Cities: Skylines II Review in Progress — Technological Triumph, Performance Pitfall

It’s hard to know where to even start with Cities Skylines II. It’s everything, but more. It’s a full simulation, just like its predecessor, but nearly every aspect has received a significant upgrade. While there seemed to be an endless parade of expansion packs for the first game, Cities: Skylines II feels like a major step forward. It also has taken one major step back, and that’s why this is a review in progress. Let’s start off with that part and work our way backwards.

Colossal Order, the Cities: Skylines II developer, put everyone on notice when they released the minimum and recommended specs. It only got more uncomfortable when Paradox and Colossal Order then issued a bit of a warning that they wouldn’t be able to hit their own benchmark, but despite delaying on consoles, wouldn’t delay the launch on PC. I’ve been playing the game on pre-release code, and through three different patches meant to resolve bugs and performance issues, and yet I’m still struggling to maintain a solid framerate at max settings on my RTX 4090. At launch, with high settings, and running at 4K with an RTX 4090 and an Intel 13900K and 32GB of RAM running at 7000 MT/s on a 7Gbps NVMe I’m pulling in sub-20 frames per second. Bumping down to medium I can get the framerate to stabilize between 35 and 45. On low I’m hitting between 85 and just over 100. Frankly that’s unacceptable on bleeding edge hardware, but it’s also supposedly temporary.

Cities: Skylines II - Let's Play for the first time! (Part 1)

It’s a bit of inside baseball, but aggregators for reviews only accept your review score when it’s submitted. This means that a game like No Man’s Sky gets whatever score it had at launch, no matter how much it might have improved. It means a game like Cyberpunk 2077 has to hit an expansion pack before it gets another bite at the apple. Payday 3’s scores may cripple it permanently as they reflect the servers at launch, which is not the state the game is in today. As such, we are constantly trying to balance bringing accurate information while also being cognizant of what is temporary and what is permanent. We’re banking on the performance problems we are experiencing being more the former than the latter. Let’s dig into the game.

Cities: Skylines 2 is billing itself as the most realistic city builder ever made, and there’s a great deal of fresh and expanded features to cover. First and foremost is scale. While the original’s map size was a maximum of 9 tiles, it’s possible to use a staggering 150 map tiles on a single city. That’d make it larger than nearly any city in the world, and by a very large margin.

There are ten map types to start, with two themes at launch — North America and European. This latter choice ends up being arbitrary quickly as you’ll unlock both styles within an hour. Your climate, how much buildable space versus water, the types of outside connections (e.g. roads, waterways, airports, power exports, etc.), natural resources, and overall layout are yours to choose. From there you’ll give your city a name (Welcome to Duckberg!), decide if your traffic is left or right sided, enable or disable natural disasters, and enable or disable tutorials. You even have the chance to switch on a selective sandbox mode, toggling unlimited money and unlocking all technologies from the start, if you are so inclined, though the latter two will obviously disable achievements.

The heart of a city of any size is its infrastructure. Roads are the veins of the city, carrying people, product, and promise to its very heart. It’s also the biggest weakness of Cities: Skylines. Despite innumerable patches, the roads were always a big pain. You ended up destroying large swaths of your city just to get a functional road grid. That meant either overplanning in the beginning, or potentially destroying skyscrapers when your traffic exceeds specification. Cities: Skylines II has put so much effort into fixing the road systems that it’s a challenge to even quantify it. Thankfully, like many new systems we’ll discuss in this review, it’s rolled out slowly and over time. You’ll start with small and medium roads at either two or four lanes, but before long you’ll be building highways, bridges, 6 or 8 lane mega-highways, one way streets, and far more. And all that before you get to three major improvements – signs, lights, and underground infrastructure. There are 71 road elements, including pedestrian walkways, bridges, roundabouts, clovers, and much more. A great deal of effort has been put into getting from here to there, and frankly, it’s the key to the whole shooting match in my opinion. Roads are king, and the roads in Cities: Skyline II are a technical marvel. Apparently, however, the team wasn’t quite done.

