Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments
The thrill of the rides, the joy of the music, the constant desire to throttle everyone in the hordes that shamble around like zombies. Yup, theme parks are amazing places filled to the brim with sugary snacks and insane rides designed to delight, entertain and occasionally terrify. It has been a while since we’ve had a videogame focused on the building and running these sugary death traps, and then suddenly two come along at the same time. Let’s review the better one, shall we?
Having spent thirty minutes crafting the ultimate rollercoaster I finally opened it to the world, expecting the pundits to come flooding in, their wallets and purses already open. As it turns out, though, nobody wanted to strap themselves into my death machine, saying it was “too extreme for me.” Planet Coaster might let you build the ultimate theme park, but there’s still limits as it turns out. Frustrated, I attempted to kill the people who had angered, and was angered to find that this was impossible. What kind of simulation is this!?
A bloody good one, is the answer, albeit one that is much more concerned with creativity than it is the challenges of operating a sizable theme park brimming with people looking for a good time. If you dream of carefully constructing a new rollercoaster that loops around two pirate ships locked in battle while a kraken sneaks up on them and then goes underground, Planet Coaster is for you. If you yearn for the satisfaction of running a theme park, of carefully managing the staff, research and logistics of it all, then it might not be for you.
Lets’ talk about the basics of building a theme park. From the user interface you can select from a bunch of different attacks, starting with the headlining rollercoasters, either choosing a premade version or building it from scratch yourself. More on that later. You can also build powered track rides, some of which can be used to transport visitors around the entire park, and which you can again build from start to finish if you wish in order to make a vast, looping network that takes a meandering route around your park. Then there are the standard rides which you can’t design yourself but which form the foundation of your park, from the gently alluring teacups to the more extreme beasts that want to make people scream, and then probably vomit up all those burgers you sold to them earlier. You’ll also want to toss in amenities like toilets and first aid, plus stores selling food, drinks, hats and other goodies that will hopefully entice patrons to spend even more money. Finally there’s a bunch of scenery to make everything pretty because Planet Coaster smartly makes it so that visitors will pay more and endure longer ques if the scenery is nice. Distract them with some nice fog effects, maybe a kraken or five and some pretty rocks. Everybody loves pretty rocks.
The game is split into three modes, kicking off with the campaign which spans four missions, each with three different scenarios in them. In each one you’ll take control of a partially completed park and be tasked with turning it into a profit-making behemoth. Really, though, it’s less campaign and more of a poor tutorial that does manage to teach you the general basics of building and operating a colossal park but that also leaves out a lot of important information which you’ll need to figure out for yourself through good ‘ol trial and error. Be prepared for the fact that while the game is quite easy to be creative with, there are some portions of the user interface that can be a pain in the butt to do deal with, I’d rather just have a proper tutorial, but the campaign does at least give you some inspiration toward designing your own over-sized play area.
Then there’s sandbox mode where you’re simply unleashed onto a plot of land with everything already unlocked and unlimited funds. There are no goals or challenges outside of simply making your perfect creation. This is Planet Coaster in its most creative form, and where it shines. The premade coasters and the the selection of standard rides are fine, and through them and the ability to add scenery you can make some lovely parks. But the real draw of the game is when you get tired of plonking down the actually quite limited selection of premade items and begin fiddling with the systems that let you create your dream park.
The star is of course the ability to design rollercoasters, either piecing it together from a selection of premade parts like inverted loops and insane displays of physics or by putting down section after section. You just start with a station, and then build from there, perhaps kicking off with a motor that can drag the coaster up the first hill before then letting it go screaming downward into multiple loops, spirals and other assorted nonsense. Best of all provided there’s a gap you can direct the coaster anywhere around the park you wish to make use of preexisting scenery you’ve created. All the time you’ll need to be keeping an eye on the meter which measure the nausea, excitement and fear ratings of your coaster, balancing them so that people will actually want to pay money to ride your creation. In other words, maybe don’t go for the quadruple loop and consider adding some brakes here and there to stop the thing going into orbit accidentally. Once you’ve put the final touches to your masterpiece a test run has to be done to ensure that the coaster actually works, and then the ticket gate can officially be opened.
But if looping a coaster around a log ride doesn’t sound all that interesting you could always use the terrain tools to create a more scenic park involving massive hills and graceful arches, or even to take your rollercoasters underground. The tools for sculpting are a breeze to use, although it’s fair ro say that forging a huge underground cavern can be a bit of a task due to fiddling around with the camera. My advice would be to excavate a huge hole, design your underground fungeon and then use the tools to stick a roof on it.
And if that wasn’t enough there’s a lot to decorate with. By visiting the building tab you can use a grid system to snap together walls, roofs, doors and other stuff to create whatever you feel like, provided you’re willing to put in the time and effort needed. Then you can visit the scenery section and go even further, surrounding your creation with trees or having a knight patrolling the balcony. The props section is pretty big, so providing you’re willing to sit and carefully piece together a scene item by item you can get some awesome results. Kraken attacking a ship? Possible. Pirate battle? Yup! Creepy cave entrance next to a misty lake leading to a huge cavern filled with witches? Can do. Using the selection tool you can also save your work to a blueprint for the future and then upload it to the Steam workshop as well for other’s to enjoy. Or you could just go and steal everyone else’s blueprints from the main menu. Creativity is for suckers.
