Has Planet Coaster been improved by its updates?

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Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.

“Your love is like a rollercoaster baby, baby I wanna ride,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers famously sang on their awful song Love Rollercoaster. Unlike the Red Hot Chili Peppers, though, I don’t want to make a Rollercoaster of Love.

I want to make a Rollercoaster of Hate. I want to make something so fast, so rickety, and so nauseating that its riders feel as uneasy as I do when I think about the Red Hot Chili Peppers song Love Rollercoaster. Planet Coaster is largely accommodating of these dark urges. Frontier’s game — the spiritual successor to the glorious Rollercoaster Tycoon series — lets players construct their own coasters, noodling on every twist, turn, and terrifying drop to squeeze the most vomit out of its riders.

With the infinite money open to me in Planet Coaster’s sandbox mode, I settle on a design: a slow climb to the top of a horrible mountain, before a sheer plunge down 20 storeys provides the speed to make it through five loop-the-loops, each sharply veering left, then right, then back again. I have, I realise after connecting up the final piece of track, inadvertently built a version of the theoretical Euthanasia Coaster — the attraction designed specifically to kill its riders.

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My first riders don’t die, though, because they’re not human. Before players can open rides in Planet Coaster’s parks, they have to test them, putting a gaggle of white plastic crash test dummies through an ordeal to make sure flesh-and-blood humans won’t get turned inside out along the way. It’s health and safety gone mad, obviously, but it’s also a useful way to gauge whether guests will actually enjoy the monstrosity you’ve created, as the tests spit out values for excitement, fear, and nausea that help determine a ride’s popularity and the amount you can charge for tickets.

In my case, I discovered that people actually wouldn’t be too keen on being G-forced to death: while the Hate Coaster’s fear and nausea ratings are off the scale, it’s not actually a particularly exciting ride. I can open it anyway, though, without fearing an eventual coroner visit and regulatory shutdown because, unlike the Rollercoaster Tycoon games, Planet Coaster’s human riders can’t die — though it hasn’t stopped a selection of players from Googling to check. (As a sidenote, this raises the possibility that Planet Coaster players are managing some form of afterlife for their guests: a slice of existence where death is meaningless and rollercoasters are everything.)

Apparently more exciting to my heavenly riders are Planet Coaster’s pre-built coasters, a selection included in the base game and topped up by new additions in its major DLC packs. There are two of these official add-ons at the moment, both available for £8: an Adventure-themed selection that offers snapping crocodile props and other Indiana Jones-ish elements, and a Halloween-y Spooky pack that lets players build up ghost trains and the like. Additional free updates have focused on seasons, bringing go-karts in spring, fireworks in summer, and a scenario editor as part of its first anniversary celebrations. I ended up defaulting to the prefab constructions provided in these packs in Planet Coaster’s career mode, using them to draw in more guests and up the prestige of my park on my way to completing certain tasks specified by set scenarios.

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The newest of these scenarios is Gulpee’s Island Paradise, which tweaks the format of its forebears slightly, asking players to keep their staff happy as well as their guests. For me, this was a fumbling process, largely because Planet Coaster doesn’t do a great job of teaching its players exactly how they can succeed. In the two years since launch, Frontier has managed to put out a paltry six tutorial videos, and its early-game “easy” scenarios almost complete themselves once a player has plopped down a coaster or two to top up their finances. Park value, number of guests, and your monthly income act as indicators of success, but there’s still a strange mix of digital and analogue in the kind of feedback Planet Coaster provides that can make career and challenge mode playthroughs feel fuzzy. Prices, wages, and coasters themselves can be massaged until the perfect value is found, for example, but considerations like path layout or how pretty the queue are also impact income and guest happiness greatly, despite being more subjective.

