Transport Tycoon is pretty much the beginning and the end of its own little sub-genre. Nothing made since has been able to effectively overcome its influence, and the successes subsequent to it have opted for apprentice status rather than overtly challenge the master. It's difficult to explain how closely Cities resembles Tycoon. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to mention that Cities does the multi-layered mass-transit administration thing slickly and well; this means it’s practically a clone of Tycoon in most of the ways that matter. It also means that it’s fun.
For most metro-heads a modern update of Tycoon appears redundant – after all, we already have OpenTTD, an explicit clone of the original, complete with the clumsy interface and the bad graphics. But where OpenTTD was afraid to take its own mission – a modern version of the classic – seriously, Cities steps in and finishes the story.
Situation: It's All Possible
That doesn’t mean that Cities is exactly the game that Chris Sawyer would have made had he gotten the idea in the late 00’s instead of the early 90’s. Cities has a vaguely plot-driven single-player campaign, SimCity-style popup advisors, and a smooth-jazz soundtrack, which would never have appeared in any Chris Sawyer design. However it does incorporate innovations in the genre and in games generally between then and now. The graphics are pleasant instead of grating, there are a multitude of graphical and statistical tools to help plan routes, there are new ways to integrate your system into the urban landscape, and the focus has been tightened from all-encompassing passenger-cargo-mail delivery service to a more straightforward subset of passenger-oriented tasks.
Those tasks, however, are still the same. You need to get as many people from as many points A to as many points B as possible, using the least amount of track, the fewest trains and the cheapest buses. Screw up one aspect of this – too few or too low-quality trains, routes with bad coverage, lack of feeder lines – and you will be getting yelled at by your board of directors and the man on the street waiting for your tram car to show up. At your disposal are people: movers of various types and vintages. You get buses, trams (streetcars), trains (elevated, surface-level, or underground), boats, and helicopters. Each has a finely-tuned set of bonuses and demerits which you can probably predict. Buses are cheap and slow but don’t require a track, trains are high-volume and fast but require massive infrastructure investments, and helicopters are absurdly expensive and low-capacity but very fast.
The environments across which you are required to build your transit empires are smaller-scale than the island nations of yore. They are large cities with varying geographies. Berlin is huge and divided by a river and a wall, Amsterdam is dominated by canals, Helsinki is jammed into a peninsula, and so forth. One key aspect of these environments (which is explored in the single-player campaign and standalone scenarios) is a sense of historical development. In the course of a single game on one map you’ll see new suburbs or skyscrapers pop up, but rarely anything large-scale. Where you will see the big changes, however, is across the several decades that the various campaign scenarios cover. You’ll play Berlin in the post-WW I era and then again following the Second, contending with the Berlin Wall and a larger cityscape.
"3D is very helpful for squeezing metro stops in between buildings and examining your spaghetti mess of underground metro tunnels…"
As I mentioned Cities has a modern graphics engine and an improved interface. 3D is very helpful for squeezing metro stops in between buildings and examining your spaghetti mess of underground metro tunnels (three z-levels, by the way), and of course the pleasantness of zoning out and staring at people get sucked into and then spat out of trains and buses in large numbers is enhanced by those people and their city being presented in an attractive way. Routes show up as glowing colored lines on the mini-map and in the city itself, allowing you to hand-place stops and effortlessly avoid jams, backups, and collisions. Additionally the multitude of informational overlays is presented in a similarly helpful fashion: finding high-traffic areas and seeing where your coverage is weak and where it is strong are both exercises that involve zero guesswork.
Everything Is Going My Way
There are a few hiccups, of course. Some of them are simple mistakes that will take a bit of text-file tweaking to fix, like the exploit that allows you to set fares extremely high and still get passengers. There are others that are less trivial, like the fact that vehicles consistently get “bunched up” and wind up circulating in large routes one right behind the other (so you have ten trains between two stops and no trains between any other stops on the line), or that boat lines with more than one vehicle assigned to them have to be carefully monitored, because the boats are liable to get stuck on one another if they ever meet in close quarters (which they do, eventually). And then there are matters of pure taste, such as the fact that the music can get annoying, and that there is no multiplayer component.
One more major unfortunate consequence of the “modernization” of Transport Tycoon is that the scope of the players’ efforts has been reduced. You can only move passengers, not cargo, and you only get to work on one city at a time instead of everywhere all at once. The massiveness of the initial challenge in Transport Tycoon (“here’s $10, do this entire map”) has no real counterpart in Cities, and the diverse nature of your network in TT has no real counterpart in Cities either. Ultimately, whatever OpenTTD’s (few) failings are, I will probably still be playing it in ten years, and I will have forgotten about Cities entirely.
This doesn’t mean Cities isn’t good, it’s just not as world-conqueringly great as Transport Tycoon. And there are tons of decent, worthwhile games that can’t live up to that standard.