Back in 1994, I was five years old and I had a PC in my room. The PC had just two games on it, DOOM and Theme Park, both installed by a family friend who made me promise not to let anyone see me playing DOOM. This meant that while most kids wanted to be an astronaut or a policeman, I wanted to build theme parks. Eventually, world weary cynicism took that away from me: theme park architect probably isn’t a real job, I thought, and it certainly won’t pay the bills. I gave up on my dream.
Seeing the alpha build for Frontier’s forthcoming Planet Coaster last week, I gave up on giving up on my dream. I’m going to be a rollercoaster tycoon (sorry) again.
Planet Coaster feels like it aiming to do for the coaster-building genre what Xenonauts did for X-COM, faithfully reinventing the idea for a new generation but with many of the flaws that annoyed fans of the classic ironed out. Frontier Developments worked on Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 but the tech has come a long way since then, and the possibilities offered by current generation PC technology mean that we expect a lot more from our park-creating experience. Frontier's experience has produced a game that will feel familiar to fans of those early theme park builders, but also has plenty of new tricks up its sleeve.
Take for a start, the biggest surprise about my hands-on: the game’s modular building system. This allows you to create every building in your theme park brick by brick for whatever theme you have in mind. I chose “Pirate shipwreck” and made every building a mix of old tarps and battered wood, the skulls hanging from the walls tastefully lit with spotlights.
“It’s all different now,” says Jonny Watts, Frontier’s chief creative officer. “It used to be that you had your separate ice cream shop with its little ice cream roof, but it’s not like that now, it’s about creating the park you want to see.”
Watts mentions the idea of putting brand advertisements into your park to get you small amounts of revenue, an idea that’s been bouncing around in his head because it fits with his idea of an “authentic” destination.
I also see a powerful landscaping tool that isn’t going to be in the game’s first alpha release on 22 March - tomorrow - but which is coming soon. It feels like a complete system, but Watts is resistant to the idea of putting it in the game too soon.
“We only want to put things out when they’re ready and we’ll get good feedback from them,” he says. I’m shown a system that lets you flatten grass, build arches, tunnel into the ground or, fantastically, build a rollercoaster straight into the earth and have it automatically dig itself a tunnel.
It’s not all for show, either. Watts hints at an aesthetic desirability score that makes areas more or less attractive to the punters roaming your park. He also thinks a lot of people will build sprawling buildings just for themselves too. Having spent 10 minutes building an altar to one park’s humongous Kraken, I’m inclined to agree.
Watts points out that if their rollercoasters didn’t have enough support and didn’t make scientific sense, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs properly, but it’s the parts you don’t generally look at, like the Kraken, that really impress.
Here’s the thing: the Kraken is a fully animatronic creation, with moving pieces you can watch at work. Obviously in most theme parks it’ll be buried in the ground so the guests only see the beast and its tentacles (which are separate animatronic creations you can place where you wish) - but if you pull it out of the hole yourself, you can see it all working as it should, and imagine the little pneumatic hisses as it raises to its full height.
If it seems like I’m making a big deal about a fictional sea-creature, it’s because I’m using it as an example of just how much work has gone into every aspect of Planet Coaster. Frontier are billing this as much more of a simulation than their previous theme park outings, with all the complexity and systems that brings.
Of course, if you just want to build rollercoasters and run a theme park, you can do that. The tools for creating rollercoasters all come with a pair of settings, and can be locked to curves and elevations or done entirely freehand. Sadly, the Rollercoaster creation tools are hidden away behind a cheat code in the first Alpha release, only available to everyone with the release of Alpha 2, because the coaster-construction UI isn’t close to final. Luckily, we have the cheat code.
Here’s how to access the coaster building tools: open a map and select the ‘Rides’, ‘Scenery’ or ‘Buildings’ tab. click on the 'Search' magnifying glass and enter the code ‘underconstruction’ to access the coaster construction tab.
You’ll want to give this a go because, much like every flat ride, once it’s placed and open to the public you can choose to sit the camera inside the ride and experience it for yourself. Sometimes this can be the best way to explore your park, sometimes you just want to see if it makes you really sick while riding it.
Planet Coaster’s alpha launch is just the first stage, however, and there’s a long way to go before it’s ready. There is balance to fine-tune and many of the actual mechanics needed to play the game are still to be added.
Yet what's here already is a good advertisement for the game, and should give Frontier the opportunity to change anything they want in response to feedback. As someone who has long wanted to build a pretty looking theme park and is happy for now to simply slap down a few rides, this is a rollercoaster I'm already tempted to jump on board.
Planet Coaster is available in early access from tomorrow.