Let's be honest: Mother Nature can be pretty brutal. Even in our big cities, where we're safe from crocodiles and bears, the ocean and weather are known to lash out and cause problems. Natural Disasters, the latest expansion pack to the excellent Cities: Skylines, serves as a engaging reminder.
This expansion adds little more than its namesake, and it doesn't need to. Randomly, or at your will, a variety of natural disasters can ravage a city. These include earthquakes, asteroids, tsunamis, wildfires, sinkholes, tornadoes, and thunderstorms, all of which vary in intensity. This changes the experience in several ways and generally makes managing a city more difficult. What this amounts to is a game-changing package with a great price point.
Nothing already in the game gets any kind of face lift, but I suppose it's pretty important to mention how the disasters look. The most impressive one, the tornado, is absolutely horrifying, especially when cranked up to 10. It violently rips through anything it touches, sweeping up cars along the way and tossing them to their doom. In its wake is a giant scar through the concrete, along with a huge gap where your buildings were leveled in the blink of an eye. You'll never look at Iowa the same way again.
But then there's the average-looking fire, or the not-so-impressive tsunami, which seems to retain the mediocre water physics of the base game. Instead of being a violent rush of muddy ocean sweeping around skyscrapers and filling up the streets, it's a translucent blob that never reacts to even the largest of buildings. Adding some simple white foam and brown coloring would've gone a long way to alleviate this problem at little cost. Finally, it's a bit disappointing both from a visual and gameplay standpoint that asteroids tend to clip through any mountains as they come down.
The most convincing defense of visuals like this is that better-looking disasters might have seriously compromised performance, and yes, it slows down to a crawl when you have multiple catastrophes happening at once. This is pretty forgivable since you can readily turn down the visual settings, and I definitely prefer it over simply not being able to have simultaneous disasters. Bizarrely, though, the rain effect that occurs during a thunderstorm seems to cause the most slowdown when paired with other calamities. Fortunately, I experienced little slowdown when I let the disasters occur, um, naturally.
If you've been playing Cities: Skylines since before this expansion, you'll first be tempted to go to one of your own save files and wreak havoc. And boy is it fun. Disasters are accessed via a small menu, blending right in with the rest of the interface. They can be changed in intensity, too, and you'll have fun simply comparing what a 2.0 tornado looks like against a 10.0. Interestingly, they don't happen right when you click the area, allowing you to imagine someone dropping a lit match or a space rock getting knocked towards Earth.
Once you've gotten enough cringe-worthy enjoyment out of destroying your hours of hard work, you'll be curious to see how this expansion affects normal gameplay. I recommend starting a new city so as to experience the challenge as it was intended. This is where you'll realize how much Natural Disasters truly adds to the game. Nature will batter your town on a challenging-yet-reasonable basis, often filling in those gaps where everything seemed to be going too nicely in the vanilla game. Emergency preparedness becomes a necessity, too, making you reconsider aspects such as building placement and budgeting. As the pieces come together, you'll realize that the developers at Colossal Order were wise to exclude outlandish disasters like alien invasions and giant monsters. Their absence ensures that this expansion makes Cities: Skylines a more authentic city management simulator.
The most impactful change is actually the behavior of building fires, which now spread around your neighborhood if your fire department can't put them out in time. Pre-expansion, a house fire would simply toast one or two buildings, leaving you to demolish them and forget about it. Now that mindset can cost you hundreds of workers and expensive infrastructure, which has a considerable domino effect on the economy. It's always nice to see an expansion pack that improves upon things that were already there.
Starting or visiting different files will allow you to appreciate the most thoughtful aspect of the whole package: the types of disasters most likely to occur are dependent on the climate and geography of the land. Hotter areas are more prone to forest fires, seaside towns will eventually deal with a tsunami, and so forth. It was this detail that told me the developers really, truly care about this expansion as a gameplay experience. It's a very welcome addition to the myriad of variables each map presents.
There's a dark undertone to this expansion that could make you feel a bit uneasy. While they don't all look equally convincing, these are unmistakably real disasters, the types we are familiar with due to recent examples that have taken thousands of lives. The developers attempt to alleviate this somewhat with humorous recommendations from the emergency broadcast, but when you see the damage report of a wildfire, complete with a "Citizens Lost" tally, you might feel a tinge of sadness. I don't hold this against the product, but it's worth noting.
If you enjoy Cities: Skylines, you should definitely put aside some money for this expansion. Your first instincts will provide plenty of amusement, but when you go back to playing the game as usual, the true value of Natural Disasters becomes apparent. Far from being a tangential add-on, it adds more to the game than you would dare to assume. Though slightly marred by visual inconsistencies and conditional performance wobbles, Natural Disasters is a thoroughly essential addition to the Cities: Skylines experience.