It could be argued that Colossal Order’s Cities: Skylines (2015) single-handedly saved the city-building genre after SimCity (2013) cratered so hard it killed the entire series at EA. Publisher Paradox Interactive has put out plenty of notable strategy and simulation games over the last decade, but perhaps Cities: Skylines is the game with a wider appeal out of their entire portfolio.
It’s been hard to keep track of all the expansion packs and minor DLCs released over the years (plus solid console ports), so Cities: Skylines 2 arrives as a fresh start of sorts, an opportunity for those who find getting into its predecessor this late into its life cycle a bit too daunting. On the other hand, veterans with hundreds (if not thousands) of hours spent perfecting their dream cities with tons of official content as well as mods might have higher expectations going in.
A simple start near a river
For the most part, Cities: Skylines 2 plays things safe, building on the foundation of its predecessor, applying QoL changes and fixes wherever needed, and refining the progression systems to make the evolution of villages into towns into cities more defined and exciting to plod through. A common mistake in many building and management games is that progression can eventually become a slog if you’re not playing with everything unlocked (an option here, though it disables achievements).
Cities: Skylines 2, much like the first game, doesn’t make that mistake, as there’s always something that needs doing or tinkering. Systems and mechanics get pretty deep as the towns grow, but this isn’t a game that feels obtuse or overly complicated (given what it’s trying to do). Financial woes are definitely a common issue while expanding the borders and trying to improve your citizen’s lives, but Cities: Skylines 2 does an excellent job at walking players through the entire process and logic behind all of its many moving parts.
New buildings and features are unlocked as you attract more people
The progression is uncomplicated and RPG-like; “level up” your (project of a) city and acquire “development points” that unlock new buildings and features essential to make the citizens happier, whether it’s bigger parking lots or specialized universities, among many other options. Rewards are good, and the game gives them out quite often, so it’s fun to keep pushing forward instead of becoming too comfortable with the state of your town.
Building “zones” (residential, industrial, commercial…) remains as easy and fun as in the original game, and entire areas can be quickly swapped to different types of basic buildings if the need arises. When coupled with the ability to create districts that can be managed separately, it’s easy to see why the devs haven’t reinvented the most crucial aspects of Cities: Skylines. It just works.
Most services take up a lot of space, but you can’t progress without them
Meanwhile, services, transport, routes, and unique buildings are placed in traditional building sim fashion and are immune to zone changes. These are the biggest money-eaters by far, but you’ll eventually want to use almost all of them, especially as you can make cash out of excess. Unless you’re a perfectionist (and we know many gamers are), your only enemies in Cities: Skylines 2 are natural disasters and expenses. Catastrophes can be mended gradually, but controlling budgets and taxes might be harder and many times becomes a game of experimentation that also affects the behaviour of your citizens and potential new buyers.
Honestly, the biggest changes in Cities: Skylines 2 are related to its overall presentation. On the surface and from afar, it can look pretty close to the original, but a lot of work has been done around the finer details of the geometry and lighting, which are much stronger this time around (albeit not cutting-edge). On a street level, the game is also livelier than its predecessor, with some surprising animations and elements giving the entire simulation more depth… if your PC can handle it.
There’s obviously a lot happening under the hood in Cities: Skylines 2 when it comes to simulations and the game’s many inner workings. Yes, the presentation is more striking as we expected, but many graphical settings barely affect performance based on our tests. This is simply a demanding game and one of the heaviest CPU benchmarks we’ve come across recently. On a computer well above the recommend settings, an early-game city was sending the FPS count to the mid 40s at 1080p. As it stands, the studio claims that some pretty big bugs are present and performance isn’t where it should be at launch (which is kind of a bad look when you’re charging $49,99 and not releasing in early access), but we also believe this is a future-proof game with a lot going on.
Your late-game cities can look as clean as this one (mine didn’t)
Cities: Skylines 2 is a remarkably unsurprising video game, and that’s not a bad thing by any means. You know what you’re getting: a substantial upgrade to the tech that holds the original together and a refined experience that has a clearer direction for players who want to challenge themselves versus playing it as a carefree sandbox. Replacing the original game’s Steam Workshop support with Paradox’s own mod platform remains a huge question mark though. Thankfully, you’ll be able to test everything for yourself via Game Pass on PC if you’re on the fence.
Its wobbly performance will surely be the talk of town in the coming weeks (and might spell trouble for the console release), and while many bits of post-launch content of the original have been kept around, the vanilla experience has returned to square one in some regards, but Cities: Skylines 2 should please anyone looking to play the most advanced city-building game currently available. Just do yourself a favour and turn off the incredibly annoying radio.
CITIES: SKYLINES 2 VERDICT
Cities: Skylines 2 doesn’t rebuild the genre nor its identity, instead choosing to go bigger and deeper without losing sight of what made its predecessor work. With no better alternatives on sight, this will do.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Making my entire city run on green electricity while having enough power output to export some and get my finances out of the red zone.
Easy to get into and learn gradually
Progression is well-paced and more focused
Notable photo mode for those with a good eye
Retains much of the first game’s biggest post-launch additions
The overall presentation is more energetic
Doesn’t justify the extra Paradox launcher and account steps
Rough performance at launch even on high-end systems
Some pieces of content from the original are sorely missed