Most cities in America make sense, with a grid of parallel streets and roads. These create blocks, and those blocks become districts. Places like New Orleans have been destroyed enough where it’s truly a disjointed chaotic bowl of spaghetti, but generally speaking, that’s how most places are laid out. In Cities: Skylines II, you can now use a grid tool to do the exact same thing, placing several roads at the same time. In fact, you can place roads in a number of very creative and powerful ways. Straight lines are obvious. A “simple curve” is where you start a road, define a curve, and then place the endpoint, allowing the game to fill it in as appropriate. A complex curve lets you place additional curves into that same road. A continuous curve road lets you place as many curves into your road as you see fit. And then there’s the grid. First you’ll draw a straight line, and then another adjoining it. Expanding from here fills in a grid connecting it all. Pulling the thread further places more grid points, and on and on until you have a number of interconnected and very straight roads. To help with this, there are a number of measurements, angle checkers, and other tools, as well as elevation adjustments, six snapping toggles, and even a topographical overlay to check for terrain intersections and height.

Cities: Skylines II - Let's Play for the first time! (Part 2)

I know I’ve spent a LOT of time on roads, but I’ve saved the best for last – promise. As I mentioned, road replacement can be a nightmare as it involves ripping up infrastructure and the buildings that surround it. Well, not any more. A new replace feature replaces the flawed “upgrade road” function from the last game, allowing you to seamlessly plop down a new road on top of the existing one, replacing it in one easy step. If the road is bigger it’s naturally going to attempt to adjust things around it, but I can assure you that it’s infinitely better than it was in the previous game.

We can’t talk this much about roads without talking about traffic. This was another area where the first game struggled. Little black ants on your grid got stuck all the time and sometimes it felt like the only way to truly deal with a traffic snarl was to just delete the road to reset the sim. I’m glad to say those days are over. Pathfinding in the first game was, at least by my estimation, very much a “whatever path looks shortest” regardless of whether that route made sense. Take all of that and throw it in the garbage as frankly it doesn’t even merit comparison.

Pathfinding in Cities: Skylines II is handled with a costing algorithm in the background. Each of your citizens has a number of factors they weigh constantly as they travel to and from work, entertainment, or across town to access a service. They’ll look at the availability of public transport. They’ll then look at the reliability and the time that transportation takes to get from A to B. If you have a bus route that looks like a Family Circus cartoon, that’s going to be a no. Next, they’ll assess the fuel costs, cost of parking at their destination, and the complexity of the route including complex road layouts. With all of these and more, they’ll start their journey, but it doesn’t end there. They will periodically reassess their route, which then funnels into their happiness score that we’ll talk about later. It’s not uncommon to see an accident occur, causing everyone in the area to flip a U-turn and take a new route around the whole problem. It’s a breath of fresh air for your citizens, but it can also affect your businesses.

The complexity of getting to an area may cause a citizen to take an alternative route, but what about a business with pickups and deliveries? Well, they don’t often have much of a choice. Rigs with trailers will stack up, the bottom line is impacted, and your industry can suffer. There are ways to mitigate this like one way streets, traffic signs, and more that frankly I’m still uncovering. There’s so much to discover here that it’s frankly astounding.

When you built roads in Cities: Skylines, you then had to lay out your power grid, water lines, and sewage. All of that is still accurate, but your roads now automatically have a basic power, water, and sewer line running underneath them. It was painful, rarely worked as intended, and you ended up spending easily 10-fold the appropriate budget. Now, these are baked directly into the object itself, deploying directly underneath and automatically connecting to the rest of your grid, providing basic services throughout. I say basic, as with every new easy button for Cities: Skylines II, there’s another layer of simulation underneath.

Cities: Skylines II - Let's Play for the first time! (Part 3)

I worked in municipal government for a number of years, and I’m familiar with the SCADA system. It’s part of the infrastructure that’s responsible for the lighting, water, sewage, and various other critical infrastructure pieces within the city. In some areas of a city that were perhaps built when the place was supporting 200,000 citizens, a smaller pipe for water and sewage sufficed. If you were to try to use that same pipe for 500,000 people, you’d have a restriction and a problem waiting to happen. The same could be said in Cities: Skylines II. Basic services will work for your first few tiers of village and town, but soon you’ll need to revisit these basic services to account for bottlenecks, brownouts, and water flow issues. Sometimes that can be addressed with better pumps or more of them, sometimes it’s a larger power plant, but in all cases, you’ll deal with them, or you’ll deal with angry citizens.

