When I was a kid, we didn't have a whole lot of money. I'd almost always miss out on the latest and greatest thing all the other kids were talking about. One of the few times I didn't was when my dad brought home RollerCoaster Tycoon, the theme park management simulator created by Chris Sawyer. I put countless hours into the game, and when I heard the guys behind RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 would be working on a new game by the name of Planet Coaster I was over the moon. Even so, I've been gaming long enough to know that a good idea and a shiny presentation can make a terrible game look great (I'm looking at you, Aliens: Colonial Marines). I went into my review of Planet Coaster with cautious optimism, and I can now comfortably say that I think it's quite an excellent game.
Planet Coaster (developed and published by Frontier Developments) is, of course, a theme park simulator made in the Cobra game engine - the same engine that powers Elite: Dangerous. The game's announcement trailer showed a lot of promise, and I can say with some confidence that it delivered on the final product we have today (though, one or two small things have changed). I previewed the game when it was in its Alpha and had some concerns about the amount of content available as well as the management side of the game. Nearly all of those concerns have been addressed. For the moment, have a peek at the game's launch trailer to get an idea of what Frontier Developments thinks Planet Coaster is all about:
To best understand my views, it's important to put my experience into context. I have hundreds of hours in the first RollerCoaster Tycoon game and its expansions and a few dozen hours in RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 and its expansions. To this day, I've not touched any other theme park sim such as RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 or Theme Park. I had 25 hours in the Alpha build, partially in the two included campaign maps and mainly in the sandbox. I've since spent 57 hours in the retail version of Planet Coaster. Most of that time was spent in the campaign, and I put a portion of that time in a Challenge map.
I had a few criticisms in my preview that I had hoped would be addressed. I'm happy to say that these criticisms were satisfactorily addressed (although some issues nonetheless remain).
One of my core criticisms was related to the variety of scenery in the game. I brought up the lack of themes for scenery; originally, the Alpha only had Planet Coaster (generic theming), Fairytale, and Pirate. The release version of the game has added Sci-Fi and Western themes which provide a greater deal of variety. Each theme is featured in three campaign maps each (save for Western and Planet Coaster which shares screen time in the final campaign). Variety has been improved in this regard. I'm happy to see that they've added a good bit to the release version of the game. More is often better when it comes to cosmetic stuff like this, but I nonetheless feel there's now a decent variety of scenery in the game.
The management side of the game has also been nicely laid out. You're able to open and close your park in the sandbox and challenge mode as well as set the opening and closing times. As best as I can tell, the opening and closing times simply determine how much money you make "per day" as well as the lighting of your park. If you're not open in the early morning, you will never see the sunrise; your park will instantly switch from closing time to opening time (whenever it may be). You can set the entry price of your park (if any) from the management screen, take out loans, and do research on up to three things at a time. This is all great, but there are still some issues that remain even with all the information that is provided to you via the game's management screens.
My complaint about managing employees remains. Employees each have a wage and a skill level. The standard is that you train your employee, raise their pay a bit to reflect their higher skill set, and then wait until you can train them again. If they are not adequately trained, overworked, underworked, or underpaid they will be unhappy and eventually quit if they reach a critical point. 95% of the time you will be leveling up an employee and raising their salary a fixed amount; I've found that a salary increase of $15-20 works best. If an employee is in an under-served business (say, a gift shop that doesn't particularly get a lot of attention) they will become bored and you'll have to compensate by raising their pay.
Unfortunately, managing these employees can be a bit of a pain. You'll have to click on each individual employee to manually promote them and raise their salary one-by-one. This can be a daunting task if you have a larger park with dozens - potentially hundreds - of employees. It's really something that ought to be able to be automated in some fashion if you so choose with a policy: as soon as they can be trained to the next level, train them and raise their salary accordingly. Budget-conscious players could have the option to turn this on or off
A similar lack of automation exists with Research. You can research up to three things at one time from a variety of categories. You select the research, set the rate at which it researches, and wait for it to finish. Once it's complete, you have to reveal the research and select another. Again, this is something that could be automated easily if the player so desired. Some sort of "research queue" that allows you to pick what to research next and automatically work your way through the list would be great. This is functionality that existed in the original RollerCoaster Tycoon, and Planet Coaster's implementation of the feature is a bit worse in this fashion. The frustrating thing is that an "auto-renew" option already exists for advertising campaigns and is turned on by default. The concept is put in play in the game; it just isn't used for the elements of management where you arguably need it the most.
A lot of new management capabilities was introduced after the game transitioned to its retail release. I wasn't able to comment on them in my Preview as they didn't exist; now, I can. You can close down individual rides & shops and you can close down the park itself. If you want to close absolutely all of the rides and shops with one button, no such option exists. If you decide to shut down your park for any reason whatsoever - such as to do a major redesign - you'll have to do it one ride and shop at a time.
