Since the early 2000’s, Rollercoaster Tycoon 2 has been a pretty dominant force within the simulator world, and even the sequel couldn’t do much to dethrone it. Though it’s dated, it still has a cult following despite all its shortcomings. With the experience gained from developing some of the RCT series and Thrillville, Frontier Developments have done a pretty solid job of bringing the theme park simulator to a modern standard with Planet Coaster. It might not convert those who are still enamoured with their old favourites, but it is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.
In the same vein as virtually every game of this style, Planet Coaster tasks you to create a theme park using the few resources you have and make it as successful as possible. Building your way to more money allows you to make bigger and better rides, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with just building whatever you like regardless of how much money you’ve got. The three modes available are career, sandbox and challenge; career is the equivalent of being dropped into the manager position of an already running park, and you’ll have a set of targets to meet to bring them up to standard. Sandbox and challenge drop you into empty environments that you can fill with whatever you like, the former giving you unlimited money to build what you like, and the latter providing you with limited money so you have to manage your resources more carefully.
There’s a lot of ways to go about building a park, and ultimately the choice is up to you. Freedom is at your discretion – there are easy ways of making a successful park but the game never really forces that ideal on the player. You’re offered plenty of prebuilt rides and rollercoasters that cost a predetermined amount of money so you won’t go over budget so quickly, and you can charge what you like for park entry and ride passes (which
seems like an easy way to rip-off customers to me). Everything is easily micro-managed and the interface is pretty simple to get your head around once you’ve spent a few hours with the game.
Career mode offers the standard difficulty options of easy, medium and hard, acting as the game’s tutorial, though they don’t describe themselves that way. These aren’t quick situations however and can last you hours but provide important experience on how to manage a park and adapt when things aren’t quite going your way. Each situation puts you in charge of a different location, and typically you’ve got to get your finances back on track while drawing customers in however you can. You’ll probably already be in debt to the bank, up to your head in loans that the previous owner hadn’t paid off. Career is a lot of fun but comes with its frustrating moments where you’ll want to persevere because of the time you put in, though you’d be better off just restarting and not being so attached to something you’ve now driven into a bad situation.
Sandbox is where I imagine most people will spend their time and honestly it’s the way to go if you’re feeling particularly creative. You lose the immediate worry of how much everything costs, which means that stuff like ticket prices, vendor prices, and paying your staff too little don’t really affect your ultimate goal (whatever that might be). There are no specific tasks laid out for you, just play at your own pace and build whatever you like.
For most people this immediately means building half a rollercoaster and watching it plummet into the crowds below, but once the excitement of that wears off you’ll open yourself up to actually trying to make crowd-pleasing rides. Quickly you’ll find out what does and doesn’t sit well with your visitors, building a giant, spiralling death coaster looks great and is fun to watch from the on-board camera, but unfortunately guests will probably look at it and walk away because it’s “too intense”. The little nuances of making the same rollercoaster a bit gentler come to you over time: learning to bank turns and not throw the riders around at every corner will at least interest a few people to get on and try.
It’s the kind of game where the more you put in, the more you will get out. It’s easy to play casually, sandbox alone will give you countless hours of fun just messing around with everything, but if you’re feeling like you need a slightly deeper experience, career and challenge mode will suit you well.
One of the few things the game lacks is a really diverse selection of themes to build with. There are a handful of categories to pull from, like pirate, fairy tale, sci-fi, western, each utilising their own sets of props that you can easily mix and match between to suit your needs. Even with all the choices available to you, it can still feel a bit limiting and you’ll find yourself filling your queues with a lot of the same stuff just to meet customer satisfaction levels. Frontier Developments have added at least one new theme since launch, implementing a winter theme over the Christmas period. It’s not clear right now if there are going to be expansions or DLC that will put more content into the game, if there is a plan for extra content in the game, Frontier hasn’t made it public yet.
Building rollercoasters is a bit of a fiddly challenge, even though it can be fun to concentrate on it for a good hour. The controls for construction are a little all over the place and don’t feel quite as intuitive as they could be. The interface for the rollercoaster building is what will give a lot of players grief and it’s not hard to get a bit confused as to why your next bit of track is suddenly not bending the direction you want it to.
The same thing applies to building creation, which tends to stumble on itself every time you stop to do something else in-game. There are lots of pieces to build with, but unfortunately you’ll always end up with an annoying gap somewhere because there aren’t pieces small enough to fit in certain spaces. Some pieces will have options to be shorter but not thinner, so some walls will intersect right through to places that you didn’t want. Struggling to line up pieces accurately and efficiently is also a bit of a grievance that gradually gets more frustrating over time.
The diehard players are already proving that you can work around all of these problems, showcasing some really impressive works on the Steam Workshop, and you can tell that these people have put many hours into the game solely on these little (or sometimes huge) projects. It’s easy to see how creative you can get with the in-game assets with a quick look over the workshop or by looking on YouTube. I can’t see a lot of players being this dedicated and finding work arounds for every minor issue, but clearly there are players that know how to push the game to get it to work for them, and not the other way around.
Guests are quite often fickle too. After a few hours in some career maps, visitors will begin to decide that enough is enough and you’re taking advantage of them, making them almost impossible to please without putting yourself in an extremely difficult position financially. They will constantly tell you that they won’t be happy to wait in a line with any more than 5 people and your rides cost too much to get on, even when you make park entry free and ride passes cost only $3. What the game currently lacks is a clear way of helping you work your way out of problems like this, being stuck in a financial hole for over an hour becomes a bit stressful when there doesn’t seem to be any viable solution.
If you’ve played a Theme Park Simulator before, you’ll be pretty familiar with everything Planet Coaster has to offer. Visually, its leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, but most of the features have been in titles that are over 15 years old. I don’t know if that suggests that the genre doesn’t need to be tampered with to still be fun, or if developers are worried that players aren’t ready for the technological jumps we’ve seen in real life attractions, either way, Planet Coaster is loaded with enough stuff to keep you busy for a very long time, especially if you’re interested in crafting an enjoyable ride experience for others.