I do have to admit that I still struggle with placing my underground sewer and power lines. I don’t know if it’s a mental block, or if I just struggle to see how the new system works, but time and again I end up laying duplicate lines if they aren’t connected with the road above them automatically. Perhaps more time with the game will iron this out, or maybe I’m not the only one – you’ll have to let me know in Discord.

One way to help address building out your infrastructure without simply duplicating it is a welcome expansion system. For example, a windmill can be relied upon most of the time, but you may run into situations where the wind just isn’t generating enough power. You can construct additional windmills to make up for the shortfall, or build a different power source entirely, but it may be simpler to just add a power bank. Doing so would allow you to store some power for a “rainy day”. Similarly, substations can be used to help with interlinking and adding new lines of power.

Nearly every single building type has an upgrade, or several in fact. Even a huge cemetery can have a temple and mausoleum added to provide additional services. Bus stations can get taxi dispatch and depots, police stations can add garages to increase the number of squad cars, a high school can add a sports field, extra wings, and a library. It allows you to expand your services while preserving against excessive land usage, and is almost always cheaper and more efficient than building a duplicate structure.

There are still moments where I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the problems in my city. In one of my starter cities I had placed a coal plant. As pollution became a concern when I moved additional residential zoning into that area I not only shut down the plant, but I picked it up and moved it to an entirely new part of the city. The pollution lingered, as I expected. Somehow, over time, instead of dissipating, it actually grew. Now, a large portion of my city has a cloud symbol over it, indicating that they are tired of pollution, but there’s no clearly defined method to dealing with that particular problem – especially early on.

Cities: Skylines II - Let's Play for the first time! (Part 4)

Speaking of pollution, you’ll have another type to contend with this time around – noise. Everything in your city generates noise of some kind. Most of it is innocuous, but nobody wants to work next to the hammer and anvil testing factory. While the music in the game is soothing, noise pollution isn’t. There are sound barricades and upgrades that you can research and unlock to keep it mitigated, but you’ll want to pay attention to it.

Nearly every building, dog, cat, bird, person, car, or whatever else has some sort of sound that provides a great backdrop for the simulation. Rain dances across rooftops. Two radio networks provide music, but inevitably you’ll see mods expand this greatly to be sure. These also provide news and information about your city, so I encourage you to leave them on as you might not see that raging flood that just hit your coastline. Best of all, it’s localized. Visit your sleepy little offshoot from the main city and you’ll hear birds chirping and the rustle of trees. Hit the heart of the core of your town at night and you’ll hear the club thumping, cars zooming, and the pulse of the city. Hats off to the audio team.

As your city grows you are provided with a list of new technologies you’ll unlock once you hit the next milestone. You’ll earn XP towards that milestone through active management. Addressing your citizen’s needs will automatically yield some measure of XP until that next achievement is hit. In the beginning these act as a gateway of sorts, tutorializing and closing off more complex items than your thriving village needs – a town with less than 1000 people doesn’t need high density commercial building zoning. Along with these milestones, you’ll also get points towards development – the key differentiator between your city and everyone else’s.

Each of the 11 categories of development holds a handful of upgrades you can choose to unlock. Basic Communications comes for free, but a post office sorting facility will cost you two development points. Unlocking it will allow your city to process and store mail for dispatch, sending them to outside connections to other cities – a small revenue generator. Similarly, you get basic police and administrative services for free, but a Welfare Office will provide financial support for your most needy citizens, thus lowering crime and improving their well-being. There are several dozen to explore, and depending on your map configuration, may be just the shot in the arm your thriving metropolis needs.

