The amusement park simulation genre makes a comeback with Frontier’s Planet Coaster, a delightfully imaginative and creative sandbox building game that will surely put a smile on your face.
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments
Release Date: November 17th, 2016
Some of my earliest and fondest memories of PC gaming are with Atari’s RollerCoaster Tycoon series. My brother and I would sit at our family computer building (and destroying) all sorts of roller coasters and theme parks for hours upon hours. I remember when we visited Disney World I saved all of the parks’ maps for the sole purpose of using them as inspiration for my own RCT parks. There’s just something about the inherent creative freedom combined with detailed management gameplay in such a joyful amusement park environment that has always sucked me in.
With the extremely rocky and less-than-exemplary history of RollerCoaster Tycoon World, many (including myself) have lost faith in that franchise. It’s been over 12 years since Frontier developed RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 (but who is counting?). Though the genre has remained relatively stagnant the past decade, Frontier returns to the park simulation scene. Planet Coaster is what they deem the “next evolution” in the genre. Despite how cliché that statement might sound, the game truly is more than just a spiritual successor to RollerCoaster Tycoon. Planet Coaster completely modernizes the genre while giving it its own unique, detailed, and loving touch.
The core gameplay mechanics of Planet Coaster are predictably similar to its predecessors: build up and manage a theme park. Build rides of varying types, utilize scenery and theming, manage your guest happiness, hire staff to keep your park clean and running: what you would expect from an amusement park management game.
The Early Access beta version of the game we reviewed came with three different play modes: Career, Challenge, and Sandbox. Career mode is pretty much what you would expect: you complete different sets of scenarios in varied locations and with increasingly difficulty levels. Each scenario itself has three levels of objectives with increasing difficulty. When completed, these objectives reward you with points to level up your profile, which in turn opens up more difficult scenarios.
The Beta version of the game came with two available scenarios. The first is Captain Lockjaw’s Buried Treasures, set in a partially developed pirate-themed lagoon. Complete with animatronic pirate ship battles and explosions galore, this scenario had straightforward objectives that serve as an entry-level introduction to the gameplay and controls.
The second career scenario is Princess Amelie’s Fairy Tale. Set in the desert, all of your park’s rides are prone to breaking down. This scenario teaches you how to efficiently utilize your mechanics to keep your park running smoothly, while the objectives force you into managing your monthly profits and building roller coasters to meet specific requirements. You can tell the difficulty level between the first and second scenario picks up as the game expects you to use more advanced management techniques. I would assume (and hope) the difficulty levels continue to rise once the full set of career scenarios are made available.
The Challenge game mode is a little more open-ended and lives up to its name. You start by choosing between five different maps that are located in different ecosystems: Tropical, Desert, Grassland, Alpine, and Deciduous. You then select the challenge difficulty, which effects your starting cash, refund rate, guest happiness, ride breakdown rate, and research cost and speed. As you play through the challenge modes, you are given different challenges that vary anywhere between achieving a certain monthly profit to building a roller coaster with a one second air time. A Challenge mode game never truly ends, and the challenges never stop rolling in.
Last but not least is the Sandbox mode. If you are just looking to free build a park with no monetary limits, this mode is for you. You again start off by selecting your map of choice. But a sandbox game has no objectives or challenges. All of the game’s rides and buildings are immediately available to play with. Sandbox mode is where you can really let your creative juices flow and build the theme park of your dreams.
While the game is labeled a theme park sandbox simulation game, Planet Coaster really goes above and beyond when it comes to creativity and customization. What sets Planet Coaster apart from its predecessors and competitors is an extreme focus on detail. Instead of plopping down cookie-cutter rides, the game really pushes you to be creative and develop your attractions yourself.
The options for park creation lie within the Custom building tabs. Planet Coaster gives you a plethora of scenery, building materials, and shapes and objects to design your own themes and buildings. Everything from scifi to western to pirates to medieval, they’ve got it covered. You can change an item’s color, its angle, and its location (including making it float midair). You can change the music of every ride or set speakers throughout your park, and even import your own custom music. Lighting is also important, as the time of day changes throughout a park’s simulation.
And it doesn’t just stop at thematic elements either. The terrain editing tools are fantastic, allowing you to create mountains and valleys and rivers and caves with ease. You can even build coasters that go underwater. My only complaint is the occasional difficulty with creating terrain suitable for paths. I think having some configurable height markers of some sort could help ease some of the confusion about whether or not my terrain is truly flat enough or not.
The sheer amount of detail and flexibility in the game is ridiculous. At times it feels like you are using a 3D modeling application more than playing a game. The ability to customize every nook and cranny make it feel like you aren’t just managing a park. You are actually designing that park. You are THE creator. And the game allows you to do all of this customization while the “game time” is paused, so you don’t have to worry about managing the other areas of your park while you play architect.
