When I first saw the trailer for Planet Coaster (developed by Frontier Developments) I felt a little tinge of excitement. I had never played RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 and it had been years since I last touched any game in that series. The ideas looked promising, but what was the execution going to be like? I've endeavored to find that out.
Right now, Planet Coaster is currently in Alpha 3 and is set to release on November 17th. Does it, at this point in time, match up to the vision they sold me in the trailer? Well, I went into the experience of playing Planet Coaster cautiously optimistic. Having spent around 25 hours playing the game (and quite a few hours just reading about its gameplay systems), I'm leaning a bit more towards "caution".
It's important to understand my experience with this genre for the sake of context. I've never played RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, but I have a few dozen hours in RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 and hundreds of hours - possibly over a thousand - in the original game and its expansions. There was a time in my life when this was all that I played to the exclusion of everything else. Suffice to say, I was quite obsessed with it, and I'm approaching this preview from that perspective.
Let's start with the underlying systems. Arguably, the meat of any rollercoaster game is how well the coaster-building mechanics work. As they stand right now, they're pretty good. You can bend and twist the track within a very broad system that doesn't necessarily operate solely on pre-fabricated pieces. During construction, the game will sometimes make a guess at how you would like to continue your track. Sometimes it guesses correctly and sometimes it doesn't. More often than not, I'd prefer to just completely level out a track and have it go straight but for some reason, it continues to fight me and attempt to arc upwards rather than flatten out. Still, this is a minor quirk that isn't a huge showstopper.
A useful addition to the game is the concept of "Buildings". These are custom standalone structures that you can use to make your park look unique (and it's much more flexible than RollerCoaster Tycoon 2's take on the idea). Mainly they're scenery, but they're arguably one of the most powerful parts of the scenery. You can completely customize the "station" of a rollercoaster and make it an enclosed building. Shops are just little cubes with a register, and you can place this into a much larger structure to make it look cool and stand out more. You really have a wide range of possibilities with this system.
The scenery in the game is also very versatile. Say, for a moment, that you wanted to place a bunch of rocks everywhere. The game provides you with ten or so different rock models of different sizes. If you wanted to make a pile of rocks, you could just stick a bunch of them together and it just works. Want to put a little lantern on top of the rocks? Knock yourself out! Lean a wagon wheel against it! Go nuts!
This flexibility also extends to more dynamic elements like lights. You can overlap spotlights and they just work - the light blends seamlessly and acts pretty realistically. If you mix lights of different colors they will also blend appropriately; a blue light overlapped onto a yellow light will result in a green light where they meet. Additionally, they've created "themed" scenery useful for naming rides. For example, there's a set of "Chief Beef" signs centered around a police theme. You can use these to give your park's heavy hitters the sort of branding that you would see at any modern theme park. It's a nice touch.
Scenery also factors into your rides from the perspective of the guests. Guests want to see more than a bland queue in an empty field. Every ride has a percentage score for how much scenery you need before it's up to snuff, and the rides require a degree of scenery as well. Putting a coaster in a flat, empty field just doesn't make for a very entertaining experience.
As far as what I would expect from a theme park game, all of the core elements are there (or nearly there) as well as a few nice innovations and improvements. The framework for an excellent game is mostly in place.
However, I still think there are some areas of concern where Planet Coaster is currently lacking. Mainly, it comes down to a bunch of little areas in terms of the available content. There are a handful of currently disabled game systems that are issues of concern as well.
Shops are currently limited to one of each type. Basic things are there, sure - information, restrooms, first aid, food, and drinks all have at least one shop of each type available. There's a hat stall to serve as a "gift shop" and an ATM where guests can withdraw money to stay in your park longer. These are separated into categories in the menu and I think it's safe to assume that there will be multiple shops of each type in the finished product. As it stands, how many different shops there will be or how they will interact with the gameplay beyond the basic filling of needs is up in the air.
