The idea of playing strategy games on console is one which I have clung to like a barnacle to the bottom of a boat since I first played Sim City on the Super Nintendo and Mega-Lo-Mania on the Mega Drive. These compromised, often impossible-to-control adulterations of PC classics include the likes of Populous, Constructor, Command and Conquer and many, many more including the recent Aven Colony, yet I can’t think of any console port that is as ambitious as that of Cities: Skylines onto the current generation of consoles.
When I first played Cities: Skylines on my Xbox One, it was at best murky to look at, yet despite drastically downscaled graphics (in comparison to the PC version) it ran like an absolute dog. Panning and zooming would reduce the frame rate to what my eyeballs told me (very scientifically) must have been no more than a few frames per second. Scenery such as trees and buildings would pop up like an unwelcome bout of indigestion.
Having not touched Cities for a few months, the introduction of the Snowfall DLC gave me an ideal opportunity to revisit the game (which despite the occasional moan, I did actually enjoy) on my new Xbox One X. Booting it up reveals the same incredibly underwhelming set of menus that Cities has always suffered from, with the addition of three new winter-themed maps for players to found their cities in. Without getting too technical, these maps can broadly be defined as ‘rivery’, ‘islandy’ and ‘large landmassy’ in turn; I opted to build my first winter city on the one that looked simplest — the large landmass.
A couple of abject failures later and I realised that the Snowfall DLC introduces some fairly material changes to the already steep learning curve in Cities. These largely (and unsurprisingly) relate to managing the variable demands that extreme cold places upon already stretched infrastructure. For example, when the temperature plummets, roads freeze solid, electricity demands go through the roof and if your city cannot meet demand, the death toll rises. Long nights and dark days make solar energy a harder sell, whilst blustery conditions mean that investing in expensive but noisy turbines can be viable.
Once I had restarted a few times and finally got into the rhythm of planning and growing my city, I realised how smoothly things were going. I don’t mean in terms of city planning — I mean literally. Whilst Cities still looks basic on consoles and there has been no specific patch for it, the Xbox One X has certainly achieved a remarkable improvement over the Xbox One S in terms of smoothness and running speed. As I played, I couldn’t help but think how much of an impact the swirling snow and additional graphical detail of slushy roads and so on would have had on the basic console, to the extent that I wonder if it’s even playable.
It occurred to me that when I originally played Cities, I was wrestling constantly against technical limitations which now simply don’t exist. As a result, I’ve enjoyed a weekend of playing Cities on console almost solidly, whilst flashier games like Wolfenstein II and Call of Duty: World War II have taken a back seat. How much of that is due to the inclusion of the Snowfall DLC, though, I can’t entirely say. I haven’t built cities on any of the original maps since I’ve had the DLC, but I must say, it simply adds to an already fairly comprehensive package, rather than revolutionising it completely.
Sure, you do need to plan your city differently in the snowbound maps, but once you’ve been through the learning process that I went through during my first few games, you’ll just get it. You’ll know to plan early and conservatively to meet power demands and you’ll also know that your basic water infrastructure will have to be upgraded to heated piping at a later date. One thing I found to be a bit of a negative is the fact that the Snowfall DLC only provides you with these three new maps and a range of new features to use on them. It does not enable dynamic weather on the normal maps, nor do any of the snowy maps feature even a single day of sunshine. It’s basically Cities set in Alaska, rather than New York in the grip of a particularly nasty winter.
So, should you buy it? Well, chances are if you’re a hardened Cities player, you already know the answer to that question and it is certainly a yes. There’s enough here at a reasonable enough price to convince any die-hard fan to part with the price of a couple of beers. For those of you who had a similar experience to me, or were on the fence about the original release: well, I’d say there is nothing here that’s going to fundamentally change your mind. The real hero for me, and the thing that will net me perhaps a few hundred more solid hours with Cities, is the introduction of the Xbox One X. I’m not sure that Cities alone is enough to satisfy me (or my missus) about the cost of investment, but it is a really promising sign for playing complex games on console.