james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Developed by Frontier Developments
Published by Frontier Developments
Genre Theme Park Simulation
Platform PC

planet coaster videogame review roller coaster tycoon world parkitect

The "theme park" genre is one of those strange niches in gaming that has proven surprisingly successful. Hardly the most obvious of subjects for the classic "tycoon" business simulation treatment, and yet from its debut with Bullfrog's classic Theme Park to arguably its apex with the Roller Coaster Tycoon ("RCT") franchise the genre has developed a broad and devoted fanbase.

After three RCT games in the first five years of this century, the genre has since fallen from the commercial limelight. Yet throughout this time the popularity of the games has remained strong, so it comes as no surprise to see them making a resurgence, with no fewer than three prominent theme park simulation games coming in the next year. These include the independently developed Parkitect, inspired by the older 2D Chris Sawyer games that started the Roller Coaster Tycoon franchise, as well as the newest entry in that franchise, Roller Coaster Tycoon World ("RCTW").

Those of you with keen memory might remember this blog doing a preview of RCTW at the start of this year in our 2016 Hot List. Well part of being a good observer is recognising when you have made a mistake, rare though it may be. So let's get this out of the way early and warn you that RCTW is a cynical cash-grab and a poor game, featuring none of the original production team, and packed to the rafters with bad ideas and worse design.

Fortunately in an uncanny repeat of the 2013 Sim City debacle, where a poorly conceived sequel to a well known franchise ended up losing out to a much better made underdog in Cities Skylines, there is a plucky young team of upstarts here to save the day with a completely new IP. Do not buy RCTW. Instead, buy Planet Coaster. Here's why.

Let's begin by saying that while Planet Coaster may not have the name-brand recognition of Roller Coaster Tycoon, it does have developers who previously worked both on RCT2 and RCT3, and therefore a much stronger link to the original games that built the genre. But this review isn't going to be a side-by-side comparison to show why Planet Coaster beats RCTW, instead it's going to celebrate the game on its own merits, of which there are plenty.

The gameplay will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has played the genre in the past, particularly RCT3, from which Planet Coaster borrows heavily in the look and feel of its 3D engine and camera. All the staples are here: hiring entertainers and staff, building rides and roller coasters, paths and queues, shops and restaurants. You can change ticket prices, customise the balance of ingredients in food and drink, research new products and constructions, and spend money on marketing campaigns to bring in additional business.

It might appear that not much has changed. In fact, while the number of roller coaster types shipping with vanilla is impressive, the number of non-roller coaster rides and shops is actually surprisingly limited compared to the original RCT games. But here's the first masterstroke of this game: modability and expansion.

Frontier have designed this game to last far into the future, and will continue to roll out additional content. There's already an update due this month featuring a bunch of new rides, along with the usual patch notes and tweaks. Perhaps even more intriguingly is the addition of Steam workshop, which allows players to make their own designs based on the templates provided and share them with others. Even now at this early stage there are thousands of downloadable designs for rides, shops and scenery that can be quickly and easily accessed at the click of a button. Going forward, it's additionally planned to release full modding tools for players to create entirely new types of content. And the best part is that all of this slips seamlessly and instantly into your game, you won't even have to start a new park to be able to build that ride you just downloaded.

Which brings us on to the true shining light of Planet Coaster, its creation tools. Old games in this genre have always had an extent of being able to raise and lower terrain, plant trees and place certain standard decorations, but there has never been a game which offers such powerful tools for player creativity as Planet Coaster.

The landscaping tools are remarkable and allow the sculpting of just about any shape or configuration of terrain you can possibly imagine, all seamlessly in real time. But even more revolutionary are the building tools, which consist of the base components of buildings and other structures that players can piece together like Lego to form, again, really any kind of building they can imagine. The potential output of these tools is near limitless, and already there are some astonishing creations by other players. None of these are from pre-built templates, these are completely bespoke, using the basic building blocks Frontier have provided. And the beauty is that even if you aren't creative, or if you can't be bothered, or simply don't have the time to get into all this detail, you can just download other players' creations from the workshop as above, providing a theoretically limitless supply of new high quality content.

The result of all this is that Planet Coaster is a theme park simulator which affords a simply unprecedented level of customisation, creativity, and potentially endless expansion. The things you can do with this game are impressive enough now, and it's still early days. This is a game we could feasibly be playing for many years to come without running out of content.

Visuals and Sound Design
This is a game which oozes charm. The artistic style is well balanced between realism and cartoon without being either too dry or too silly, the in-game brands and characters are well designed and will draw you into the world, and the entire interface is just clean and pleasant to play around with.

This quality extends to the sound design and in particular the musical score, written by Jim Guthrie who some of you might know from having performed in a variety of bands including Islands. It's rare that I even notice a musical score in a videogame, much less comment on it, but this is quite possibly one of the best videogame scores ever written. It's not something you necessarily notice right away, but play for a little while and all of a sudden it will hit you how much you're enjoying the music, and you won't be able to get it out of your head. Extremely high quality stuff.

Bugs and Flaws
Despite all these very positive things, there are clearly a number of areas where this game still needs work.

As mentioned, the amount of shops and non-roller coaster rides is a little underwhelming. At the same time, the management side of the game is even more thin, with only rudimentary business options which often provides even less depth than games which came out over a decade ago. Staff management is based around finnicky, clunky menus, and the staff themselves ridiculously temperamental and prone to quit for no reason. Perhaps most unfortunately of all is that the game just isn't that challenging. Once you have a decent stream of income coming in, that's it, there's little strategy and not much depth.

Then there are the bugs. The path building tool follows a free-flowing analogue design similar to the road tool in Cities Skylines, as opposed to a simple grid system. This allows for much more organic, better looking park design, but the tool itself is incredibly fussy, and often just plain refuses to connect.

Worse still is difficulty in building underground. The 3D engine and impressively craftable terrain allows the player to build some extremely detailed and gorgeous looking underground sections, which is simply a must for anyone trying to match the theme immersion of a Walt Disney (I mean how many Disney roller coasters can you think of that are simply out in the open? None, they're in mountains and other themed structures). The problem is that the camera is wholly inadequate for this function. Getting the camera down underground is a massive headache, and keeping it there nigh on impossible. The camera can and will randomly shoot back above ground or bug out in some other way, making the construction process a much longer and more tedious process of wrestling with the camera than it really ought to be.

But these problems are far from game breaking. If, like me, you mostly spend these games designing the park rather than actually playing, then you won't even mind the lack of business simulation, while there is every indication that the current bugs and annoyances will inevitably be fixed, fleshed out, and streamlined further in the weeks and months to come.

So at the moment Planet Coaster is very much on the creative/design focused side of the genre. The design tools are inarguably the best ever made, but undermined by tycoon elements that are disappointingly shallow, as well as a few extremely irritating bugs.

The good news is that despite these flaws, I can honestly say that Planet Coaster is some of the most fun I've had in gaming for a long time. The genuine love and care that has gone into every single detail of Planet Coaster is plainly evident from the first moment, and the effortless charm is impossible to resist, even for a bitter old sod like me.

Add to that the innovations and potential for expansion and it's clear that this is a game by true fans of the genre, for true fans of the genre. They've made a highly impressive start, but I foresee even greater things in its future.

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