When Rorschach reviewed RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, he joked that he thought maybe somebody had slipped him RollerCoaster Tycoon instead, because the sequel looked and played so much like the original. Well, with RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 being handed over to a new developer and with the engine being overhauled to take advantage of 3D graphics, surely this third installment couldn’t be confused with either of the first two games... could it? Strangely, it almost could. The developer, Frontier Developments, went to great lengths to make RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 look like its predecessors, and it left most of the game mechanics as is. However, the focus of the game changed dramatically. Playing RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 isn’t anything like playing the other two games, and, unfortunately, that’s mostly a bad thing.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Frontier Developments didn’t just convert RollerCoaster Tycoon to 3D and then hand over the “new” game. They created (or re-created) over 120 rides, including 50 types of rollercoasters, and they categorized the rides into five different themes. That means you can have very distinct looking “lands” in your park, because the rides and the scenery and --get this -- the ride events (such as a shark attack reminiscent of the Universal Studios tour) all work together.
Another interesting change is that there are now day and night cycles. That sounds good, because you’d think amusement parks would look cool at night, but mostly it means that you can’t tell what’s going on (even if you’re liberal at placing lamps around). But Frontier Developments also added in fireworks shows. You can plop down fireworks mortars wherever you want in your park, and then you can sequence over two dozen types of fireworks between them. That allows you to create complicated and colorful shows, and you can even import in your own music to go with them. The result is pretty nice, and it makes nighttime far less annoying than it would have been otherwise.
Finally, Frontier Developments made some changes with how the peeps (your guests in the park) work. They come in different sizes, shapes and ages now, and some even enter the park in groups, such as with families. I’m not sure how much of a difference this makes to gameplay, but it’s nice to watch, especially when you see a mom walking through the park holding hands with her kids. If you want, you can even create your own groups of peeps, but sadly there aren’t a lot of face and hair options, and so the peeps probably won’t look like they should.
Other parts of the game work pretty much as before. You still lay track in the same way -- one piece at a time -- and so it’s still easy to create rollercoasters but difficult to edit them. You still plop down rides and then set up the queues and paths so the peeps can get to them. You still hire janitors, mechanics, entertainers and security guards to keep the park running smoothly (although the entertainers and security guards don’t seem to do a whole lot). And you still need to manage your money and decide things like if buying a new rollercoaster is worth taking out a loan, or if you should dump your extra earnings into research so you can receive new rides more quickly.
If this is all there was to RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, then it would probably be a lot of fun to play. But there are numerous quirks and balance issues in the game, even now that it has a patch under its belt. First and foremost is the problem of money. Peeps just don’t go on rides as much as they should, and they buy souvenirs almost not at all. Instead they simply mill about and clog up your pathways. In a good (game) month, I might take in $400, but rollercoasters cost upwards of $10,000, and so there’s little point in trying to create viable amusement parks in the game’s 18 scenarios. It would just take too long, and it would involve too much staring at the screen waiting for money to come in. Instead you have to make a beeline for the objectives, and that’s not a lot of fun.
Fortunately, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 comes with a sandbox mode where money isn’t an issue, but this is pretty much just for people who want to design interesting parks. Those of us who want to play a game are stuck with the scenarios, and while some of the parks you take over in them are nicely designed (one in particular has a great monorail ride), the scenarios don’t last long enough for you to get attached to the parks you manage, and it’s far easier to use “tricks” to solve them quickly rather than to play them as intended. (Selling off the starting park is one such “trick.” Another involves completing objectives in the “right” order and in the “right” way to make things easier.) Plus, the objectives don’t change a lot from scenario to scenario, and so completing the scenarios isn’t all that fulfilling, and once you’ve completed them (which takes maybe 30 hours) there isn’t anything else to do.
RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 also has some other problems. For example, you’re given way too much control over the objects you sell. Not only do you have to set the prices of the objects, you also have to decide if the objects should contain extras (like lettuce, ketchup and cheese for hamburgers) and just how plentiful those extras should be. That’s more than I want to deal with, especially since there isn’t a friendly button to have all of your shops of the same type sell things the same way. So every time you add a burger stand, you have to micromanage the four kinds of burgers it can sell. Fun, fun, fun.
There’s also something terribly wrong with the sound in RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. The first two games were content to let the ambient noises do the job, and between the cheers and screams of the peeps, the clack-clack-clack sounds of the rollercoasters, and the music from the carousels and bumper car rides, it worked surprisingly well. But RollerCoaster 3 relies on really annoying background music (which I was only somewhat successful in turning off), and those other sounds are almost nowhere to be found.
So, overall, while I didn’t hate RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, I didn’t love it, either, and I finished its scenarios way earlier than I thought I would. (By comparison, the scenarios from the first two games took so long that something -- usually boredom -- prevented me from finishing them before moving on to something else. A fanboy of the franchise I am not.) However, the engine seems to work pretty well, and I could picture the game turning out better after another patch, or perhaps after the first expansion pack rolls around. So I’m offering a marginal recommendation now, and I’m hopeful about what the future might bring.