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An illuminated city at nighttime in Cities: Skylines 2

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Cities: Skylines 2 does the brain good

A beautiful array of systems

Image: Colossal Order/Paradox Interactive

The original Cities: Skylines was a much-needed Band-Aid over the gaping wound that the collapse of the SimCity brand had left in the gaming world. We, the gamers — we want to build weird little cities. We want to make dense urban corridors and industrial havens, vast tracts of tree farms and bridges to nowhere. The gamer’s urge in this genre is strong, and Cities: Skylines deftly covered that need in 2015, allowing me and many others to have hundreds of hours of fiddly fun, creating sweeping highway networks and furiously clicking to figure out why this one intersection is having such terrible traffic problems.

Cities: Skylines 2 is mostly a test to see if developer Colossal Order can deliver on the promise of “fiddly city builder” yet again, in a time when the “SimCity-ish” genre might be less crowded but the more broad “city builder” category certainly is. 2023 offers us a lot of pathways to express ourselves by making systems and simulations, and the splash that the original Skylines made is slightly less intense in a moment where I can’t swing a stick without hitting a game that wants me to plot a building or two down on a map.

The good news is that Skylines 2 hits all the markers. It develops the systems of the previous game in substantive ways, offering many different methods for crafting the space of the city for your own design needs. The road creation system offers a full suite of options to curve, place, align, and organize any kind of city system that you would like, and nearly all the other systems in the game derive from that. If you build it, Skylines suggests, you can make it work.

A bird’s eye view image of interlocking highways and streets in Cities: Skylines 2 Image: Colossal Order/Paradox Interactive

The most notable part of Skylines 2 might be just that: You can delve into its complex systems of transit and zoning and economic development and taxation management, make your personal tweaks, and yet still make it work. The original game had a tricky way of allowing you to get to the mid-game, or at least a midsize city, where the weight of the operation could collapse in on you if you were not careful. Costs of services could balloon, and if revenue couldn’t keep up accordingly, you’d find yourself in a cruel managerial death spiral desperately attempting to jack up taxation to keep up with those rising costs. By introducing a much broader set of interactions with the city management system itself, including a much more sensitive system of housing and business zoning demands, Skylines 2 is much more forgiving on the part of revenue and expenditure. Across the time I’ve spent with the game, it’s clear that you can grow your way out of more problems than its predecessor would allow.

If there is a keyword that should be associated with Skylines 2, it is probably “growth.” The game’s mechanical complexity has grown, launching with a lot of features that were either added in expansions for the first game or that had to be modded in. This additional complexity almost demands that Skylines 2 be bigger, and it surprised me how quickly my cities would “grow up” as I plotted them out. Constant demand for new housing grew my city, and more houses meant more commercial demand, and that all meant I needed to chase it with industrial zoning to lay out more jobs, and that’s before office buildings really entered the picture. The result of the game design’s encouragement of a very quick expansion mindset was that I felt like I was constantly chasing scale across the map, buying new map segments constantly to fill them with rows of houses and mixed-use commercial zones that seemed to be regularly filling up with off-brand Dave & Buster’s locations.

A screenshot of a sprawling city in Cities: Skylines 2, with buildings highlighted in bright green, and certain major streets highlighted in bright red Image: Colossal Order/Paradox Interactive
An image of some buildings in Cities: Skylines 2, with toolbars visible in frame for adjusting various aspects of its design Image: Colossal Order/Paradox Interactive
An image of a sprawling city in Cities: Skylines 2, with buildings of various sizes highlighted in red and orange Image: Colossal Order/Paradox Interactive

This constant growth also began to encourage me to act as a designer in a way that the previous game never did, and it is clear that the Colossal Order developers have been paying attention to the massive content creation scene that exists around the first game. Most city builders interact with their players first and foremost as managers; you play the game to manipulate the system. Skylines 2 is clearly interested in players as artists and designers. For example, the system for unlocking new buildings in the game, which essentially provides “skill points” every time your city hits certain population markers, provided me with an unlockable that allowed me to customize the look of my streets. Alongside that, I had access to dirt paths, alleyways, pedestrian pathways, and a handful of intersection decisions. Some of this matters for gameplay and access. Most of it feels like an opportunity for me to get very fiddly with how I made my neighborhoods and thought of them as little designed microecologies. The broad sweep of the road, and the smooth curve of the coastline or the mountain range, have always mattered. Skylines 2 appears to be the distinct result of a dev team looking out at other places to find beauty and, more importantly, designing with an aim toward getting players interested in thinking of themselves as people making aesthetic choices. It’s thrilling.

If the game’s consideration of me as an artist painting a city with my design ideals is the high note, then the low note is made up of predictable concepts bone-deep in the genre. American tax models mostly reign here; cars and their urban sprawl is the simplest answer to most problems; crime and policing are matched systems without a social model; and on and on. A notable bucking of standard trends is the pollution system of the game, which takes ground and air pollution seriously as problems that, once unleashed, are extremely difficult to resolve. Pollution here is the exact kind of thorn that a city builder needs in order to put up a delightful challenge.

The frustration of city builders is that they are constantly shifting as you get better at them, and the couple dozen hours I put into Skylines 2 kept revealing new complexities and problems to solve in classic areas: getting traffic right, keeping demand up, and so on. The game delivers on its core concept, and much of its long-term success is going to depend on the things that kept the previous game so vibrantly alive for many years. It seems that the exact shape and operation of modding is still to be determined, and every time I play the game with my (fairly beefy) PC, it sounds like it is going to launch into space. Both of these things seem resolvable, and configurable, for Colossal Order; notably, Cities: Skylines changed many times after release with the addition of new content, and I would not be shocked if Skylines 2 took a similar path of regular releases and transformations.

Cities: Skylines 2 will be released Oct. 24 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Paradox Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.