You also can't set broad price policies in Planet Coaster as you could in RollerCoaster Tycoon with its expansions. If you want all of your hot dogs to cost $10, you'll have to set it at each individual shop. Rides also have a general "condition" stat that permanently reduces over time. In RollerCoaster Tycoon you would have to eventually demolish and replace an aging ride, but Planet Coaster helpfully offers a "Refurbish Ride" option that allows it to act as if it were new for a certain cost based on its condition. This too follows a particular pattern, and frustratingly it can't be automated or scheduled either.
While we're comparing Planet Coaster to its forebears, some notable elements are missing. There are Janitors, Mechanics, and Entertainers, but there are no Security Guards or security dynamic. There is no weather, either; no longer is it a viable strategy to jack up umbrella prices before a rainstorm comes. The footpaths in the game can be moved in a lot of interesting ways far beyond the grid system of RollerCoaster Tycoon and similar games, but there is no "build a path like a ride track" option. This makes it a bit difficult to fine tune path placement or to remove large sections of footpaths. You'll have to spam right click and remove each individual section.
As best as I can tell, there's also a lack of "view" options such as hiding all scenery or rides to get a better overall view of your park. You also cannot choose to not sell individual items; if you want to only sell a particular type of hat in a certain section of the park the only real way to do this might be to jack up the prices of the ones you don't want to sell rather than simply turn them off.
There's a nice variety of rides in the game, but some classics of theme parks are missing. There are no bumper cars, hedge mazes, arcades, movie theaters, or anything of the like as a more sort of relaxed entertainment for your guests. There's also a lack of free-roaming water rides. The game doesn't terribly suffer for the lack of these things, but it would be nice to see them at some future point if only for the sake of variety.
My last and only general complaint is a minor one. You can exit out of rides and menu windows by pressing the Escape key. If you're just generally milling about your park, pressing the escape key will bring up the main menu. This is standard behavior. Unfortunately, you can't close this menu by pressing Escape. I'm sure many people have been in a management game and spammed the Escape key to close out all the menus. Inevitably, you'll bring up the main menu by doing so. In Planet Coaster, you'll have to click that little X to close out the main menu. This tiny problem has been an annoyance that is easily fixed and shouldn't exist in the finished product. (This issue has since been fixed in Update 1.01 which released following the completion of my review.)
Planet Coaster provides players with quite a few different ways to play. The easiest way to pick up the nuances of the game is by playing the campaign. The campaign is divided into four themed sections. Each section is divided into three separate parks with its own distinct goals, and each park has three tiers of objectives. "Beating the game", as it were, can arguably involve beating all of the objectives of a certain difficulty tier. I've managed to do this save for the Hard objective on the very last level (which I'll get into shortly).
The campaign provides unique gameplay that doesn't exist in the Sandbox or Challenge modes. Certain parks will have unique modifiers applied to them to change the dynamics of the game. The most common way this happens is that you'll begin the game with a loan having to be repaid. I've seen one or two places online complain about the lack of a timer for a goal (as existed in Planet Coaster) and consequently the lack of a hard failure state. It's fair to say this, but I would argue that a soft failure state exists by way of being so far in the financial hole that you couldn't possibly ever recover. The loan payments (which you can adjust up or down) act as a constant force of pressure on you throughout a level (never mind the other unique modifiers of that particular map).
The game's rule are changed in other ways as well. One particular park has employees demanding a higher-than-average wage due to the perception of a dangerous environment. Another park (originally featured as one of two campaign maps in the beta) has an increased rate of wear and tear on the rides. These little changes mix up the gameplay and keep the scenarios from being a case of "meet these money goals and then move on". You'll also face more mundane objectives in the three tiers such as attaining a certain scenery rating or park rating. You'll also often have to reach certain thresholds of profit, pay off existing loans, or build coasters the spec.
The following paragraph might be a bit of spoiler for people who want to be surprised by the game. Move on to the next one if you want to avoid it. The very last park in the last group of three is a massive roller coaster building challenge. You don't really have to worry about income as you have plenty of money coming in. You have a generous amount of space to work with. I spent more time on this one map trying to figure out how to build the roller coasters demanded of me than I had on entire groups of three maps in previous scenarios. It's still a nut I've yet to crack; the last few objectives ask for roller coasters with very thin margins of error, and I figure it will take me quite a few hours to manage it. This is the only objective star I haven't yet attained, and I figured it was best to finish up my review rather than spend several hours trying to build three extremely specific coasters that I was having a lot of difficulty with. The last park also required that you research most of the game's coasters and this proved extremely cumbersome and time-consuming. Most (if not all) of the game's coasters should have already been unlocked if the goal was to make a coaster-building extravaganza to close out the campaign of Planet Coaster.