The ability to construct buildings is also important when putting down shops and food places. There’s a selection of basic ones to pick from, but as you unlock new ones you might be surprised to find that they only exist under the custom tab as small boxes big enough for a single vendor. Yup, if you want your burger joint to look pretty you have to do it yourself by constructing a glorious facade.
In other words Planet Coaster is the kind of game where you have to immerse yourself in the joys of meticulously designing your park, from every rollercoaster to every small piece of scenery. Don’t just accept the pre-made scenes, go and build them for yourself by carefully placing every box and angry pirate. Don’t just toss down a hotdog stand and let it go at that; create a fortress around it patrolled by knights and underseige by witches. Hell, maybe even throw in a shack at the side for a sleeping dragon. A quick trip to Youtube will reveal what can be done if you’re willing to set aside enough time and it’s frankly bloody insane.
And yet…despite the creativity that’s possible it’s also more limited than I might have expected. Planet Coaster goes in for breadth of cosmetic items rather than depth, so while you might be able to have knights, pirates, bandits, witches, redcoats or aliens as your themes, there’s only a few items in each. Let’s say you want to construct a pirate themed area, for example; there’s only one type of big ship and only one sea monster, so that limits what you can do for ocean battle scenes. As for the pirates themselves there’s three; one firing from cover, another standing and firing, and a lookout. What this means is that while you can spend a lot of time constructing a variety of buildings it won’t hide how repetitive the pirates themselves are. Likewise if you want to build a witch scene there’s just two witches and a few trees etc. that really work with the spooky theme. And a single cauldron. Maybe I’m just being a greedy bastard, but I always wanted a lot more. By time I’d built a big park I constantly found myself having to abandon my original pirate/witch theme and expand into stuff like sci-fi simply for variety.
With that said I’m sure we can probably expect a deluge of new content to be added. In fact between the game launching and this review there has already been a free update that brought some new blueprints to the game. That’s the question, really; how much is going to be free, and how much will be paid DLC?
That’s a question for the future. For now it’s easy to appreciate the joys of creation, and the fact that with the camera you can get right down to path level and admire every little detail, from the ultra-enthuastic bounce of a vendor selling balloons to the randomized nature of the crowds, each of whom can be selected to reveal their general thoughts about the park. It’s reinforced with strong ambient sound that really helps bring you into the experience, although sadly the game’s presentation slips a little when it comes to riding the coasters in first-person view. They just don’t have the sound of the wind or the sense of speed quite right. But anyway, this visual beauty does come at a cost as Planet Coaster’s performance is patchy. As the park grows the framerate is going to drop, although fiddling with the settings should keep things running nicely enough. Even then you need to be prepared for the fact that there’s going to be drops.
But what about actually running a park? Building coasters and meticulously designing the scenery may keep you staring intently at the screen for hours upon end, but at some point the needs of the customers have to be addressed, which is where management comes in. Paths must be built to keep the flow of people smooth, bins placed to ensure every ride doesn’t turn into a garbage heap, mechanics and janitors employed to keep everything ticking over, ticket prices adjusted, marketing to bring in new folk and research so that more rides and coasters can be placed. If it seems daunting it actually isn’t, because for all the innovation and brilliance of the creation tools the management side of things is a lot less enjoyable. Part of the problem stems from the fact that earning cash isn’t very hard. Pop down a couple of rides and ensure there’s some bins around and you’ll usually get an income, and if you keep doing that then chances are you’ll come through okay. Once you’ve got enough cash to build a coaster you’re pretty much set, and at that point the management side becomes a lot less interesting. Things like marketing let you focus on drawing in adults, teens or family groups, and in turn they have their preferences in terms of what rides they’ll spend money on, but I never found any need to focus myself. Likewise you can even do things like pick whether burgers come with lettuce and tomatoes or whether they cost extra, but you’ll never need to. There are plenty of options but they feel superfluous, only worth playing with if you want to maximise profit. And once you hit a tipping point even the minimal worrying you have to do vanishes,
It’s a shame because the relatively mundane management side of things does put a damper on my favorite of the three modes. Challenge mode sits nicely between the campaign and sandbox, offering you a swathe of land on which to build, a series of optional challenges that reward you with extra cash and the added challenge of having to actually make money and research new rides and coasters as you go along.
There are some other problems we need to discuss, too. While the interface is generally fairly easy to use there are times when it’s also a bit of a pain in the ass. Laying down paths can sometimes feel like you’re fighting the game itself for control of your own park’s layout. As for the rollercoasters their building controls feel clunky, too.
The game is also a bit naff at providing keys bits of information, making it damn near impossible to figure out why a ride or vendor is failing to attract customers. Putting down a place selling hats and then watching as it fails to sell anything while the shops around it conduct booming business with seemingly no reason as to why one is succeeding when the other isn’t is very, very annoying.
This makes Planet Coaster a much better creative tool than a game about running a theme park, which in turn informs the kind of crowd it’s going to draw. If you’re into your management simulation games then you’re still going to enjoy Planet Coaster, but not as much you may have hoped. But if you just want to find yourself carefully putting together a pirate battle scene at 4am to really accentuate that awesome loop the loop on the coaster which took you two hours of tweaking to get just right, then Planet Coaster is very much for you. And me, as it turns out.