At its initial release, back in March of 2015, Cities: Skylines came out as perhaps the best all-round city builder game since SimCity 4. It didn’t have a lot of the features that you might expect at the time, but it laid the solid foundations on which Colossal Order could build. Since then, there have been a steady procession of expansions, first adding a day-night cycle, then inclement weather, and now ways to destroy all your hard work with a series of natural disasters.
The seven disasters include swirling tornadoes, huge tsunami waves, thundering lightning storms, meteors and earthquakes, but there’s also the more humdrum sink holes, forest and building fires and simple building collapses. These are perhaps the flashiest new addition to the game yet, playing on the fondness that people have for the old SimCity games and some of the look and feel of Thunderbirds’ miniature disasters. I love the tsunamis that pick up cars and drag them around the map.
You can naturally call upon all of these as soon as you have 1,300 citizens – they take a few in-game days to manifest, and are on cooldown timers – but life is much more interesting if you check the box to let them happen at random. As with previous expansions, there’s a fresh layer of gameplay woven together with the disasters, so now you’re tasked with setting up disaster prevention, response and recovery measures.
There’s a range of early detection buildings, with buoys to place out at sea, satellite dishes to scry into the night’s sky for asteroids, and firewatch towers for your citizens to head out to when suffering some deep emotional trauma. It’s no good just knowing that something’s coming, you need to be able to act, and to that end, underground shelters can be set up for the populace to flock to, while emergency services now have helicopters to call upon, both in times of crisis and for everyday emergencies.
Cleaning up the mess left behind is a mixture of automation and manual labour from yourself. The Disaster Response Unit will fly into action, checking the wreckage for survivors and making it safe for buildings to be rebuilt by the city’s people, while it’s up to you to restore the road network and work around any new features in the landscape. Water is often the worst to deal with, as it flows across the map and takes and age to find its way back out to sea, disrupting city life for an age.
While there’s some amusement to be had smashing space rocks and tsunami waves into your city, there’s more to this DLC. The natural disasters might be very showy, but I feel it’s really the scenario editor that adds a meaningful drive to the gameplay now. The best bit? The scenario editor is a free update for all players.
There’s a lot of options to fiddle with, and you can have all manner of triggers, from the number of people in your city and the cash in your coffers, to how many people have used the public transport options or the city’s crime rate. These can then be used to signal the player’s victory or loss, have a cheeky Chirp pop up from the little Chirper bird that hangs out at the top of the screen, or call in a natural disaster of your choosing. Triggers can even be stacked up, so you have to meet multiple conditions for something to happen.
The interface could be more intuitive, though. For one thing, you can’t build a city in the scenario editor, you have the play your way to that point and then load in a save file. From there, you can bulldoze buildings and roads, perhaps do a little landscaping and set the scenario triggers and events. You’re just not given enough information to do this with. The info panels are stripped down to environmental ones, so you can’t easily spot police stations, for example, to give a new player a crimewave to deal with, and it’s rather obtuse to have the city statistics hidden in the pause menu, as opposed to being within the editor’s interface – the stats are there to draw upon for setting figures, but there will be a lot of clicking back and forth. Even the process of uploading to the Steam Workshop feels a bit awkward.
There are five scenarios built into the expansion, just to give you a little idea of what’s possible. They’re actually rather tricky, with a mixture of disasters being flung at you, time limits and tough targets to meet. The Alpine Villages mission has you trying to get hundreds of thousands of people to use a burgeoning public transport network within 350 weeks – I was barely at 10% of the target when half my time had elapsed – while By The Dam has you on tenterhooks as you wait for a meteor to actually hit and destroy the dam, while you try and expand the city to higher ground in order to survive the worst.
They’re just a quick taster though, before leaving you to hunt through Steam Workshop creations, and I wish there were a few more of them. While I know it’s not a perfect fit for Cities, I also pine for the more interactive, story-driven scenarios of the Tropico games.
My complaints about the scenario editor and the slim number of bundled scenarios aside, Natural Disasters is great. This is another big step forward for what was already the best city builder around, lending it a fresh impetus and giving you more reasons to keep playing.