I never missed catastrophes in Cities: Skylines. Dealing with rampaging extraterrestrials, Armageddon-instigating asteroids, and visits from giant lizards have long been a hallmark of the SimCity line, but Colossal Order’s city builder seemed too buttoned-down for such outlandish developments. This is one of the most authentic city management simulations of all time due to a focus on things like zoning, which makes the game feel awfully close to my everyday job as the mayor of a town in Canada. Throwing in regular outings from Godzilla just didn’t seem necessary or appropriate.
I didn’t know what I was missing. The new Natural Disasters expansion charges up the businesslike concept of the original game with random events like tornadoes, meteorite strikes, forest fires, earthquakes, sinkholes, and tidal waves that result in citywide floods. But even though these Biblical catastrophes are always suitably apocalyptic, they’re also realistic. Every doomsday is worked into the serious nature of the game as threats that need to be managed through careful preparation. The end result is greater tactical depth and tension in the virtual mayor’s office, since you know that screwing up here could cost you absolutely everything.
How Natural Disasters handles these tragedies elevates it above the “disasters as punishment” gimmick seen in so many other city builders. Just like in real life, you mitigate the impact of disasters via early warning systems and buildings designed to help recover when the worst happens. Buoys are available to detect tsunamis, and radar dishes can watch for meteorites. Radio towers can be set up to let the populace know that something bad is on the way. Emergency response centers bolster the existing rosters of police, fire, and medical structures and allow first responders to get out to disaster sites. Shelters provide homes for citizens during and immediately after crises, while you clear away the ruins and rebuild.
As with everything else in Cities: Skylines, the need to prepare for disasters feels realistic. It's a welcome contrast to what I expected; other city builders tend to turn similar earth-shattering moments into a form of punishment for building a happy, functional municipality, or to artificially increase the difficulty.
All of these options add an appreciable new layer to Cities: Skylines planning, in both regular games (you can toggle disasters on or off, adjust the frequency in which they occur, or even call them down on demand like Zeus moonlighting as a municipal politician) and in five scenarios structured around specific disasters and goals. Disasters feel like an organic part of the game that’s been there all along, not some tossed-in and tossed-off gimmick geared to do little more than blow everything up at the most inopportune times.
Everything looks suitably apocalyptic, too. While the heart of Cities: Skylines remains a little on the antiseptic side, with mostly bland blocks and buildings slapped together like something out of an Ikea box, the actual disasters are awfully frightening. Tornadoes carve through your cities and hurl cars into the air. Meteorites hit like A-bombs, making whole districts of cities vanish in a flash. Fires encroach on cities gradually, and before you know it, you’re sitting in a circle of hell with flames consuming everything you spent hours building. Even floods have an impact--the gradual approach of water may be the least cinematic of the disasters, but it’s relentless and scary in the way it gathers up all in its path. Seeing cars and trucks swept along like toys reminded me just how helpless we all are against Mother Nature--as did the dramatic declines in my city population every time a disaster came through.
My one real disappointment with Natural Disasters is the limited number of new goal-oriented management scenarios. Such a small sample size does little more than show off the new scenario editor released as part of a free update at the same time this expansion launched. There’s clearly real potential here to expand the focus of the game with these custom scenarios, but right now, the included ones don't make full use of that potential. Some of them focus on the more annoying aspects of the game, too. The wintry Alpine Villages scenario is based on establishing a transit system, still a part of the design that I don’t particularly enjoy. By the Dam is all about building up hills, which comes in handy when flooding takes out the lowland city blocks pre-built at the start of the scenario. Many of the goals require a lot of time and repetition. Tornado Country just blasted me to bits with funnel clouds hitting over and over again before I even hit the population needed to unlock disaster buildings.
This is one of the best treatments of disasters in a city simulation, blending the actual demands of emergency planning measures with apocalyptic moments that ratchet up the tension in the virtual mayor’s office.
Also, there isn’t a lot of imagination displayed here. While it’s nice that Cities: Skylines is finally getting disasters, this expansion really just adds in more content that could have (and maybe should have) been available in the original game. I can’t deny that the add-on brings some interesting new strategic elements to the table, especially given how disasters have been seamlessly worked into the core game design. But like its After Dark and Snowfall predecessors that introduced nightlife and winter weather, these are small, incremental improvements that move the game experience ahead by just a few baby steps.
Even though I’ve always been far too particular of a virtual city planner to care for this sort of devastation, Natural Disasters may have made me a convert. This addition to Cities: Skylines features all of the cinematic appeal of exposing your homemade municipalities to the wrath of God--along with a sober assessment of how such upheavals have to be planned for and managed in the real world. As a result, this is one of the best treatments of disasters in a city simulation, blending the actual demands of emergency planning measures with apocalyptic moments that ratchet up the tension in the virtual mayor’s office.