Video Games Review: Cities Skylines: Xbox One Edition (Xbox One, 2017), or Zen and the Art of Urban Planning

Gaming history is littered with console ports of PC strategy titles. Sometimes they get close to emulating the PC experience, sometimes they miss the mark by a wide margin. Cities: Skylines is the latest to make the jump to console, thanks to Melbourne heroes Tantalus Media, but is it a success?

For the uninitiated, with the apparent demise of the SimCity franchise following the bungled 2013 reboot, 2015’s Cities: Skylines has become the city builder simulation du jour for genre fanatics. A smartly designed, easy-to-learn-difficult-to-master approach to the form that Maxis birthed way back when, Cities: Skylines scratched an itch that SimCity fans had been living with for years and its community has held strong ever since.

For most players, their first thought regarding a console port of a PC title like this will be “Can the precision of the mouse and keyboard be replicated on the Xbox One controller?” The answer is, kinda, yeah, but I’ll come back to that. My first question was “How do you port a UI-heavy title like this to console without it becoming a confusing warren of menus?” In this regard, Tantalus’ efforts are a rousing success.

Menus have been enlarged so that each category sits clearly in the lower portion of your screen and you move back and forth through these icons with your d-pad. This simple design change made it clear that Tantalus had put quite a bit of thought into exactly how a game like this finds a home on a console. It sacrifices the speed with which you can select these things in the PC version, but it does so in the name of clarity.

The aforementioned transition from mouse to analogue stick is where the game takes a significant hit — the cursor is far from accurate and there’s no way to change the sensitivity so you’re stuck dragging a slow-ass pointer around the screen.

Building your city will be familiar at the outset to returning genre fans. You begin by placing a few roads and Cities: Skylines immediately pushes on the accelerator, throwing multiple layers of city construction at you in rapid succession — zoning, power, water, sewage and beyond. These foundational elements need to be working hand-in-hand for your city to flourish.

Before long your citizens will be crying out for better services. They’ll want transport, police, fire stations, hospitals and schools just to start with. As your city grows, you’ll reach higher and higher citizenship milestones. These unlock everything from buildings to new city policies to help your city reach its full potential. Where this kind of minutia could be punishing in other city builders, here it’s the meat of the experience. I’ve never been so interested in optimising public transport routes as I was while playing this game.

I say it throws these things at you but this is actually part of what I mean when I say the game slows everything down for the console version. You’re able to take your time, picking your way through menus as needed to arrive at your next decision. For instance, hitting the Inpsector tab lets you then click on a specific building to get an overview of what’s happening in the area around it. This simple two-step process brings the pace of the game to a steady hum. It remains on an even keel as you scrub through menus looking for the thing you’re after. It’s all very zen.

Tantalus then takes things a step further and completely ditches the PC version’s ability to speed up time. Each day in your city is about twenty seconds long and there were moments were I found myself leaving the game running to generate income while I went and got some housework or a news piece for this very site done. This is a problem that resolves itself as the game progresses — when you hit the late game you’ll have lots to fires (figurative and literal) to put out as your megacity starts to shift and groan under its own considerable weight.

When you hit these dire, chickens-come-home-to-roost moments of the late game is where you’re able to appreciate to top shelf job Cities: Skylines does of keeping you abreast of everything happening in your city. The game communicates various issues that need addressing, done mostly through emoji-like symbols, but does a really bad job of explaining what any of them mean. For the most part, I found I was left to figure out what a given emoji meant. Sometimes there was a fire. That was pretty open-and-shut. But sometimes there’s blackouts or emergency services can’t get through due to traffic and you’re left to decipher its hundreds of different hieroglyphs before you can fix whatever’s wrong.

But what if you can’t figure out what’s wrong? I had forgotten that, at times, Cities: Skylines can resemble Dwarf Fortress in some rather unfortunate, wholly obscure ways. The water in my city was ridden with a bad germ outbreak. I knew this because the little CNN ‘Chirper’ feed kept telling me about it. I tried to investigate the problem but couldn’t find a way to solve it. The water going into the system was fresh and clean and the sewage system seemed to be working as intended, flushing the bad water out the other end. Drink up, you gigantic babies, what’s the problem?

The problem, it turned out, was that the way I’d placed my industrial precinct meant that it had been cheerfully pumping pure waste into the water supply the whole time and I’d had no idea.

There were no survivors.

The only area where the game truly feels at odds with its PC version is in its optimisation, a problem that has dogged console strategy titles forever. The Xbox One gives it a red hot go and, as powerful as the console is, can’t quite keep a lid on the frame rate. Just zooming in on a particularly busy area during the night when all the lights are on is enough to send the frame rate plummeting. This is less of an issue in the early game but as your city grows, you’ll start seeing it more and more until the only way to keep the game running at a stable frame rate is to keep the camera zoomed out. If you can operate from back there, it remains a fairly smooth experience.

Handful of technical hiccups aside, Cities: Skylines: Xbox One Edition remains every inch the engrossing city builder it was on PC. It’s easy to call this the best city builder available on console because it is quite literally the only game of its kind in the console space right now. While its many concessions to the console gods may cause the PC Master Race to wrinkle their noses, the calmer pace changes the game’s energy for the better.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Smart console changes; Relaxed pace; Made in Melbourne!
Lowlights: Frame stutter in late game; Some poor communication regarding HUD elements
Developer: Colossal Order (original), Tantalus Media (Xbox One port)
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platforms: Xbox One
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One.