Cities: Skylines Natural Disasters Review Impressions

For a certain kind of person, a city building game is an exercise in creative beauty. For another, it’s an exercise in problem solving, about maximizing happiness and perfecting the flow of traffic and the provision of public services.

Both kinds of players like it, sometimes, when something comes along to kick over the sand castle. Cities: Skylines’ new Natural Disasters expansion provides a big ‘ol leathery boot ready to topple whichever kind of castle you’ve got going on. It’s a welcome expansion, providing a layer of challenge to an experience which can be a little too relaxed for the most excitable of management players. Where only you could make a mistake that ruined your city, there is now a veritable minefield of natural horror waiting.

The disasters themselves stride the same line between realistic and stylized that the rest of the game does – tornadoes look creepily and terrifyingly real, while meteors are outlandishly outsized chunks of rock that’d wipe out the whole region your city is on if they make impact. The more impressive of them are visually gorgeous and physically potent – tornadoes, specifically, are incredibly pretty even on low settings. Others, like sinkholes and earthquakes, aren’t much more than screen shakes, collapsing buildings, and high-speed terrain deformation.

Forest fires are particularly terrifying, though. Oh, they are not much prettier than the game’s default fires, but their effects are a horror to behold.

See, I’m a fan of forests in cities. I strive to give my urban environments – my more paradisiacal ones, at least – a semblance of utopianism. In the true spirit of having someone kick over your sandcastles, I made an alternative save for my Los Angeles-esque city of Westvalley to test out the new expansion in. In my world, rather than being a traffic-blighted hellhole, Westvalley is a pedestrian’s metropolis with abundant public transport and a flowing system of walkable urban parks and forests. While not the absolute biggest it can be, it’s nearing the end-game for Cities. Not knowing the power or scope of terrors to come, I used my copious bank account to outfit the city with the latest in disaster-preparedness facilities. I cranked up the frequency of random disasters to the max. I hoped for the best.

A nasty earthquake came and went, it had some knock-on effects, but we weathered it.

A terrible, huge lightning storm came. The power grid got busted up pretty good, but I fixed that, and a wave of fires spread across the city, but most of those got put out… most of them. In Natural Disasters fires can now spread between buildings and, it turns out, can now start in forests. As the game cycled into night I saw it: my hundreds of square miles of urban green space were burning.

I’d built a couple fire helicopter depots for fun, but since my city already had a thorough fire department I figured that was enough. It was not. Only helicopters can effectively fight fires in the woods. As the fire rapidly spread into neighborhoods and downtown, I realized I was screwed. Westvalley entered a death spiral the likes of which I’ve never seen in Cities: Skylines before, and it did not return.

It was precisely what I wanted from this expansion. The game is now chock-full of new logistics problems to solve: Are your road networks clear enough for evacuations to take place? Do you have the budget to prepare adequate early-warning systems and communicate a coming apocalypse to your citizenry? Can you afford the dangers posed by your ample waterfront, should a tsunami come, or should you wall it off and build well away from the shore? New game scenarios, each built like a fiendish puzzle, will nourish those who thrive on solving such thorny management and logistics problems. For those who do not, or who find the game’s already-existing systems unengaging, the new systems don’t shake up that much. They’re twists and layers on the game’s traffic and budget management roots, but not huge ones.

Disasters can really make a mess of your city, but they’re fun. It’s the cleanup that can be kind of a bear. Sending your citizens to disaster shelters cuts your income to nearly nothing since nobody’s working, but your expenses don’t vanish, meaning that a large city can bankrupt itself in moments if it’s not careful. Even if you’ve prepared for the emergency with services and shelters, inadequate cash reserves can mean you’re unable to restore plumbing, roads, and electricity lines, meaning that your city is as good as dead. It’d be nice if more of that process was automated, tended to by your city’s disaster relief trucks and helicopters. Instead you’ll find that sometimes you’re laboriously rebuilding a road network you’ve already made.

That frustration wasn’t enough to outweigh what I liked about Natural Disasters, though. New landscaping tools like water pumps and storage tanks, the addition of fast-moving relief helicopters for your city’s remote suburbs, and the overall added challenge are all enough to draw me back to Cities: Skylines despite other superb strategy releases this year.