Scenery is categorized by "themes" in the game and there are only three available at this point in time: Planet Coaster, Fairytale, and Pirate. If you wanted to make an alien landscape with flying saucers you could get pretty creative with the game's building tools but the native support isn't there. This will also hopefully be expanded in the final release, but as it stands there isn't much of a variety outside of these themes. Of particular concern is lighting; there's a handful of different lighting options and I feel that they do not yet cover a broad enough range of aesthetic choices.
There are twenty coasters to choose from, as well as thirteen thrill rides, and ten gentle rides. The "Transport" category of rides is grayed out and would normally cover things such as monorails for moving people around the park or simply for a relaxing tour. However, there is a distinct lack of water rides as well as freeform rides that aren't roller coasters. There are no go-karts, hedge mazes, or anything of the like - you can either build a freeform rollercoaster or a standalone ride like a carousel. That's it for now.
The management side of the game is also somewhat lacking. As it stands, you can hire janitors and entertainers. You can train them a couple times to make them more efficient and they'll require more pay the longer they are with you. Employees will actually quit if they are underpaid. The employee management system is very basic, and I think a lot of it could be automated to some degree (such as automatic raises as time goes on). There's also no option to set patrols as far as I can tell. Landscaping or gardening are not a factor of the game. Ride Maintence and Mechanics Staff are not yet in the game but the menu indicates that they will be implemented.
Control of the park itself is also quite limited. There does not yet seem to be a way to actually open or close your park. You also cannot set a price for entrance; it's all based on ticket sales for individual rides. You cannot yet block off paths or otherwise direct the flow of guest traffic via signs or other indicators.
Judging by the menu there will be five different biomes. Only the Desert and Tropical types are accessible, and considering the capabilities of the terrain editor they only really seem to affect the surrounding area. Weather and seasons do not seem to be factors in the game as of yet, and there's really no indication that they will be. The map is also set to a static size. While it is a generous amount of space, I think players looking to make truly expansive parks will find the current limit a bit underwhelming.
To my mind, these are the whole of the negatives. There are two months to go before launch and the game is still missing a few management features as well as more variety in the content (roller coasters aside). I think it's reasonable to expect that quite a few of these things will be resolved given the progress of the game so far, but the developers are holding their cards awfully close to their chest.
Visually, I like the game's style. It's a nice blend of realism and cartoony. The lighting effects (as well as the special effects - flamethrowers, lasers, and so on) look absolutely gorgeous at night. Sunrise and sunset are visually impressive.
In terms of the sound, the developers have slowly been changing out stock sounds for more refined ones. Individual rides can pump out music and have their own sound effects, but the true variety of sound comes out of the coasters. Special track elements such as brakes will have appropriate sounds when they're engaged and they do the job well. Personally, I'm content as long as the sound effects are passable and appropriate for the situation.
Music is another story. Some games have memorable soundtracks that stand the test of time or an original piece that greatly enhances the game. The game's theme song is particularly fantastic. It gives me a sort of warm, fuzzy feeling as the game is loading. When you transition from the loading screen to the game itself the song fades out with a chorus of singers. It's really quite a lovely experience. I've played Planet Coaster on two PCs, and I actually feel a bit worse off for not being able to enjoy the theme song with my newer PC's faster load time.
All in all, I'm cautiously optimistic about Planet Coaster. I think the core foundation of the game is really solid and will provide a nice fix for people who enjoy games like RollerCoaster Tycoon. The current Alpha is still lacking what I would consider a good variety of content. Some features are only partially implemented, and some other features (such as weather or changing the park size) are wholly absent.
If you're a diehard theme park or RollerCoaster Tycoon enthusiast I think you'll get a kick out of the game. I've watched its development progress from the sidelines and played through a couple of patches myself and I think Frontier is making reasonable progress. We won't really know what's in the finished product for certain until it's out, so if anything I've said here is a dealbreaker for you I'd advise you to wait for the game's release before picking it up.
Planet Coaster was previewed on PC during its closed Beta period with a code provided by the developer.
How do you think Planet Coaster is shaping up? Are there any missing features that you feel are an absolute necessity for this type of game? Do you think it will be a worthy successor to the legacy of the original RollerCoaster Tycoon games? How do you feel it stacks up to RollerCoaster Tycoon World and Parkitect? Let us know in the comments below!