Wot I Think: Planet Coaster

During tumultuous times, there’s comfort to be found in games that peddle nostalgia or task you with making people happy and keeping them entertained. Frontier’s theme park management game, Planet Coaster [official site], does both, letting you create theme parks where the worst thing that can happen is lots of people vomiting.

It is also a game that inspired me to spend an entire hour constructing a toilet, which inexplicably left me very satisfied.

My first park had to be Western themed. “Wouldn’t it be fun to make Westworld,” I thought to myself, entirely missing the point of the show. I found the perfect map, an empty American desert, but quickly hit my first obstacle: there aren’t many prefabricated buildings, and they’re mostly themed around pirates and medieval fantasy. The tools to expand this slight roster, however, are substantial.

Planet Coaster goes one level deeper than a lot of management games. You aren’t simply placing buildings in a park, you’re designing them as well. Every facility is essentially just a small cube with a little gap in the middle for vendors to ply their wares, and then the building housing the service, whether it’s a toilet or a burger stand, is constructed around it. Once the structure itself is finished, props can be added to give it character or match it to a theme.

What was once an unassuming little cube can become a spaceship bristling with alien weaponry or a medieval tavern, and quickly too. Walls neatly snap into place and can be moved up or down without any fuss, objects are easy to find using filters and a search bar, and the editor doesn’t have any problems with letting you merge objects or plonk them down at weird angles like you’re trying to create a non-euclidean theme park. It’s rare to come up against the limits and find that a tool won’t do what you want it to, unless what you want to do is change an object’s size. A few times I’ve discovered the cherry to go atop one of my buildings, only to discover it’s far too small, or much too large. It’s one of the few limitations in what is otherwise a rich toybox.

You can even craft little scenes to entertain guests, which is something I’ve probably spent more time on than making roller coasters. Thanks to animatronics, entertainers and special effects, you can put together gunfights with explosions and a timed light show, or add some life to a sci-fi park by creating a spaceship hangar, complete with working robots doing maintenance and robotic arms waiting to remove cargo.

Rides aren’t quite as customisable as buildings, but a colour change and some props placed around them makes a surprising difference, and few of them can’t be tweaked to match a theme. A spinning octopus monstrosity can easily be presented as an alien ride, while the little planes in another ride can be made to look like gulls, making it fit with a pirate theme. Each of them plays music, and you can upload your own if you think your family-friendly fantasy princess theme park needs a little Slayer.

Creations can be saved as a blueprint, so you can use them again, but this also lets you share them with the community by uploading to the Steam Workshop. If you download a building, you can place it in your park as is, or you can tweak it as much as you want, keeping the parts that you like. And entire sections of your park can be copied and moved elsewhere, making the huge endeavour of relocating buildings and shops and a monorail something that only takes a couple of clicks.

All of this contributes toward Planet Coaster’s easy-going attitude: it rarely punishes and is always encouraging experimentation. Sure, you’re trying to make a successful park and bring in lots of cash, but that never gets in the way of messing around. At all times, the game remains playful.

You’re no doubt waiting for me to get to the main event: roller coasters. I will acquiesce. Planet Coaster’s got everything from quaint minecart coasters to vomit-inducing thrill rides, and while there are a handful of pre-made coasters available, many of the styles are exclusively for custom coasters. Building them is simple enough and pleasantly tactile, as you drag and pull on bits of track, molding each section. To work up to big drops, there are lift sections, as well as bits of track that slow carts down. For complex rides, you can even get two sets of carts going at the same time. A simple but effective set of terraforming tools means you can have tracks that speed through mountain tunnels, over valleys and off cliffs, and it’s possible to make genuinely striking locations in a matter of minutes.

I found myself hypnotised by the process of carving out the perfect spot and then toiling over my metal behemoth, but the spell was broken when I reached the testing phase. It didn’t work, and I didn’t know why. The test provided plenty of information when it came to how exciting or scary my ride was, broken down by each section of track, and even things like speed and G-force, but none of that mattered if the cart couldn’t get around the first curve. Did the cart need to go faster? Was the curve too sharp? I only had my eyes to go on.

This is a problem that exists throughout the game. Planet Coaster provides lots of information on everything from how much money teenagers spend on hats to how well-trained my janitor is, but when there’s something wrong with a ride, it’s surprisingly coy. It’s very easy to edit any aspect of the park, including roller coasters, but when the root cause of a significant problem isn’t clear, a lot of time can be wasted on trial and error tests.

