Frontier Developments’ theme park simulation game Planet Coaster lets management take a backseat to creativity and sandbox building.
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments
Release Date: November 17th, 2016
The Planet Coaster theme song has been stuck in my head for the past two weeks like white on rice. The musical mastermind Jim Guthrie helped write and perform the game’s soundtrack, titled You, Me, and Gravity. And Guthrie absolutely nails it out of the park. The fun-loving nature of the song perfectly mirrors the overall feel of Planet Coaster: using your imagination and creativity to craft the theme park of your dreams, smiling the entire time. The game wants you to be happy. It wants you to enjoy crafting every little detail of your park and seeing your creations bring joy to your park guests.
We spent significant time playing through and reviewing the beta before the game’s official release. With the sudden influx of new theme park simulation management games, Planet Coaster stands apart from both its competition and predecessors. The game modernizes the genre while giving it its own unique, detailed, and loving touch. Its extreme focus on detail and customization is what truly gives this game life. Planet Coaster gives you the tools to create and customize everything you can imagine, from building Hogwarts to setting how salty your fries are.
Planet Coaster has three different play modes: Sandbox, Challenge, and Career. Sandbox mode is what you would expect: there are no objectives or challenges, just free building whatever park you like with no monetary restrictions. In Challenge mode you select a park map and difficulty, and create a park from scratch, completing various challenges that pop up along the way (i.e. achieving a certain park rating or obtaining a monthly profit of a certain amount).
In Career mode, you complete different sets of scenarios in varied locations and with increasing difficulty levels. The Early Access beta version only gave us access to two of the Career mode missions. It turns out those two missions were in the easiest and hardest tiers of difficulty, respectively. The full featured game includes four main campaign “sets.” Each set has three different scenarios, and within each scenario are three objectives with increasing difficulty. On average it probably takes between 2-4 hours to complete each scenario, depending on how you prioritize your time between customization and park building versus management efficiency. With 12 total scenarios, that’s a solid 24+ hours of gameplay just from Career mode alone.
The scenarios start off pretty simple. The first set, Captain Lockjaw’s Buried Treasures, serves as mostly an introduction to the game. The objectives are extremely simple and straightforward, such as building a custom coaster, hiring a certain number of staff members, and hitting relatively low park value thresholds. The game holds your hand through these objectives, starting you off in parks with a plethora of prebuilt scenery and little standing in your way from park expansion.
Several times I actually hit the 3x speed button and walked away from my computer for 10-15 minutes.
The scenarios do increase in difficulty as you progress through the sets, but very slowly. You eventually play on small maps with lots of terrain restrictions and parks that take a percentage of your refunds. But in Planet Coaster “difficulty” is a very loose term. I would almost say they increase in tediousness more than difficulty level. For one, none of the scenarios have a time limit. You never feel pressed to reach your goals, and you can take as long as you want. This probably ties back into the game’s focus on creativity and park building. But this ultimately limits the challenge of these objectives.
In most of the scenarios I found myself at a point where I had a well-organized park and a steady flow of income, and just needed to wait for more cash to come in. You have the ability to speed up the park simulation timer 2x and 3x. Several times I actually hit the 3x speed button and walked away from my computer for 10-15 minutes. When I came back, I either had the cash I needed to progress with expanding my park or in some cases just flat-out completed the objectives.
In many other simulation games, including the Roller Coaster Tycoon games, this hands-off approach would end very, very badly. Some combination of unhappy and vandalizing guests, broken down rides, or even ride crashes and guest deaths would occur if you left your park unwatched, and your park value and rating would plummet. I never ran into any situation in Planet Coaster where anything like that could really happen.
Rides rarely seem to break down, and when they do I usually had the cash to employ max skilled mechanics to fix them quickly. And if I was short on cash, the game provides the ability to take out loans with a relatively low-interest rate. Probably the worst thing that happened to me was one of my burger stand employees quit because I accidentally set two of the same stand next to each other and she was bored since hers wasn’t getting enough business.
Some the objectives require you to have a certain number of park guests. I found these to be probably the easiest of all of them (outside of hiring park staff). The guests just constantly flow into your park in a steady stream as long as your entrance fee isn’t insanely high. You have the ability to start various marketing campaigns targeting different age groups, but most of the time these aren’t necessary outside of completing the scenario quicker.
It wasn’t until the last set of scenarios where I felt a bit challenged. Probably the toughest (and most entertaining) scenario was the final one in which you are required to build a number of coasters with certain specifications. I found the coaster building interface intuitive, and the customization options plentiful (as expected). Building these coasters is expensive and requires a decent amount of planning.
