Price: £29.99 Developer: Frontier Developments Publisher: Frontier Developments Platform: PC
It starts with a simple idea. You’ll see something in Planet Coaster’s kaleidoscopic toybox, say, a roller coaster for children. Realising your theme park doesn’t have many kids’ rides yet, you’ll start to build it. Then you’ll spot the coaster has cars shaped like dragons and you’ll think, 'Well, what if I shaped the roller coaster like a dragon’s tail?'
One hour and 6,000 in-game dollars later, you’ll have a coaster in the rough outline of a dragon. But then you’ll look at the coaster, and all the empty space around it, and you’ll think, 'Well, what if I built a castle-façade in front of the coaster? Maybe with a moat. And animatronic knights walking around. And giant dragons overlooking the coaster itself. That would be pretty neat.'
So you’ll build that, and then you’ll look at your bank account and realise you need to make some money out of this. Then you’ll see there are shops themed to look like medieval buildings. Before you know it, you’ve built a little fantasy village in front of the castle, where people can buy food and drinks and gifts and give you all of their lovely, lovely money.
Now’s probably a good time to stop playing. But right then a research project finishes up and oh, look! It’s a ride themed around witches. Then you’ll think, 'Well, what if there was a path leading out the back of the village, that maybe ran through a spooky glade, leading to a haunted forest filled with twisted trees and little witch-huts?'
So you’ll build all of that. And then you’ll look at the clock and oooops it’s 2AM. You should go to bed! Then you’ll see there’s pirate stuff too, and understand that you’re never sleeping again.
Planet Coaster is the most enjoyable creative toolset I’ve encountered since Minecraft. It’s a mechanised wonderland with a dozen different rabbit holes to go tumbling, tumbling down. It takes the joy of building the perfect custom roller coaster, first demonstrated in Chris Sawyer’s RollerCoaster Tycoon, and applies that creative joy to almost every aspect of theme park design. It’s a theme park sim where the emphasis is less on creating cynical money-spinning machines and more on creating masterpieces.
For the most part, I think this is a good thing. However, if you come to Planet Coaster anticipating a management sim, you may come away slightly disappointed. Planet Coaster emphasises the player as architect rather than manager. It provides you with the tools to build insanely ambitious and beautiful parks, but at a systemic level the game is surprisingly conservative.
As with most games of this ilk, Planet Coaster offers three ways to play. There’s a career mode, which tasks you with building progressively more ambitious parks in one of four different themes. Then there’s sandbox mode, which provides you with unlimited funds and access to all rides, allowing you to run wild with your imagination. Finally, there’s challenge mode, which is similar to sandbox, but requires you to earn money and research rides before you can build them.
I imagine most people will want to jump straight into either sandbox or challenge, depending on whether they want to manage a park or just build one. However, it’s worth playing through at least a few of the career mode levels first. Not necessarily because it does anything special – it offers a fairly loose structure in the form of straightforward objectives such as 'build four rides' or 'earn X amount of cash'. Rather, it shows you what is capable with the tools on offer to you. Frontier’s own parks are extraordinary creations, each an exquisitely constructed little ant colony that’s delightful to watch.