The real tragedy of this story is how long I waited to save up for the Hydro-Electric Dam.
It wasn’t cheap. We’re talking like 250,000 moneys – or whatever the currency for Cities: Skylines actually is – to stretch this dam across a busily flowing river, but it felt like a sound investment in what looked like my best new renewable energy resource. In one single push, I could replace a couple dozen basic and advanced wind turbines. I stretched the massive structure across the deep and swiftly flowing river, and plopped it into place.
I’m a veteran of countless city-builders, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that a dam is just some fancy building you stretch across the tiles pretending to be water. There’s no consequence to that action, of course. It’s more like being a politician than an engineer or effective city planner: You just point at some scenic stretch of water and call a massive dam into existence through sheer force of will. How it actually works is something for the boys down in the labs to figure out.
At first the water spilled over the road on top of my dam, as the powerful flow surged into the sudden and unexpected impediment – a cool, but I assume purely cosmetic touch. Besides, this part of my city sat along a bluff overlooking the now dammed river; I had no concerns. I went back to busying myself with the task of creating angry snarls of traffic and oddly meandering stretches of train tracks. It’s at this point that I should point out that, among the many things that makes Cities: Skylines different and better than any other city builder, is that it actively simulates the water physics of its rivers, lakes and seas.
While the industry overlooking the dam enjoyed the luxury of sitting on high ground as the water level of the river slowly but inexorably rose, the largely residential and commercial areas further upstream did not enjoy the same privilege. The river became an unpredictable beast of conflicting flows and weird eddies. The waste water which had been flowing so nicely down stream now began to pool. Sewage and the toxic slew of river water and waste finally flooded over the banks near the sewage treatment plant, which must have been an unpleasant and odorous slurry for residents that once enjoyed their peaceful riverfront property.
Once the new river flow was set in place and water began to surge in earnest under – and later over – the raised highway, it careened into the busiest parts of my town. I didn’t notice at first. When I finally did, it took me a full five seconds to process what was happening. The landfills were under water. Four-story office buildings were flooded in their lower levels and on fire in their upper levels. The water was a living creature, the most unwanted of all possible tourists, exploring the thoroughfares, alleys and side streets.
This was the point where I made a truly bad decision.
I blew up the dam.
250,000 moneys down the drain, but certainly this solution would see the waters quickly recede, and I could begin the cleanup in earnest. That was my thought as the dam disappeared. There was, for a moment, a massive gap in the water, and you could see so cleanly how different the two levels on either side of the dam had already become. Then, the two massive confluences of water, horribly churned by the presence and then sudden dematerialization of a colossal feat of human engineering, collided together in a spectacle of massive fluid dynamics. Great spouts of river water exploded upward, crashed back down again and created massive, tsunami-like waves, radiating in all directions from the terrifying epicenter.
Here’s the thing about waves: They flow upstream too.
It wasn’t like the kind of wave that you’d watch someone surfing on along the beaches of Maui. It was, instead, a massive and looming bulge of water that lumbered slowly but inextricably back upstream. Had Cities: Skylines developer Colossal Order chosen to include destruction physics on roads and bridges in the game, when the great rolling tumult hit the elevated train tracks running over the heretofore quiet river, the tracks would have certainly exploded into splinters of bent metal and jagged wood.
The second flood was worse than the first. The water sucked out briefly from the banks where it had run over earlier, but then as quickly it roared back to life and crashed into the city with full force. Now it pushed into the heart of the city’s primary residential districts. Playgrounds disappeared under the waves. Entire city blocks at a time went from peacefully idyllic to completely uninhabitable.
I realize I’ve spent several minutes here explaining in excruciating detail my experience playing what amounted to fifteen or twenty minutes of my, so far, 15 hours in Cities: Skylines. I had intended, before I sat down, to write a review of the game – and as we now round the clubhouse turn, I actually think that’s exactly what I’ve done.
This game is great, and all the reasons why it’s great are encapsulated within this part of my city’s story. It’s unexpected at every turn, and almost always in a positive way. It’s half the price of certain other city-building games, and more fun to play many times over than those competitors. Instead of locking you into some weird online system, it delivers a clean single-player experience where you can create your own narrative. Instead of seeming only half-released at launch with a store already cynically in place so you can buy Nissan Leaf charging stations for your city, it includes and actively promotes users to create and share buildings, cities and layouts. Instead of trying to limit and shape how you play, it actively encourages you to create, download and use whatever mods suit your fancy. It is a great and powerful sandbox to play in, and it gives you the tools to create utopia if you know what you’re doing – or an underwater, hell-scape, nightmare town if you don’t.
You can create great, sprawling cities all on one map, with tiny burroughs or bedroom communities linked to a hub City Center with towering skyscrapers all at once. You can paint districts into your city and apply specific policies to each. You can create great, complex road interchanges, and watch individual cars or buses try to navigate your pretzels of concrete. You can go into a robust world-editor and create familiar landscapes to start your next city in, or just let someone else do it for you and download it through the Steam Workshop.
What I’m saying is that this is a game that almost aggressively caters to city-builder fans. It’s an uncompromising response to the cynical efforts that had come most recently before, and isn’t launched with ideas like corporate sponsorships or over-priced, poorly conceived DLC packs in mind. It’s a love letter to everyone who thinks back on SimCity 2000 with reverent fondness.
It’s not perfect, of course. The availability of information is inconsistent, with some overlays being rich with exactly the info you need to make the right decision, and other seemingly critical pieces of knowledge about the operations of your city conspicuously missing. The road tool is trying to do the right things, but often feels clunky or hard to manage. Traffic patterns are complex and can be a bear to manage, particularly if your city embraces traffic-light intersections, which you could argue is either a good or bad thing. If you only use the included building assets, as your city gets big there’s a lot of repetition from a limited set of models.
Developer Colossal Order has, so far, seemed eager to collect fan feedback, and is actively talking about ongoing support to update, which is the right tone to take. And while I’d even be hesitant to focus too much on these “issues” if Cities: Skylines were a $60 game, at its actual $30 price point, the amount of content, depth, flexibility and sophistication to the game is almost astounding.
Colossal Order’s previous titles, Cities in Motion 1 & 2, have been largely praised and critically respected, but they’ve also felt to some degree like niche titles. They aren’t small games, by any means, but they have an independent-developer sort of aesthetic to them. Skylines, on the other hand, feels like a big, sprawling, beautifully constructed effort from a team of hundreds with a grand budget, and yet that indie ethos is still there in the kindness, respect and collaborative way they seem to actively be engaging the community both inside and outside of game.
To heck with everything else, just go buy this game.
As for me and my doomed city, while it took a while, the catastrophe did eventually pass, and I was able to slowly recover. If anything, I took the opportunity to re-zone areas and reorganize my streets, ultimately leaving a city that was better than it had been before. Add that to the things, I guess, that Skylines does really well. Even when it kicks you for being dumb, it still leaves you the tools to learn from your mistakes and get back on track. Until the next time I do something stupid, at least.
At the end of every year, I have a few games that just make me feel good about the state of the gaming industry. These games are precious to me. I would be shocked if, at the end of the year, I’m not talking about Cities: Skylines as one of those precious few.