Unhappy guests can now take their frustrations out on the park, vandalising benches and bins thanks to a free update released last year that brought the concept of crime to Planet Coaster’s roller-utopia. The impact of this illegal activity isn’t clear, however: security guards will collar pickpockets and vandals if they catch them in the act, but such incidents don’t seem to make a major impact on any of the parks I’ve played in. These elements do at least expand on the sketched career mode present at launch, but don’t quite make parks feel alive or reactive without explanation. Better tutorials would help with some minor control and placement problems, too. Attractions are raised or lowered by holding shift during placement, for example, but paths can only be moved in the vertical plane by holding the left mouse button and dragging up or down. Those same paths seem to desperately try to avoid being placed, whipping around like snakes until you find the perfect pixel that will let you place them at the right connection point.

Fortunately, Planet Coaster’s community has stepped in, offering more comprehensive tutorials for the game, its multiple scenarios, and its less obvious quirks. It’s not the only thing the community has done to make Planet Coaster feel fresh and current, either. Rollercoaster Tycoon apparently fostered a generation of frustrated theme park designers, most of whom are apparently now getting their fix by arranging track, props, and buildings into replicas of existing parks or their own wild designs.

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The Steam Workshop is now home to some truly ludicrous designs, from small-but-perfectly-formed wooden coasters through 40-floor hotels to whole-park copies of places like PortAventura — as well as no fewer than 24 Euthanasia Coasters built by sadists similar to me. The larger coasters and attractions have no place in Planet Coaster’s career or challenge modes, being typically too big or too expensive to jam into the play space you’re trying to maintain. But I ended up spending equal time picking out new designs from the Steam Workshop and plonking them down for a first-person test ride, with no intention of ever letting my guests have a go.

This was mightily weird for me, in part because I hate real-world rollercoasters (why would you queue up for three hours to feel horribly uncomfortable for two minutes?), but also because there’s no actual game involved in sitting through someone else’s carefully crafted rollercoaster. But so many of them are so good, I found myself transfixed at the artistry and devotion it must have taken people to arrange Planet Coaster’s playset into something so intricate.

As they do in the real world, movies and games have provided inspiration for coaster-ification among Frontier’s community. A Zelda-themed ride called the Wind Waker takes riders on a lollopping ride up steep climbs and down huge drops, and an unofficial Tomb Raider ride has a squadron of crocodiles snapping at guests as they whizz past. But my favourite download was a coaster inspired by PlayStation classic Shadow of the Colossus. The multi-layered coaster that takes riders on a minutes-long, multi-stage ride that pits them against three different colossi, each new area packed with pyrotechnics and water effects on an ultra-complex series of triggers.

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Frontier has already provided players with the core shapes and structures necessary to build wild creations, but in the few places it is lacking, players have made their own models available for download. It’s these third-party additions that allow creations like the impossibly complex Alien ride — festooned in green goo and complete with a clutch of xenomorph eggs — that’s currently sitting atop Planet Coaster’s Steam Workshop page.

It’s this community creativity that has sustained Planet Coaster since 2016, and made it worth plunging into now, even though its management side is still slightly underserved. Two years after launch, Planet Coaster’s career mode isn’t the game at its most thrilling, the scenarios providing neither enough guidance to get started, nor feedback enough to know exactly why you’re succeeding or failing. This stops it short of feeling like a truly great management sim, but marry this imperfect structure to a rollercoaster gallery — a window into the creativity of a PC community — and Planet Coaster becomes a much more inviting theme park in which to spend a day. If you have the patience, the designer’s eye, and the dedication to actually build one of your own creations — your own rollercoaster of love — then Planet Coaster has almost everything you need to start planning for your new career in theme park development.

24 Comments

  1. fuggles says:

    How can you hate that song?! It’s a) great b) packaged with a song called lesbian seagull.

  2. Minglefingler says:

    It’s not actually a Red Hot Chilli Peppers song, they just covered it. It’s originally by the Ohio Players: link to youtube.com

  3. Ejia says:

    Well, that was one unexpectedly hilarious Wikipedia article.

    • Seyda Neen says:

      Really? I found it exceptionally unpleasant and uncomfortable to read. It made me feel sick, imagining how awful that would be.

    • Petri says:

      I thought of Monty Python’s Architect sketch while reading that.

