Cities: Skylines has always been a game that takes some different approaches to city builder gameplay. The base game explored how a city's geography can influence the development of the city, and also put a particular emphasis on designing efficient transit infrastructure by allowing the player incredible freedom to construct your own roads, highways, and interchanges, rather than relying on prefab ramps and over/under passes. None of these concepts were new to city builders, but Skylines added nuance to them and made them much more active elements of gameplay.
Its newest expansion DLC, Natural Disasters, follows suit. This is a very difficult expansion to review because its content - by its very nature - is random and unpredictable. Natural disasters aren't new to city builders. Disasters were a popular component of the old SimCity games, as many players enjoyed building up their beautiful metropolises only to unleash earthquakes, tornadoes, meteor impacts, and even alien invasions and dinosaur attacks and watch it all burn. Now Skylines has support for this fan-favorite SimCity feature, but it takes this commonplace feature in some new and interesting directions.
Installing early warning and detection systems will give you advance notice when a disaster is imminent.
Most notably, Cities: Skylines' take on disasters puts emphasis on preparation for disasters, rather than on the chaos of the disaster itself and the clean-up in its aftermath. Like with its SimCity forebears, disasters are something that you can toggle on or off in the game's menu, and you can also adjust their frequency. When enabled, you'll encounter disasters of various flavors ranging from forest fires to lightning strikes, to tsunami and meteor impacts. You'll have to make sure that your city is protected by preventative measures, and that it's protected against these eventualities.
Early-warning systems like firewatch towers, weather radar, and space telescopes can warn you about forest fires, storms or tornadoes, or even incoming meteors (respectively), and can mean the difference between your citizens having enough time to evacuate, or half your population being buried under rubble. You'll need evacuation shelters for you citizens to escape to, and each shelter needs to be built long enough in advance for it to be stocked with supplies of food, water, and other essentials (which must be pulled from your city's economy or imported). And lastly, you'll need radio towers to warn your citizens to get to their designated shelters.
Building emergency shelters, stocking them with supplies, and planning evacuation routes will protect your citizens.
You can also create planned evacuation routes similar to bus routes that will pick up residents and take them to a shelter. I had some trouble getting these routes to work properly though. The fact that the buses are dispatched when an evacuation is activated means that they often create a log jam on your roads as they all funnel out of the shelter. I also had issues with the buses apparently not picking up people who were at more distant stops on the route, since the areas along the route that were far from the shelter never managed to evacuate. Maybe there's some trick to getting these routes to work properly that I just haven't found yet. But this does highlight one problem with the expansion: its new systems are not very well documented or explained.
Radio towers will alert your citizens about imminent disasters.
And when disasters inevitably happen (the frequency of which is adjustable in the game's options), you have options for how you want to handle the recovery. There's a Disaster Relief Unit building that will dispatch emergency vehicles to help clear rubble and rescue survivors, and they'll also rebuild the destroyed structures if there's demand for them. You can also manually rebuild structures. I wish there were different icons for destroyed RICO buildings versus destroyed ploppable buildings, so that I would know which buildings I can manually rebuild and which ones I have to wait for the Disaster Unit to rebuild.
Disaster Relief will rescue survivors
and rebuild structures.
Finally, there's also a collection of new parks and memorials to celebrate your city's successful survival of a disaster. If a meteor strikes your city, then you can dig it up and put it on display at a public park as a memorial. In my case, a meteor struck out in the middle of the wilderness surrounding my city early in my time with this expansion. It did absolutely no damage save for pulverizing some trees and leaving a small crater. It still unlocked the fancy Meteorite Park though, which was then available in all of my cities (whether they've had a meteor impact or not).
Practice with scenarios
So this isn't just a collection of flashy cataclysms and weather effects, there are actually layers of systems that interplay and make this a much more substantive expansion than first glances might make it seem. Neglect all of this infrastructure and planning, and your precious city will be devastated when a disaster finally strikes. Unfortunately, the game doesn't offer much in the way of tutorials for all of these planning and recovery systems. So it's very hard to know if you're planning appropriately, or if all your shelters and warning systems will actually work, until they are put to the test by a random event.
To offset this problem, the expansion does also come packaged with this game's first set of scenarios (another common feature in city builders). These scenarios will start you out with a small, pre-built city that is doomed by a scripted disaster looming over the horizon. You'll be tasked with building up the appropriate warning and recovery services and to minimize the damage and loss of life. Each scenario comes with a set of actual victory criteria (as well as failure conditions), so you can actually win these cities.
You can play or create scenarios to test out how disaster and emergency services work.
These scenarios can serve to give you more controlled environments to test out how disasters and the new emergency services work. The scenario description will tell you what disaster(s) are incoming, so you'll at least know what to prepare for. They don't, however, explain the actual mechanics or systems or provide any additional feedback beyond what than the sandbox mode provides, so you'll still have to rely on trial-and-error to figure out if you're using these systems the way they are intended to be used. To make matters worse, the scenarios that I played also seemed to have different rules for when certain buildings and policies unlocked.