There are a number of prebuilt themed rides and buildings, but they are very limited. Instead, the game uses community-driven content via the Steam workshop. You can save and upload blueprints of your buildings, rides, and even full parks for anyone to use. Even just in the beta, the workshop is already filled with mind-blowing community creations, such a Hogwarts recreation or the Millennium Falcon. This is one of those games where if you aren’t careful, the time can quickly slip away from you. Before you know it you’ve played for four hours and only built two buildings!
Even though the game’s focus is on park creation and customization, deep down it is a park management game. Unless you are playing in Sandbox mode, you must strategically choose how you will spend your money. While the cost of individual building items and even terrain manipulation is much cheaper than I expected, it still all adds up in the end. That animatronic Kraken tentacle you added by your ride’s queue entrance? Yeah, that’s going to cost you $10 a month. When the game gives you all these thematic options, it’s hard not to go overboard when it could literally cost you on some of the tougher challenges.
As expected, you can set the price of your park entrance fee, the cost of each ride, and the cost of every item you sell. Unexpectedly (for me), you can customize items even further than its base price. Do you want your shake shack ‘s chocolate milkshake to include fudge pieces? How much fudge, and what will that cost? Customization involves not just your ability to design the buildings, but also your micromanaging of them and your staff. The game has a “work roster” mechanic, where you can assign staff members to particular shops and rides. I found that this makes sense for mechanics and entertainers, but not as much for janitors. Some of my parks had long stretches of scenic pathways that didn’t have any “roster-able” buildings. The ability to assign staff to a specified area or grid would be nice for cases like these.
The game emphasizes the importance of staff happiness: they are people too, not just mindless drones. You can train your staff to be more efficient in their jobs, which increases their happiness but also causes them to demand more pay. Staff will even quit if they are unhappy with their work life. You have to find the balance between happiness and cost to maintain the well-oiled machine that is your park.
The games’ park management screen includes a number of additional but basic options. You can set marketing strategies to target certain demographics, you can put money into your researching new rides and shops; you can take out loans from the bank. You can view your park rating and financial status, and you can view what guests are thinking about your park. Unfortunately the UI for these options is a bit clunky. I found myself clicking around several times before I found the right tab I needed. I also wish the windows were movable and/or resizable so I can have certain windows open while I also take care of other park managements tasks.
Some of my qualms about the UI might be solved when the game’s full version is released and in-game tutorial videos are included. The beta did not include a standalone tutorial, so I learned mostly through trial-and-error and the accessible Hints and Tips menu. My favorite part of this context menu is it not only was one keyboard press away, but it also outlined other related keyboard shortcuts. When you are spending hours designing custom buildings to exact precision, the ability to quickly switch between different editing modes and functions is a lifesaver.
It’s About The Experience
Planet Coaster’s focus is on crafting a theme park experience, and it really drives this point home with the design of the park guests. These guests truly come to life with their expressions and emotions. The game wants you to feel like these are real people with feelings who are looking to enjoy themselves, and you have to work to make that happen. They’ve even developed a special crowd algorithm so that all of the guests don’t clip each other when walking on pathways and instead form actual crowds. When you create a new ride or building and it suddenly drops down into your park, you can hear nearby guests reacting to it. Frontier has actually said that the guest A.I. takes into consideration theme elements and scenery when formulating their feelings and actions. The game features a true “living UI” that really gives your parks personality that other similar games don’t provide.
Frontier Developments has had prior success developing theme park simulation titles, and their experience really shows with Planet Coaster. It’s clear from every aspect of the game that they really have poured their heart and soul into developing this title. It is just filled to the brim with character and personality. It’s not just about creating the most efficient park or making the most money. It’s about using your imagination to design and craft an amusement park experience.
The developers truly care about the state of the game and what the community thinks, providing frequent updates through its Early Access stages and showcasing features in their Dev Diary videos. Hopefully this kind of support continues post-release. I would especially love to see additional ride types make it into the game (go-karts please!)
The Planet Coaster beta was a wonderful experience but not without a few hiccups. As mentioned, the guest A.I. is pretty complex. One thing I noticed is that once your park starts hitting the thousands of guests point, the game performance starts to take a hit. The game appears to be extremely CPU intensive. I am currently using an Intel i5-4690 3.5 GHz processor, which is nowhere near top of the line, but clearly meets the game’s required minimum specs. It was almost always at 100% usage, and I could hear my fans really cranking. The game auto-set my graphics settings to High, and at that level I was maintaining about 30-40 frame rates per second. It would occasional experience dips as low as 20, especially during the animation switching from day to night. While the game is playable at 30 FPS, it’s most definitely not ideal.
Throughout the beta, Frontier has been pushing numerous performance enhancements, and hopefully they continue to work on the game’s performance. Planet Coaster‘s performance, as well as other features that have been withheld from the beta, will be covered in our official full game review post-launch, which will include our final score.
A beta copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.