Developer/publisher Frontier Developments Format PC Release Out now
Given Planet Coaster’s friendly exterior, it’s a little disheartening to begin yet another sprawling simulation from Frontier Developments and be fobbed off with a few short YouTube videos instead of a proper tutorial. The game is riddled with control tooltips, at least, but such is the depth and complexity of Planet Coaster’s toolset that it can all feel distinctly overwhelming at first.
With perseverance, and some time spent impatiently watching videos, things begin to fall into place. There are three main ways to play the game: Career, Sandbox and Challenge. The first of these collects a series of disparate scenarios and asks you to achieve certain goals to earn the maximum three-star rating. You might need to reach a certain guest threshold, for example, or achieve a given monthly profit. Each theme – including western, pirate, fairytale and sci-fi – features three missions, and in every setup you’ll assume control of a half-finished theme park and attempt to make it as attractive to guests as possible. In one scenario you must fend off impending bankruptcy in a park with no open rides and an unfinished rollercoaster; in another you need to construct a park with firm green credentials and hold back from deforesting the area for profit.
The constructions that serve as your starting point in the career missions provide Frontier’s level designers with an opportunity to showcase their well-honed building skills and give the rest of us a dauntingly high bar to aim for. Pirate havens line the shore of a lake occupied by a grand galleon as pathways snake in and out of skull-shaped mountains. A track ride dips underground and snakes its way through a beautifully lit, sculpted cave network inhabited by the flailing tentacles of some underground monstrosity. And in another starter a distinctly Cobra-esque spacecraft lies at the end of an impact trench that’s strewn with burning wreckage, while two nearby whirling neon rides spin their passengers high above the crash site.
Sandbox mode gives you control of Planet Coaster’s assets, an unlimited budget and no pressures other than your own artistic integrity. But the splendid creations in Career mode make it all the more crushing when, on starting the mode for the first time and crippled by the flat, bare expanse before us, we only manage a wobbly pathway that leads to a toilet block. It’s a start, at least, and our convenience immediately proves popular with a family optimistic enough to have paid our $40 park entrance fee. While it’s a good place to experiment with techniques and ideas – and is providing the foundation for some incredible player-made builds – the lack of structure, goals or restrictions make it a less appealing place for players hoping to run their own theme park.
Challenge mode caters for that demographic. Here you must build a park from scratch while working within a tight budget and managing the minutiae of your park’s day-to-day running. You’ll have to consider everything from food and ride pricing to how happy your guests are while queuing. The level of granularity is remarkable: it’s not just the length of the line that factors into a ride’s appeal, but whether the queue is long and straight or snaking, how much scenery there is around it, the amount of litter on the floor, and even the position of the ride relative to the rest of the park. There are graphs and numbers to pore over, but the easiest way to judge is simply to watch guests’ behaviour. Every customer is lovingly animated and overly expressive, making it easy to read their mood even when zoomed out (a view you’ll use extensively given the cacophony the individually soundtracked rides create when close up – better to hover up high and enjoy Jim Guthrie’s wonderfully melancholic compositions). If a ride’s queue is busy, you can up the entrance cost. Similarly, if people are gravitating to one side of the park, then you know it’s worth building a monorail or pathway to make getting around easier.
The path-laying system is flexible and intuitive (even if the fiddly camera occasionally works against it), but is tuned more for sweeping curves than it is grids. You’ll need to add queue and exit pathways for every ride, too, which can be an awkward business, especially if you’ve initially misjudged a ride’s positioning.
There are dozens of prefabricated rides to place, including a selection of rollercoasters, but you’re also at liberty to create your own vomit-inducing death traps. You can sculpt ad-hoc or pick from a selection of more complex Frontier-created pieces that loop, corkscrew and switch back. Once complete, new rides need to be tested using crash dummies, and this run then provides all manner of stats and heat maps on how exciting, scary or nauseating your creation is. Low nausea, medium fear and high excitement is the ideal, but our first attempt was shunned outright by thousands of attendees. Tweaking your ride according to the test results and retesting as you close in on a world-class ride is, however, a simple and enjoyable process.
Planet Coaster’s customisation and landscaping tools offer unprecedented control over the look and design of your parks, but the management components behind the scenes feel oddly muted. Loans and marketing campaign options are overly simplified, and fiddling with the staff roster can often border on being tedious. The game is also rather easy, and full-on bankruptcy doesn’t seem to be a real threat. The simplified behindthe-scenes automation serves as a kind of autopilot that lets you flirt with whichever aspects you want while not having to worry about anything you don’t, but this focus on creativity over flowcharts perfectly suits the most charismatic, expressive construction and management sim yet.
There are dozens of prefabricated rides, but you’re also at liberty to create your own vomit-inducing death traps