There’s an easy way to judge “Builder”-style games, I think—maybe not the most scientific way, but certainly a gut-level instinct: Was there a moment while playing where I looked up to find that it was 4 in the morning and I should probably have gone to sleep hours ago?
And if we’re judging Planet Coaster on that criteria, then it’s a stunning success.
Six Flags wasn’t built in a day
Technically there were two different theme park builders released last week—Planet Coaster, our main concern for this review, being one. The other was RollerCoaster Tycoon World ($35 on Steam), which I don’t think is quite as bad as the reputation it’s racked up on Steam but does seem to have been rushed out the door in some weird attempt to “beat” Planet Coaster to the punch.
Maybe one day soon we’ll delve into RollerCoaster Tycoon World and its fractured development. For now, suffice it to say that while RollerCoaster Tycoon World has a few advantages on Planet Coaster, it’s dragged down by poor performance, a cumbersome interface, and features that were clearly tacked on later to bring it up to parity with Planet Coaster instead of planned from the start.
The even-shorter version: Despite the change in name, Planet Coaster is the true successor to the beloved RollerCoaster Tycoon.
It’s about enabling the player. That’s the whole point of the “Builder” genre, right? You give players a bunch of tools—be it roads and buildings or, here, paths and rides—and turn them loose. Sure, you can play SimCity or Cities: Skylines as an accurate simulation of urban planning, but I think most people just find it innately satisfying to create, to build up their own personal little utopia (or dystopia) from scratch.
Planet Coaster plays to that instinct, to the urge to customize and tinker. Aspects from older theme park tycoon games reappear—yes, you can still drop the price of drinks and then rake in cash by charging for the bathrooms.
But it’s the eye-candy that’s received the biggest upgrade, or “Scenery” as it’s known to industrious theme park managers. You know, the set dressing—benches and garbage cans to keep the guests happy, animatronic krakens and witches and alien creatures to keep them entertained.
There are a ton of these items, which is a boon on its own. You need a good set of building blocks as a foundation, and Planet Coaster delivers with five full-fledged themes—Western, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Pirate, and the “Generic Theme Park” set. Each of these has its own shops, statues, fountains, plant life, animated figurines, and large-scale centerpieces like a 100-foot-long galleon or a laser-firing orbital cannon.
Players can exhaust even the largest set of bespoke art, though. There are only so many times you can place that flying saucer in your park before you pull the camera back, look, and go “Yeah, that’s definitely the same art asset in three different places.” It ruins the illusion.
So why not build your own?
Custom assets are what’s kept me playing Planet Coaster into the small hours of the morning. Any piece of scenery and any building in the game can be customized and mashed together to an absurd extent, and not just on a strictly-regulated grid. Objects are allowed to clip through each other, meaning you can create just about anything you’d like.
Need a burger place that matches the Pirate aesthetic of your park? Plop the storefront down and then cover it in wood, a crow’s nest, and some netting. Or turn it into a castle and surround it by patrolling knights. Or make some sort of hybrid pirate-castle monstrosity that combines aspects of both. The walls, the roof, the decorations, they’re all under your control. It’s like the best aspects of The Sims mashed up with theme parks.
And the result is one of the most customizable builder games I’ve ever played. I thought it was cool how simple Cities: Skylines made importing player-made assets through Steam Workshop, but Planet Coaster basically includes a rudimentary asset-building tool within the realm of the game itself. And yes, you can upload your creations to the Workshop if you’d like, or just save them for your personal use.
The one notable absence is a way to scale objects to a different size—something I hope is patched in later.
I’m obsessed. This weekend passed by in a blur, laying out new rides and then spending hours placing trees and rocks, tucking fountains and statues back in miniature clearings, burying a kraken in a pond so it pops out to scare people using my custom fantasy-themed toilets, and creating the perfect castle-themed tunnel for a roller coaster to speed through.