Eventually you’ll unlock the ability to provide policies for your city. These can shape the way your city evolves using rules and regulations. For example, your city might enact a pre-release program for prisoners, ensuring they are enrolled in an education program to reduce recidivism. You can raise and lower the amount taxi cabs are allowed to charge, demand cap and trade on your factories, or raise the speed on your highways. All of these things have an effect, so be mindful of what you are giving up in return. Faster speeds on highways makes for spectacular wrecks and higher road noise, and pollution filtering means less smog in the air, but it is more expensive to operate your industrial zones. Every milestone brings additional city policies, so this is likely an area where you’ll tweak things as you go. Or don’t! You’re the mayor of your town, not me.

Cities: Skylines II - Let's Play for the first time! (Part 5)

As your city grows, you’ll want to start thinking about what your city should be known for. Mackinac Island in Michigan is known for its amazing fudge, borne from the earliest days of the fur trade. What is your city known for? Well, this time around you’ve got quite a few choices. Simple ones can be overproduction of electricity, which you can now export for additional funding for your city. Build a port and you can export things like grain, vegetables, and food grown on your farms. You can create goods or services that can be traded for money, such as furniture making, lumber, paper, electronics, cars, and more. You can start a city built around tourism, or create a thriving fishing and wildlife town. Whatever you choose, you’ve got more levers this time to control how much of that heads back into the city coffers. Taxation has received a huge overhaul, letting you set policies and taxation amounts with eye-watering levels of granularity, if you are so inclined. It’ll run itself for the most part, but if you are the charts and graphs type, wow does Cities: Skylines II have all of that and more. Here’s a more illustrative example:

In one of my cities, one of my factories was building cars. They weren’t getting crude oil they needed fast enough from my local economy. Checking the production tab, I could see how many tons of output they were producing, as well as the deficit they were running. Balancing the material goods, immaterial goods, import costs, processing, and any textiles required resulted in a shiny new car, and then profit, after the cost to export it if it didn’t sell locally. To say that it’s a complex simulation underneath is understating things. The good news is that you don’t have to care about that level of granularity unless you want to – it’ll self regulate. Unfortunately that means “we fire people when our profit margins get too low” for some businesses, but you can really create some awesome vertically-integrated business with a little bit of planning, resulting in a windfall into the city’s coffers to build cool new stuff. The cool part? If you do it right, you’ll see more of those types of businesses pop up. You just need to figure out the right combination of taxes, policies, and motivators to turn your city into a boom town with a boutique industry. Nine specialized industries exist at launch, but there’s a whole lot of empty space for new ones just waiting to be filled post-launch.

It’s not just that Cities: Skylines II is bigger, it’s also smaller. You can zoom in on an individual, follow their entire life, and watch them grow up, get a job, drive to work, visit stores, go to the park, get sick, work out, commit crimes, go to jail, become homeless, grow old, and pass away. Their whole family tree is shown, and you can watch all of them. The overall happiness score aggregates all of this, but naturally you can dig in further and see what all goes into that score. I personally found myself caring more about the families in my city and their lifepath. It guides your actions in a way simple zoning in the previous game never could. Why a budding mayor would be watching this closely gives off Beholder vibes in a big way, but that’s a topic for another day.

Not to belabor the point but it’s clear that the team at Colossal have worked very hard at putting a leash on tedium. Keeping up with the inevitable urbanization of your fledgling city is no longer painful. It turns into pure addiction. It’s the proverbial “one more turn” junkies like me crave. There are so many more things to explore, including day and night cycles, climates and seasons, advanced technologies, airports and passenger cruise ships, disasters and early warning systems, and so much more. You can even build the Large Hadron Collider for crying out loud! Frankly, this review in progress is already too long.

Suffice it to say I’m excited for this game, and so much of me wants to recommend every bit of it. Right now, the performance issues make that very, very hard. I’m not sure why Colossal and Paradox didn’t delay all of it until 2024 instead of just consoles, but here we are. Much like other games that launched in a rough state, I’m certain that Cities: Skylines II will eventually be something to behold. For now, however, there’s a bit of buyer beware. Check those system requirements folks…

This review in progress will be updated periodically until ultimately scored as the launch challenges subside. Let us know in our Discord – are you diving into Cities: Skylines II or will you be waiting on a patch or two?

Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief | [email protected]

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.

Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.

Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 28 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes), and an Axolotl named Dagon!

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