      • virgopunk says:

        “Sorry, did you just say knives?”
        “Rotating knives, yes.”

  4. Doug Exeter says:

    I admit it’s the one thing about Planet Coaster I wasn’t a fan of was the lack of decent scenarios and career mode. I totally appreciate the massive sandbox they’ve provided but I’ve never had the patience to take advantage of it. I just work better when I have a clear goal and challenges along the way to work towards.

    If they ever make a sequel then I’m still buying it first day but if they manage to improve that one portion of the game I’d love Planet Coaster even more for it. Excellent game.

    • milligna says:

      I love how if you squint this sounds like people complaining about the lack of story in Elite Dangerous.

      Both games are pretty lovely stuff when you reside comfortably in their niche instead of aching for what they aren’t.

      • Doug Exeter says:

        I was quite clear that I enjoyed the game. Some people like goals, some people enjoy the sandbox. I would like it even better if they improved the scenarios. Don’t put words in my mouth.

      • BTAxis says:

        That’s not really an accurate comparison because Planet Coaster has a pedigree of solid management sims, one it doesn’t live up to, whereas Elite has always been much more sandboxy.

      • Blackcompany says:

        Pretty to look at. Lacking compelling game play.

        That is Frontier Developments to a tee. They are a Minimum Viable Product developer. This is what they do; this is all they do. And if you happen to enjoy it, great; I’m not judging. But their games could be so much more, if only they were developed by a team who cared about the product and the player.

    • foszae says:

      Honestly i feel this way about a number of the recent generation of games. Ones like Cities Skylines and Elite Dangerous, even Transport Fever and more recent iterations of Civiliation all fit that same mold. They’re gorgeous to look at, and are (mostly) mod friendly, but they’re all kind of lifeless to me without compelling gameplay. Some challenge or progress to go with the lovely design tools would be nice. They’re all a bit too close to being just really functional paint sets

  5. Avioto says:

    The lack of a good career mode and no decent way to manage your park really killed the game for me. I am finding myself having way more fun with RCT 1/2 even today, they hold up really well. Even the port to mobile (RCT Classic) is extremely well done.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I look at Planet Coaster like I do Minecraft in creative mode. It’s nice and all, but I’m just not creative enough for it. I can make coasters that satisfy the guests, but they’re just boring loops in a flat field. I can’t do all this triggers and artistry stuff.

    • shrieki says:

      it doesnt really matter if things look nice or not.
      i like to make really ugly parks with ridiculous decorations – guests will love it anyway. ugly parks are good to get started to figure out how stuff works and how to make money.
      you basically only need to plop some stuff around the queue to get higher rating – doesnt really matter if it looks nice or not. plop in some confetti and everybody is happy.
      and if you want pretty- there is so much ready-to-plop-pretty-stuff on the workshop it´s crazy.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Well right, that’s what I meant. I can make the guests happy, but I can’t make actual pretty, interesting things. That reduces it to just a really easy management sim, which is boring.

        Mostly I’m just jealous of artistic people.

  7. shrieki says:

    since i started to create my own scenarios i find the game really awesome.
    make a nice landscape first- set yourself a comfy starting capital- tweak everything to your liking etc.
    the management is a bit fuzzy it´s true but i kindof like to puzzle out how stuff works and there is everything on youtube.
    really relaxing game for me.

  8. HiroTheProtagonist says:

    The lack of ability to kill park guests has really put a damper on my attempts to recreate Action Park.

  9. shrieki says:

    make your guests wade through their own vomit. make them moan and hold their stomachs and then vomit some more.
    watch how your specially trained vomit-gardener wipes the picnic-tables with the same broom he just used to sweep the floor.
    sell only greasy food+milkshakes, build everything out of concrete and install security cameras everywhere.
    make a prison island and get a big group of guests stuck by removing the paths…removing access to toilets… etc. etc. so many ways to be a sadist in the game.
    but i confess to find that it is quite enjoyable to just make an adorable park.something is obviously wrong with me.