Speaking of which: The coaster-creation in Planet Coaster is also a joy. An intimidating joy, perhaps, but one that’s powerful once you’ve learned its quirks. Career Mode’s built-in scenarios are a good way to get a handle on the basics, though I expect you’ll soon leave those restrictions behind for more creative pastures. One level in particular is an excellent showcase for coaster building, tasking you with assembling a massive 900-meter coaster that plunges through a narrow canyon. It took me a few hours to meet the game’s stringent demands but I liked that it pushed me to be creative with my layout, packing in loops to meet the length requirement without making my guests vomit uncontrollably.
Still, considering coasters are ostensibly the game’s central focus I’m surprised there’s not a more concise tutorial for players to run through—or at least more information about what you’re doing wrong. Trial-and-error is all well and good, but the interface and information presented can be a bit convoluted at the best of times, or inscrutable at its worst. Trying to debug why your guests aren’t excited about a ride or why they’re getting sick can be like banging your head against a wall of numbers, and fixing the issue can occasionally mean re-building entire parts of your coaster when the game’s too dumb to correctly interpret your click-and-drag movements.
Interface issues are actually chief among Planet Coaster’s problems. The whole “pleasing customers” side of this sim is pretty damn easy—for instance, 600 guests might show up when you only have a single ride and a bathroom, and despite voicing their disappointment you’ll rarely see anyone get fed up and go home. But maybe it’s for the best that it's that easy, because trying to actually manage your park can be a struggle.
Staff, for instance. Despite including a screen that shows you all your hired staff, from janitors to mechanics to entertainers, you’ll need to click on each individual to actually interact with them in any way. Need to train them or raise their salary? First you have to go into the staff menu, then it’ll center the camera on them, pop up a new menu, and then you change whatever needs changing. That’s four clicks too many.
Infrastructure is even more frustrating. Want to, for example, set all the bathrooms in your park to charge $1.00 per person for entry? You’ll need to hunt down each bathroom in your park, click on it, and set the price individually. There’s no way to do it in the overview Park Management menu, nor is there a button to just “Apply to all similar.” The same problem plagues shops—get ready to set the price of four different menu items individually at every single instance of that restaurant. Even more bizarre, it applies to things like monorails. You’ll need to change the ticket price at each monorail station, one at a time.
These are minor concerns, but when you have a park with 1,000-plus guests, a dozen different restaurants, six bathrooms, three ATMs, and a handful of rides, having to find each one and set the price can suck a lot of the fun out of proceedings. Planet Coaster nails the feel of building your theme park, but the mundanities of running it suck up altogether too much time just by way of being cumbersome.
The game also has a problem with setting the hitbox of rides too large, making it sometimes difficult to click what you think you’re clicking. I’ve also had a few weird camera bugs, with it getting caught on a ride or hanging on a piece of scenery. It’s rare, but happens. And guests insist on slamming into each other on crowded paths, creating weird logjam scenarios that wouldn’t happen in real life.
Performance is surprisingly decent though—much better than a certain other theme park builder I maybe mentioned earlier. Frame rate plummets when I’ve got 1,000+ people in my park, but I’ve still never seen it drop below 30 frames per second on my i7-5820K and GeForce GTX 980 Ti. That’s an admittedly powerful machine, but overall I’ve been surprised how well the game runs considering how much is happening on-screen at any given moment.
Planet Coaster is an excellent theme park builder. Hell, it’s an excellent builder in general—probably the most player-centric one to date. It’s less about the developers giving you a bunch of stuff to build a theme park with, and more about you taking the stuff the developers give you and building a theme park with it.
That may be minor distinction when written out, but it makes a huge difference to the game itself. One is focused on the developers, on the game including enough assets to stave off that point where you’re reusing bits. The other is focused on you, on your creativity and the way you adapt the tools to your own ends. Which is not to say Planet Coaster can’t expand. I hope it does! New rides, new themes—there are definitely aspects Frontier can flesh out.
There’s already enough here to keep you awake way past your bedtime, though. I can attest to that.