the fundamentals.