Getting your design to meet the excitement, fear, and nausea requirements can take a lot of tinkering. When you test your coasters, you can look at heat maps that show where on the track your guests feel the most excitement or fear, but it’s not always clear what track elements can actually alter these values. The constant tinkering is time-consuming, but extremely satisfying once you achieve your goal and get to ride your masterpiece in a first-person view.
In the beta version, there was no in-game tutorial outside of the useful contextual help menus. The final version added a “Tutorial Videos” button on the main menu. I was hoping these would be insightful how-to-play videos located in-game. Instead, the game just opened up the Steam web browser overlay to a few videos on the Planet Coaster YouTube channel. These tutorials did end up filling in a few knowledge gaps I was previously missing, however. Overall the user interface isn’t hard to figure out, but it can get a bit clunky at times (especially the Park Management screen). The ability to resize or move the windows around so you can more easily view certain windows at the same time would be greatly appreciated.
When it comes to park management, the game gives you the options one would expect: nothing really groundbreaking on this front. Most of my time on the management side of the house was spent training my employees, researching new rides, and checking what my guests were thinking. One of the most frustrating things was the inability to set price and salary rules that apply to your entire park. If I build a second burger stand or even a second Teacup ride, the ability to check a box that sets the prices to be the same throughout the park would be a lifesaver. And the same applies to staff salary: being able to say all Level 2 Mechanics earn x per month, Level 3 y per month, etc. would save some mind-numbing menu clicking.
Customization is King
The guest A.I. is pretty intelligent compared to other simulation games I’ve played, and I found myself smiling at their reactions and expressions.
Planet Coaster‘s customization tools continue to be the shining star. What the game lacks in difficulty and ground-breaking park management functionality it makes up for in park building. I tend to like structured goals and objectives in my games, which is why I was excited to play the Career Mode. But even when I knew I would hit the objectives without building a perfectly organized and beautiful park, I still found myself spending the time customizing everything. The ability to clone buildings and edit every little nook and cranny makes it easy to spin up some cool thematic shops and buildings quickly. Planet Coaster wants you to be creative, and when the tools are there and easy to use, it’s hard not to go overboard with them.
The tutorial videos mention that placing scenery and thematic elements around your ride or shop will attract more guests and that they will cough up more money for those types of attractions. Keeping your guests happy is key to the game, despite how easy that tends to be. And happy guests will open their wallets faster than you can say open sesame. The guest A.I. is pretty intelligent compared to other simulation games I’ve played, and I found myself smiling at their reactions and expressions. But they are still A.I. that can be tricked.
Each ride has a scenery rating that will not only attract more guests but keep them entertained while waiting in the queue. However the algorithm for this seems only to take into consideration the number of thematic elements, not how well they work together or how they actually look. I had the same success throwing hundreds of rocks on top of each other around the ride’s queue as I did making a beautiful garden masterpiece that would fit right into the Château de Versailles in France.
Coming out of the beta, one of my primary concerns was the game’s performance. With the high level of simulation techniques, Planet Coaster employs, performance can really start to take a hit. This becomes noticeable as your park grows with more and more custom pieces, and when you start hitting the thousand guest mark. The game appears to be intensive on both your CPU and GPU. My Intel i5-4690 3.5 GHz processor and AMD Radeon R9 200 graphics card are not top of the line by any stretch but do meet the game’s required specifications.
In the beta, I was struggling to hit over 40 frame rates per second, and would often dip as low as 20 with my graphics settings at “High.” However, in the full release of the game, I was frequently maintaining between 40-50 FPS at the same “High” graphics settings. But I still experienced the occasional drop to 20 FPS (especially when using the search function in the building interface). While the performance is nowhere near perfect unless you have a high-end system, I did not find it all that obtrusive to my gameplay.
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Frontier Developments has made it clear that they will be supporting this game with updates and patches, and the improvements to the game’s performance since release are a testament to that. They are supporting community-driven content through the Steam Workshop and are providing frequent developer updates and videos. Recently they opened a poll allowing the community to vote on the next upcoming ride to be added into the game. This kind of communication between developer and community is always a strong positive, and will hopefully lead to quality improvements and additions to Planet Coaster.
While the difficulty levels of Career Mode were underwhelming, Planet Coaster still succeeded to suck me in. The game brought me back to the times I spent binge playing Roller Coaster Tycoon, trying to recreate Epcot or Universal Studios. Except in Planet Coaster, the extensive and intuitive sandbox building tools make this way more feasible. Frontier Developments was clearly going for a feel-good vibe with Planet Coaster, and on that front, they succeeded with flying colors. The art style, the music, and just the entire look and feel of the game is smile inducing. After a long day of work, sitting down and creating a new park in Planet Coaster is almost therapeutic. And the soundtrack is just so damn catchy.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.