It has been roughly 12 years since a Roller Coaster Tycoon game has graced our computer screens. Why do I bring up Roller Coaster Tycoon when discussing Planet Coaster? Because Planet Coaster is being developed by the same company that made RCT3. And given the fact that early reviews of the "official" new Roller Coaster Tycoon game are less than good, Planet Coaster just may be the relaunch of the amusement park tycoon style game we all deserve.
This is a preview of an Alpha Build of the game, many things will likely change.
Planet Coaster is a theme park construction kit / business simulator. After playing this Alpha build for a few hours, it doesn't feel like it is doing anything terribly new, but it is doing the basic things extremely well. There will be (at least) three modes in the game: Challenge (just like every RCT game), Sandbox (Hooray!), and Career. Right now, only Challenge and Sandbox are open, and the Challenge mode is basically one scenario which the sandbox mode with a money limit set in two different places.
When you get into the game, you'll notice the general graphics aren't mind-blowing, but they are very crisp, clear, and a bit cartoonish - living up to the feel of the RCT franchise. I really enjoy the clean menu bar interface at the bottom of the screen on the building screen. When RCT3 was out, Frontier used a kind of bubble menu system. It was harder for me to find what I wanted, which led to most of my frustration with that game (I may not have mentioned it, but I wasn't a big fan of RCT3, though I recognize it is regarded well critically).
I will say, however, that the lighting effects, especially the twilight and dawn hours of the day are spectacular. You see the shadows lengthen in real time, you watch the lights to your rides turn on...the park comes to life at night. I suspect a lot of people are going to be using snapshots of their roller coasters set against the setting sun as computer desktop images.
The million dollar question is this: "How is the coaster building?" From what I've had a chance to play with so far, it's easy...but robust. In the alpha, they give you access to roughly 20 steel coaster designs. A little bit of a bummer because I am much more of a wood coaster fan, but sacrifices do need to be made for the cause.
Coaster building didn't take long to get used to. It felt like a fairly natural process. The piece you are going to add is shown on screen, you can lengthen or shorten it, raise or lower it, curve it, and bank it. Once you're happy with your choices, just left click, and voila! It's there. You have quite a bit of control over the angles of drops, rises and turns. I like the ability to edit even short parts of individual track pieces. Nothing like coming out of a cobra roll, and into a section that feels like driving down a brick road at 75 MPH to shake some teeth loose. There is a lot of control at your fingertips.
All that being said, I'm TERRIBLE at coaster building. I know this because Planet Coaster has on-ride cameras, so you can watch your rides as though you were on them, in a dramatic multi-camera presentation, or by pointing a camera at the guests as they ride. So, my first creation was a launched coaster with a 90 degree rise, followed by a steep drop. I guess it was a bit too steep because my entire went from excited...to unconscious. Whoops. After the ride was over, 100% of the riders walked into the First Aid booth...whoops again.
Planet Coaster includes Steam Workshop support, and already there are tremendously creative rides and buildings made by people far more talented and patient than I am. You can customize seemingly everything except for the flat rides. You can construct a simple custom burger stand to a detailed replica of Hogwarts. I feel like there is going to be a tremendous creative community behind this game, and we're all better off for it.
So far, I have only come across a couple of glitches and bugs with the game. I have noticed a few instances of graphics clipping / jumping. Sometimes I'm working on a ride, and it flashes some terrain from off screen. I've encountered no slow down, even on the first person ride-throughs, a recent update helped optimize some things - I've gone from a steady 25 FPS to 37 FPS, and my system isn't bleeding edge by any stretch.
I've also had a few issues just placing stuff right where I want it to go. Especially trying to connect ride ticket booths to the main pathway. Eventually I got it, but it's a bit more of an art than a science. I suspect some of these kinds of issues will be sorted out when they get to the tutorial...almost everything I've figured out in the game has been through tinkering, guessing, and 10+ year old muscle memory.
About the only thing I would really like to see added is a way to actually design flat rides from scratch. I'm envisioning stuff like a double-decker carousel, but the upper level vehicles are on Scrambler arms.
So far, Planet Coaster is lining up to be the next great Tycoon-style game. I'm extremely intrigued to see what the career mode holds, what kind of online play options will be available, what kinds of wood roller coaster designs I'll be able to play with, will there be any more "classic" ride types included,and most importantly- if I'll get my tunnels so I can finally build the underground looping coaster of my dreams.