I faced some challenges building some of the most difficult coasters that the campaign laid out as objectives. In RollerCoaster Tycoon, objectives such as these might have been a hassle. It's a different story altogether in Planet Coaster. A series of Heat Maps are available that will show you where your Excitement gets too low or your Nausea or Fear gets too high. A higher Fear and/or Nausea score will actually reduce your ride's Excitement. The Heat Maps make this balancing act much easier to figure out.
The ability to "Autocomplete" the track of a roller coaster helps immensely. Build a section of track, autocomplete, test. See how it scores. If it seems like things are on the right track, remove the Autocompleted track and continue building. You can do the construction of a coaster in stages like this to get the ultimate result you want. If you want to fine tune even further, you can bend and scale elements of the track to some degree by simply clicking and dragging. There are limitations, but if you have to make minor tweaks it beats the hell out of deleting and replacing the entire track.
Aside from the campaign, Planet Coaster offers a Challenge and Sandbox mode on five types of map. The only real difference between the map types is the surrounding scenery outside of the park boundaries that you cannot change. Outside of that, the maps are functionally the same. While they have default terrain, you can change it with the game's extremely capable terrain editor.
Sandbox mode is something that was lacking from the earlier RollerCoaster Tycoon games. The Sandbox in Planet Coaster gives you essentially everything you would want: open space and infinite money. Challenge mode is similar to Sandbox mode with some exceptions. You have a limited amount of funds. You have to research new rides, shops, and scenery. There are also randomized objectives (which you can thankfully dismiss) that will reward you with a bit of money if you complete them. There's a lack of a middle ground between these two modes; I would have liked to have the option to not have to research everything while nonetheless having money restrictions and random objectives. The best middle ground I've found is unlocking all of the research in a Challenge park, deleting everything, and starting over from scratch.
In terms of challenge, I think Planet Coaster does an okay job. It's not particularly hard to earn money once you figure out the game's systems. I don't necessarily view this as a damning criticism of the game. In RollerCoaster Tycoon, I fondly recall leaving the game on overnight in a big, empty park so I could delete everything and afford to build what I truly wanted from scratch. Most of the challenge in RollerCoaster Tycoon came from the individual scenario objectives and the same thing applies to Planet Coaster.
I've talked a good bit about what Planet Coaster does wrong. There's a lack of automation or broader management policy control where there should be. There are one or two hotkey issues (damn you, escape key!). Occasionally, the camera will get stuck. While all of these things are problems, they are easily fixable problems and, most critically, they pale in comparison to what Planet Coaster gets right. Much like its forebear RollerCoaster Tycoon, Planet Coaster is fun.
There's a particular sense of joy in building your park just right. You can place the rides right where you want to place them and add scenery in any way you want with excellent precision (provided that it doesn't intersect with a ride, footpath, or the park's borders). You can place speakers to play ambient sound or music anywhere in the park. You can attach certain dynamic scenery (such as an explosion) to a portion of a coaster's track to have it fire off at just the right moment.
This sense of joy is further encapsulated by the game's fantastic soundtrack. A few simple technical feats make the music integrate superbly with the game. When you transition from the main menu, the game's theme dynamically changes and ends in any one of a number of lovely transitions that fade away as you open your park. You also have the option to listen to the game's soundtrack while you play rather than face complete silence (absent the sounds and music from the park), and if you feel so inclined you can integrate custom music into the game's rides and the park speakers.
I originally felt that Planet Coaster didn't have enough content to justify its purchase price. Despite a few problems with automation and management features, I feel that Frontier Developments have done a great job of making a theme park simulator. Not everything is perfect, and Planet Coaster has regressed in some ways compared to the games that came before it. The most important to get right is something they managed handily: Planet Coaster lets you create nearly anything you could imagine for a theme park and it's a lot of fun to do it.
It's a joy to build, it's a joy to play, and I've loved absolutely every minute of playing Planet Coaster just as much as I've loved playing RollerCoaster Tycoon. If you've played the previous RollerCoaster Tycoon games and are looking for something to scratch that itch I can highly recommend Planet Coaster for you. And if you've never played one before in your life, this game would be a damn fine way to start.
Planet Coaster was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
Have you had a chance to try Planet Coaster? How do you feel it stacks up against RollerCoaster Tycoon? Do you think that there's a better game for building and managing your own theme park? Let us know in the comments below!
While Planet Coaster has some flaws with management and automation, it is nonetheless an excellent theme park simulator that adds many new tools for the aspiring rollercoaster tycoon.
- Easily Tweakable Roller Coaster Tracks
- Plentiful Park and Ride Feedback
- Solid Campaign and Challenge Modes
- Promising Steam Workshop Support
- Lack of Automation
- Missing Broad Management Policies
- Annoying Interface Issues