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Enter Sandbox

Dominic Ellis reviews Cities: Skylines.

Dominic Ellis reviews Cities: Skylines.

Sandbox games have brought imagination back into a creatively bankrupt era of mainstream gaming. Minecraft is the archetype, but by no means the first. Long before the cube, the Sim City series reigned over the sandbox. But, like all good things, the series faded into obscurity in the early-2000s (and its attempted resurrection in 2013 was dubbed ‘unplayably broken’).

From SimCity’s ashes however, a greater game rose. Colossal Order, a small developer out of Finland, capitalized on the failure of its predecessor, last week releasing Cities: Skylines. Cities breathes new life into the city-sandbox sub-genre, trumping its forefather in almost ever sense.

Though a mere $29.95 USD on Steam, Cities is by no means meek. As mayor, you can expand your city as large as 36 square kilometers, which given the game’s scale is a truly colossal chunk of land. From there, you can divvy up your territory into districts focusing on certain industries, and set policies and taxation rates specific to those districts.

In my first bout with this game I killed hundreds of my own civilians. Thousands even. Sewerage was my Achilles heel. By the time I set up a functioning waste management system, my town was in severe debt and, for some reason, my school district was on fire. It reached a point where I was literally just bulldozing houses every time they encountered a problem. It’s also probably worth noting that there’s an in-game Twitter knock-off that tracks the general mood of your citizenry, meaning that every wrong move you make will be condemned by hashtag-heavy ‘Chirps’. #unsaferoaddesign.

By the time your city has expanded, the job gets even harder. You’ll find yourself fluctuating taxes, increasing budgets, mandating smoke detectors, and legalising drugs. Suffice to say, there are many moving parts, and given the barebones tutorial, the onus is on the player to learn the ropes themselves.

If you’re like me, and you’ve sacrificed high tech computer gear in place of portability and convenience, the small size and relative low specs of Cities are a godsend. This is quite symptomatic of Cities successes. It’s a game that understands the simple pleasures of sandbox gaming: scale and possibility, while doing away with a lot of the superfluous over-ambition of ‘next-gen’ games.

Cities has its faults—the day-night cycle of classic SimCity is sorely missed, and there isn’t a whole lot of spontaneity—but these oversights are extensions of the game’s admirable philosophy to prioritize the simple pleasures of the sandbox.