It’s an oversight that’s perhaps even more noticeable because of the vast amount of details the game offers up elsewhere. The Park Management tab is overflowing with facts, from detailed expenses and income breakdowns to staff work routes, but the most important part can be found in the guest menu. Planet Coaster is all about demographics.

Guests are split up into three groups: adults, teens and families. Each group favours different rides and has different spending habits, and one group might be more dominant than the others. So if teens make up most of your visitors, you might consider adding more thrill rides to keep them happy, or diversify, chucking in some spinning teacups to get more families spending money. Families also seem to spend more in the gift shop, so it makes sense to build one near the family rides. The breadth of information makes it much easier to create plans.

Like theme park owners everywhere, in Planet Coaster you have the ability to peer into the minds of your guests, stealing their thoughts so that you might make an even better and more profitable business. If there’s too much vomit on the paths, or the line to the burger stand is too long, they’ll let you know. Sometimes, they’ll have extra context, making the issue clearer. For instance, instead of just thinking the park is too expensive, they might think that a specific ride is too expensive when they’ve already had to pay a lot to get into the park.

The Sandbox and Challenge modes are where Planet Coaster gets to show off its best features. They both give you a massive, empty plot of land, a blank slate, and then you’re free to experiment and expand. The only difference between the modes is that in Sandbox you have unlimited money and every ride unlocked from the start, while Challenge adds the extra, and important, wrinkle of balancing budgets and keeping guests happy. They’re both creative modes though.

Then there’s Career mode, which is a little bit rubbish. At first, I thought it was what Challenge mode turned out to be, given the name, but instead it’s a short series of scenarios that are dreadfully dull. You’re given a small, pre-built park, three objectives, and that’s pretty much it. The objectives are inane tasks, like earn a certain amount of money, or build an exciting roller coaster, and when you do them, you get stars. Well done. The parks are actually really impressive, visually, hinting at some of the ambitious projects you might want to undertake in your own park, and that’s probably the only reason you might want to check them out. Briefly. In beta, there have only been four scenarios, but the launch version promises many more. I can only hope the best is being saved for last.

I’m not sure I’d spend much time on scenarios even if they were better though. The draw of making my own park, choosing the theme and props myself, is much too strong. And Planet Coaster absolutely nails the more creative modes. The freedom and flexibility of its tools is simultaneously intimidating and exciting, just like the best roller coasters. It’s a game that inspires creativity, and Frontier have already started leveraging the most creative members of its alpha and beta community. In the Steam Workshop, there are already over 10,000 entries, including a Millennium Falcon and Hogwarts, which is probably more than any park needs.

Like Cities: Skylines, Planet Coaster gives new life to the management genre, and even if the launch version does little to improve what I’ve played during the beta, this would still be essential for anyone who dreams of packing in their old job and running a theme park.

This review was based on near-complete pre-release code. We’ll update with any necessary thoughts based on today’s 1.0 release. Planet Coaster is available now, for Windows, via Steam.

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29 Comments

  1. mrentropy5 says:

    But can you “ride” your roller coasters? Maybe some… VR support for first person viewing?

    • titanomaquis says:

      there is a passenger camera view and several other angles that let you “ride” the rides, like in rct3. No VR support as of yet.

  2. VeritableHero says:

    I was hoping for a screen shot of the amazing toilet you created.

    This sounds like a lot of fun based on your review, but I’m not very creative. I’ll probably enjoy looking at the creations of others more than creating things myself.

    • Bull0 says:

      Yeah, I’m disappointed. And I’m not sure what’s so inexplicable about deriving satisfaction from a quiet hour on the toilet.

  3. Pico says:

    I was going to buy it anyway and being good certainly won’t hurt. To be honest, I am not particularly interested in roller coasters, but toilets (and other stuff too) seem really exciting.

  4. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    Been waiting for a decent successor to the RCT series and it seems this is it – thanks for the review!

  5. Solidstate89 says:

    Can you make an intentionally dangerous ride that kills your patrons on its maiden voyage like you could in the original Roller Coaster Tycoon?

    If you can’t, I don’t even know why this game exists!

  6. Dante80 says:

    I like this review, I think it does cover most points in the game. I would love to hear a little more about the sound design this game has. It was a pretty high point for me, especially due to the challenge a crowded park would be to proper sound mixing/LoD.

    Frontier have done imo a very good job in that department, and this is the second time (E:D also has some pretty good sound design).

