I'm impressed they waited this long. Using earthquakes and hurricanes to play skyscraper dominoes has long been the alpha and the omega feature of citybuilder games (if you didn't trash the suburbs with an alien invasion, you weren't playing Sim City 2000 right). It's taken Cities: Skylines [official site] 19 months to do the entirely obvious thing, and I'm glad to say it's done it in style. Its new natural disasters are absolutely terrifying.
I whimpered when the first twister appeared. I'd known it was coming: I'd picked a scenario that specifically concerned surviving tornados, and early warning systems had informed me that death was on the horizon a short while before that awful pillar of destruction appeared. Even so, my God.
I hadn't realised it would be so huge. I'd expected a handful of cartoon dust-devils, not this swirling titan. It was majestic. It was horrifying. This was, hitherto, such a placid game. Not a lot went wrong, not really. A few small fires, occasionally a plumbing boo-boo that killed a few thousand from disease - but even then, death was just a number. A quiet fact.
The tornado was more than a fact. The tornado was crisis. It approached the perimeter of my small city inexorably. There were so many directions it could have whirled towards, but no, it only wanted to come this way.
The windfarms fell first, a fizzing sound followed by the ping of pylon wires snapping. I thought perhaps it would simply blow down the Eastern edge of town, causing a minimum of destruction. It tore right through the middle of town, of course it did. Cars, even poor suckers on motorbikes, were hurled towards the horizon. And small, silhouetted, stick-like shapes.
Were they lampposts or pylons, perhaps? No. No, they were not.
In the twister's wake, the streets were empty, and what once were buildings replaced by watery grey lumps. Something more than simple demolition: these were carcasses, wet and grisly.
This was my challenge: to cope with living in twister country, to rebuild from disaster, time and again, until such time as I was able to afford protection against it. I had chosen this challenge. Even so, I stared at the screen, that vast grey, weeping scar that used to be people's homes and workplaces, in disbelief, any conviction that I could rebuild from it completely lost.
The city - or at least the game that powered it - did not share my loss of faith. Bless you, Cities: Skylines, you aren't entirely set up for tragedy, are you?
A spectacular, harrowing disaster, but also a brand new type of challenge for a game that, broadly, does not otherwise ask much of its players other than patience. The best way I've found to experience the disasters in is a handful of new scenarios, set on custom maps tuned to regularly throw you into chaos. Floodplains, earthquakes, even a meteor that hits near a dam, the impact totally overwhelming it and submerging most of your nearby city. How do you survive? How do you keep going?
In the case of the tornado scenario, the initial horror gives way to a practical problem. I can't build an Emergency Response Centre - one of several new buildings added in this DLC - until I have a population of at least 2,600.
Right now, I have a population of about 400. It was around 1600 not so long ago. To have any chance of getting up to 2,600 I need to manually clear all the ruined buildings and roads, then rebuild the latter along with the power grid. This takes time. Time is what I don't have, because - oh no, here it comes again.
Try, try again. How rapidly can I rebuild? What tricks are there to convince a lot of people to move into my city fast? (Fortunately they seem mysteriously undeterred by the fact that thousands of people keep dying in this place). Once I unlock that Emergency Response Centre, clearing debris, rebuilding and even some evacuation of civilians will happen automatically, and I will become able to dedicate my efforts to longer-term survival.
More population and a lot more money will enable me to build emergency warning radio towers, and underground shelters that my people can hide until the tornados have passed, and with it all the time and money to make a spread-out city split into far apart districts, thus less likely to have its heart ripped out whenever it's twister time again. Every time one hits, so much is destroyed, but little by little, I can preserve more life each time, be better set up to rebuild rapidly. It's absurd, but it works.
This has an intensity that vanilla Skylines does not have, this race against time element, this coping with cataclysm factor. You don't have to play Scenarios - you can just have disasters as a randomly-occuring risk in a standard game. But the Scenarios do provide a backbone to something that sometimes seems a bit stuck on the fence between 'game' and design tool.
Given the lack of a Sim City 2000-style 'apocalypse now' button, the scenarios are also a fine way to simply enjoy/scream at the disasters. The dam one, particularly, is a goofy-horrible treat. A meteor slams into the water, which promptly mushrooms over the dam and totally swamps the city beneath it. It's proper disaster movie stuff: cars screeching to a halt to avoid a rising tide, the waters sweeping people away, the lights slowly dying.
No waiting for emergency buildings to unlock this time. I had access and I had a reasonable amount of cash - this was a straight race against time. I thought I was so clever, setting up the largest shelter on offer so everyone could hide out in there.
I watched the death toll mount. Just a number, mercifully. Getting on for a thousand people drowned, locked in there underground. No way to save them - I could open the doors, yes, but all that lead to was an even larger watery grave. My population fell to near-zero. As the waters slowly receded from this dead place, someone tweeted about sunrise again.
Never change, Cities: Skylines.
Cities: Skylines - Natural Disasters is released today, for £10.99/$14.99.