2016 will not be remembered as the year that a variety of roller coaster simulation games came roaring back in puissant glory, full of flying steel and vomitous intent. It will, instead, be a year where two similar games released and one of them was way, way better than the other. Planet Coaster is the good game – focused on what can make management games great: Customization, variety, and the depth to create the visual masterpiece of your dreams. Roller Coaster Tycoon World is the other one.
As part of reading this review, you’re going to get a mini-review of Roller Coaster Tycoon World: It is a flaming trash heap of a game, which since you’re looking at the alternative, you either already knew, or now know, and good: Don’t waste your time or money.
Planet Coaster is a game strong in creativity but weak in management. It’s more about making a pretty park than challenging you with a complex simulation of a business. Despite that, Planet Coaster is the best rollercoaster and theme park design game you can play. You can build a frankly boggling variety of things using robust design tools, and you can handily share them with the wider world while never leaving the game.
The game’s visual design, from its premade carousels and coaster cars to the exuberant faces of your park’s guests, is an stylized in a lovely, jubilant way that makes you want to zoom in and watch people have fun. The sound design, much like on Frontier’s other game Elite: Dangerous, is just completely phenomenal. I do not know what is going on inside those studios to make the little beeps, clanks, and shouts so superb, but hopefully it never stops. Though “riding” the coasters you’ve made isn’t particularly thrilling, getting a guest’s-eye-view of the park is exciting if you’ve given any time at all to aesthetics.
And, make no mistake, building scenery and rides is what you’re here for.
You’re absolutely spoiled for choice when building in Planet Coaster. Building materials, natural features, terrain sculpting tools, cosmetic doodads, signs, even abstract geometric shapes – it’s all there in pretty great depth. Objects in the world can be plopped down, merged into a single building, rotated, slid, snapped together, and relocated easily once constructed. Coasters are somewhat more limited in their physical realities – mostly by what your guests are actually willing to ride – but you can twist, roll, rise, and loop in a lot of ways. Most satisfyingly, you can have your coasters dive underground, through buildings, and trigger animatronics as they drive past. A favorite design of mine revolved around a series of explosive blasts that triggered as a nearby space ship shot lasers at the passing coaster – that wasn’t something had by default, it’s something I built myself.
Oddly, paths around your park are one of the least robust systems in the game. That’s too bad, because they’re the foundation of the game’s simulation – visitors need them to get anywhere and everywhere. Though better than past games in the genre, it’s still often frustrating to lay down a uniform curve or follow the precise grid you’d like while traversing levels of elevation. Paths also can’t be part of other users’ creations that you download, leaving you frustrated as you try to painstakingly recreate what another user did on their own park’s specific grid.
That said, the ability to build most anything you want may be Planet Coaster’s greatest curse. A certain kind of player is eventually going to stare into the formless abyss, say fuck it, and plop down a boring, bog-standard hot dog stand. But for the ability of the more creative to share their elaborate makings, Planet Coaster would have nearly nothing to offer those who prefer to build from parts rather than cut from whole cloth, and I’d recommend anyone new to the game spend a while perusing the Steam workshop for a plethora of others’ creations. The game is at its best when your creative juices are flowing and you’ve got something in mind to build, but it’s pretty dissatisfying if you’re just checking off boxes to give the management simulation the numbers it wants to keep guests happy and spending cash.
If you’re like me, though, you’ll eventually realize you just spent two hours designing the perfect restroom building. This is all fine and dandy, but I got frustrated when I realized my guests just… didn’t really care that much.
The simulation is perhaps the weakest part of the game. Most building parts and terrain features have no apparent effect on your rollercoasters and guests’ happiness – only those specifically marked as scenery and special effects. You can’t really customize prices in your park aside from rides and entry. You can play challenges, which force you to follow a strict budget and aim for large goals, often in scenarios with odd twists or pre-designed terrain hindrances you can’t alter. These are fun for a while, and a few are truly inventive – like one where fear of a sleeping colossus makes staff wages double.
In the end you’ll get bored of those scenarios and their limitations and strike off to make a park of your own in the money-free sandbox mode or the simulation-driven challenge mode, where you have to spend research money to unlock new attractions. No matter where you’re playing, though, there’s not really a deep threat of failure or park closure. You can run out of money, sure, and be forced to fire staff or close rides, but in the end it just feels like a barebones justification for the more creative aspects of the game. Those looking for a deep, strategic management experience should look elsewhere.
Despite this, the ability to sculpt and bend to your heart’s delight is worth the price of entry – less than a full-price AAA game in most countries. It works well on my hardware, now about four years old, and only starts to slow down at a large park with 3,000 guests. At 20 hours with the game I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I could create. I’ve crafted kiddie rides, vomit comets, and perhaps spent an hour too long making a rather lovely – if I do say so myself – Swiss-chalet-inspired restroom.