  7. ape_escape says:

    Regarding the Career mode, you can open up those maps in the sandbox or challenge mode once you’ve unlocked them. There are also some fine starting terrains appearing on the workshop, but for some reason these only work in the sandbox.

    Hopefully a proper scenario editor is on the to-do list.

  8. Someoldguy says:

    If you’re not interested in fidgeting around decorating shops and tweaking rollercoaster gradients, is there actually a lot of game like in Theme Park? R&D? Negotiating with the staff? I’ve been holding off on this because I do want to play a modern version of Bullforg’s Theme Park but I don’t want to play a sandbox Park Decorator/Designer sim.

    • dolphins says:

      All staff members can be leveled up. Higher levels mean more efficient workers but also higher salaries. The wages can be set individually for every worker and they have their own stats for job and salary satisfaction. So there are certainly options for micromanagement.

      R&D seems to be pretty simple. You can choose research projects from various categories (coasters, thrill rides, gentle rides etc.) and adjust the funding for every project separately. You can also research different categories simultaneously.

      I never played Theme Park so I don’t know how it compares to all this.

      • Darloth says:

        Shops are a bit more abstracted than Theme Park at least as I recall it, and far more abstracted than in Parkitect. In Planet Coaster once you’ve placed amenities, animatronics, explosive barrels, fountains, shops of all sorts, they just work. There’s no supplies required to be delivered, none of that stuff ever breaks down as far as I can see, and while there is a running cost figure for that sort of thing it’s all reasonably abstract.

        That said, you can customize burgers with different amounts of mustard, if you like. I’ve no idea whether you can oversalt the chips next to a drink stand to promote extra thirst as I loved to do in Theme Park :)

  9. bills6693 says:

    I loved playing with all the water stuff in RCT3 – the water slides, pools and lazy rivers etc. Hoping an expansion to this game adds water park stuff, I’d be all over that!

  10. draglikepull says:

    This review got me excited to try this game, and then I saw on Steam that it requires Denuvo DRM. Booooo.

    • pistachio says:

      What is about Denuvo that you dislike? Which game, how was it negatively impacted and how did you measure it? A link to a reliable source will do.

      • Unclepauly says:

        How can you measure Denuvo’s bad qualities? All I know so far is that alot of games with Denuvo have low performance relative to their quality of effects compared with games that don’t use Denuvo.

        • GDwarf says:

          That runs counter to what I’ve been hearing, actually. It’s apparently a pretty light touch in terms of impact.

          I’m no fan of DRM, and Denuvo is quite difficult to bypass, which I dislike because it means that preserving Denuvo titles into the future is going to be difficult. But it’s also not a DRM system in-and-of-itself, it’s an anti-crack system that causes games to crash if files are altered, but does not itself act as DRM.

  11. TheButler83 says:

    Awww disappointed about the career mode. I can never muster the enthusiasm for sandbox modes… I always start off with good intentions but without some goals I lose motivation. Theme Hospital got the balance perfect imo so guess I’ll pass on this at least until a Steam sale. Which is a shame as fancies a new tycoon game.

    • Laini says:

      Challenge mode kind of has that. You still start off with an empty park but it gives you a few things to work towards, like earn x amount of money per month or build a rollercoaster with a loop.
      Completing challenges gives you a reward, usually monetary, and if there’s a challenge that doesn’t interest you then you can just remove it and get given another.

      It’s not really a replacement for a proper career mode like in the old RCT games but it’s something.

  12. Sic says:

    The only thing I need to know…

    Is it better than RCT2?

    I honestly don’t care about 3D or being able to ride the roller coasters. I just want to know if it is an upgrade.

    • MrFinnishDude says:

      It all depends what you mean by better. Its differe nt, its modern, you can create pretty much everything. It’s just a really enjoyable theme park sim with high quality and potential for creativity.

  13. Raoul Duke says:

    So, how much of a spiritul successor to Bullfrog’s Theme Park (the original, not the terrible sequel) is this?

  14. eljueta says:

    I feel divided because of the lack of a career mode. I’m really not into sandboxes. But park management!

    • Pilchardo says:

      From what I’ve experienced so far, the career mode is perfectly excellent for people who aren’t so much into the sandbox side of things and prefer a bit of direction. In fact, I’d say it’s much like it’s always been in the RCT games, i.e. you’re still doing the exact same thing you’d be doing in sandbox but now you have specific objectives to achieve, park management to think about and rides, shops etc. aren’t unlocked until you’ve researched them. YMMV but it seems like exactly what I wanted from a career mode.

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