You can also try out the scenario editor if you want to try out how disasters and emergency services behave, or if you want to create a challenge for someone else to play. If all that fails, then you could always just save your game and then manually trigger some disasters from the terraforming tool menu and see them in action.
Makes old systems more relevant
Preventing and responding to disasters isn't the extent of this new expansion though. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this expansion has ripple effects on other existing mechanics in the game. Some features and mechanics that have existed since the base game, but which were never particularly relevant, are now suddenly very relevant.
Forests are at high risk for fires unless you build watchtowers.
The most obvious example is fires and fire stations. In the base game, a building may catch fire every now and then, but those fires never seemed to spread and cause widespread damage. As such, fire stations were only minimally useful. If you didn't have a fire station, then worst case scenario was that a building or two would burn down and have to be rebuilt. Now, fires can rage out of control, and if you don't have proper fire protection, then they can ravage many city blocks and entire districts. If this happens to a residential area, it can severely cut into your population. If it happens in your factories, it can cripple your economy (at least temporarily) and lead to severe budget shortfalls and unemployment. Fire stations are, therefore, critical, especially in cities that are surrounded by flamable woodland.
There seems to be a bug in which fire houses don't dispatch fire trucks under certain conditions. I have a city in which my fire stations have completely stopped dispatching fire trucks at all. The relevant stations used to work, but then at some point during the game, they stopped working. This bug has apparently existed for a while, but it was never really a big problem (at least not for me) since fires never used to spread. Well, now, fires are much more potent and can quickly spread across multiple city blocks unless fire trucks arrive to put them out.
Fire stations have a frustrating habit of letting your city burn without dispatching any fire engines.
I've tried deleting the fire stations and rebuilding them. I've tried upgrading or rebuilding the roads around them. I've tried increasing the budget and enacting the Smoke Detectors policy. I've tried building extra fire houses. Nothing has worked. There can be two fire houses within a couple blocks of a raging fire that is burning down a couple dozen buildings, but both stations will show 0/6 fire trucks in use, even though their coverage area overlaps with the location of the fire.
I was right about flood control infrastructure in previously-released (free) terraforming update being added in preparation for actual disaster mechanics, and now flood wall, canal, and quay structures make a lot more sense and actually have purpose. In addition to making canals more functional, there's also a new water storage building that saves your city's excess water for use later. This can be handy if your water infrastructure is destroyed in a disaster, but it also provides more general relief for when your city expands beyond its existing water infrastructure's capacity. Instead of half your city suddenly running out of water and losing its land value and satisfaction ratings (and possibly leading to abandoned buildings and closed businesses), you can pull water out of storage to supply your city until you can afford to build additional pumps or water towers. New fresh water outlets can also pump excess water into your canals to make sure that they stay full and the water stays flowing.
Fresh water outlets actually allow my canals to function as I had intended them to: washing sewage out to sea.
Except for Snowfall...
It's nice to see some old mechanics get refreshed in this expansion. It's too bad that these disasters don't interplay at all with Snowfall. As far as I know, there are no winter-specific disasters. There's no blizzards or hard freezes or anything along those lines. Even Snowfall content that seems like it would be a perfect fit for this expansion's content are not well-utilized. For example, the Road Maintenance Depot seems like it would be a perfectly-suitable building to allow for roads to be automatically repaired following a disaster. Nope.
Is Colossal Order maybe thinking of Snowfall as the Skylines black sheep and not really supporting it with expansions moving forward? I hope this is not the case. I've already expressed my hope that Snowfall was the first part of an incremental process of converting Skylines into having a full seasonal cycle. In fact, Natural Disasters actually fits in with that hypothesis, as its weather-related disasters could be part of a possible season conversion.
Surprisingly robust, if you're willing to see your creations burn
Natural Disasters is yet another take-it-or-leave-it expansion for Cities: Skylines. I was kind of surprised to see a disaster theme be the subject of an entire DLC pack, but the content provided is actually surprisingly deep and robust. New mechanics introduced here help make other mechanics that were introduced in previous expansions and patches - and even some stuff that's existed since the vanilla game launched - much more meaningful and useful.
That alone, however, probably isn't enough to warrant buying this expansion if you just aren't willing to let a random disaster pulverize a beautiful metropolis that you've spent hours working on. Even with all the precautions in place, when it comes down to it, you're still completely subject to the roll of the dice, and your city is at the mercy of whatever algorithms Colossal Order designed. Perhaps that means it's a good thing that this expansion isn't a more comprehensive one, as it allows it to be more of an a la carte entry.
If disasters is your thing, then this is the most robust, interesting, and meaningful disaster system of any city-builder that I've ever played. It's certainly a better all-around package than Snowfall was. At the very least, it will add some challenge to your Cities: Skylines experience, as these emergency services might actually put some strain on your budget.
The new Meteorite Park will memorialize those who lost their lives in tragedy,
and provide a place for your citizens to contemplate life - or just look at a rock from space.