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Cities: Skylines 2 has had a rocky release. Sure, it’s not been calamitous — we’re hardly talking Cyberpunk 2077 or No Man’s Sky levels of disaster. But it’s safe to say the community is disappointed.
This seems to be for two reasons. The first is that the game appears to have been rushed to launch, leading to various issues, most importantly around performance. The second is that the original Cities: Skylines (CS1) was utterly beloved by its players thanks to its in-depth mechanics, endless replayability and a massive modding community. Any sequel was always facing an uphill battle.
After seeing the negative feedback about Cities: Skylines 2 (CS2) online, and with the above in mind, I thought I’d give it a go. As a newcomer to the franchise, I’d be a neutral party not wielding the baggage of a treasured previous title. I’ve also got a reasonably powerful PC to test optimization and performance on higher(ish)-end hardware.
What’s more, I’ve had a middling but longstanding interest in city sims, and am a big fan of publisher Paradox Interactive's strategy games, so I’ve actually had CS1 on my Steam Wishlist for a while now. I’ve always prioritized other titles from genres I prefer more. Playing CS2 would hit the itch I’ve never got around to scratching. I stumped up £40 for the base game.
I’ve now sunk about 30 hours into gameplay. My thoughts? A lot about this game sucks, even to a total newcomer to the franchise. But I’m still completely addicted to it. Here’s why.
Cities: Skylines 2 — still under construction
When will publishers learn that it’s much worse to release a game that isn’t finished than it is simply to delay it a little? Players have spent eight years on CS1. There’s a mountain of DLCs and mods to keep everyone entertained. Fans could surely wait a few months longer for a game that at least works properly.
I’m sure there are some globo-corp financial motives behind it all, but it seems incredibly short-sighted to take the reputational damage of launching a half-working game versus just waiting until after Christmas to launch. Unfortunately, that seems to just be how publishers think these days, evidenced by the fact that the gaming community seems to just leap farcically from one let down launch to the next.
Now, in fairness, CS2 isn’t broken. It’s playable, but it has some major issues that we shouldn’t be seeing, which seem to suggest it’s unfinished. Models clip like a Bethesda game, pedestrians walk through thin air, and the mechanics just seem to be broken. Traffic jams often don’t seem solvable, for example, and somehow, despite me having a negative budget, I’m making money — not so bad, but a little immersion-breaking as it negates the jeopardy of bankruptcy.
Other key mechanics just aren’t explained. Some demand bars operate totally counter to others. That is to say, you apparently want to satisfy demand for some and not for others. Satisfying commercial demand seems to force businesses into difficulty, which makes sense — supply and demand et al — but it’d be nice to be told how this works so you can, y’know, actually play the game.
Building is also unpolished — not really acceptable for a city building game. Houses will clip and skew due to slightly uneven terrain, leading to floating trash cans and benches at 90 degree tilts. Zone tiles just do what they want, even within perfectly square road grids on perfectly flat ground, leaving large patches of unusable grass everywhere. To add insult to injury, there’s no way to cover those patches up, as decorative items like fences aren’t available.
Then there’s the optimization: the biggest annoyance based on internet discussion and anecdotal Steam reviews. YouTube channel Gamer’s Nexus has produced a comprehensive benchmarking video on the topic, and suffered performance issues running the game on an RTX 4090 on low settings. I’m running an RX 6900 XT, a fairly powerful graphics card, on the latest optimization patch from the developers Colossal Order. At 1440p, I’m averaging around 30fps at 10-15K population (a small city), with frequent drops to around 10fps and textures regularly disappearing as the game scales down graphics to cope. It’s not good.
(Half) dead on arrival
CS2 also feels deliberately half-baked. Certain features are missing that don’t make any sense. The only train station you can build, for example, is massive. The result is me having to build Grand Central at my 10-house countryside chicken farm in order to connect it to my city. Where are the small regional stations?
Doubtless, such instances are deliberate holes to be plugged at a later date with DLC in true Paradox fashion. This is something I accept when playing Paradox games — the base game is never the final product, with successive DLCs totally revamping it over the lifetime of the support cycle. That’s how it is with Crusader Kings 3 (CK3) for instance, which I buy DLC for, and how it was with CS1. And usually I’m ok with this because (aside from CK3 actually working at launch) the trade off is that players get years and years of support and additional content.
However, it’d be nice to at least have the basic things you’d find in and around a small city — regional train stations being a good example. While I’m happy to buy large, game changing DLC, not having the basics feels incredibly cynical. It will especially suck if you’ve just come from loyally playing CS1 for 8 years, packed full of content, straight into a half-broken game that feels half empty, only for the purpose of wringing money out of you later down the road.
One way this (and many other issues here mentioned) could be fixed is through modding support, but currently there is no Steam Workshop for CS2. In fairness to the developers, they’ve promised modding support later down the line, and there’s no reason not to believe them.
But the thing is, even though it’s far from perfect, I don’t actually regret buying CS2. I’ve had one crash in 30 hours so far, which isn’t too bad, and despite the low frame rates, I’ve still found the game just about playable (although we’ll see how bad it gets with a 100K population).
CS2 also possesses a number of highly redeeming qualities. It looks beautiful, while the soundtrack (minus the annoying radio hosts) is gorgeous. Building designs look fantastic and cohesive, and the amount of customization you have for things like roads and train networks is really high, meaning you can craft complex designs and make your city feel super intricate and immersive, as long as you don’t zoom in to see all the clipping.
I’m not actually sure how the fundamental building mechanics of CS2 stack up against other city builders, but I’ve gotta say, it’s really fun to play. And I’m talking like 3 a.m.-on-a-weeknight level fun.
I also mostly enjoy the economics and city management aspect. It’s challenging, punishing you if you’re too ruthless with taxation, for example. Even things like bus route placement feel like the equivalent of puzzle mini games. There’s enough to keep me happy, despite the gripes.
Knowing what I know about Paradox games in general, the issues above will be mostly fixed before too long, and a slew of awesome DLC will arrive that will make me forget about what was missing at first. So, again, I don’t regret buying Cities: Skylines 2. What I do regret is that Paradox didn’t wait for another 6 months or so, allowing Colossal Order to fine tune the gaming experience and performance, to let this game be what it could’ve been at launch. As such, I’d advise you to do the same as Paradox should’ve: if you want the game, wait 6 months (or until a sale).