RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Final Hands-On

We get our hands on the finished game and glean some final impressions before our review.

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In many ways, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is the sequel that many RollerCoaster Tycoon fans have been waiting for. Whereas RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 recycled many of the elements found in the original game, including the graphics engine, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is the game that promises to invigorate the series with next-generation technology. British development studio Frontier recently finished work on the game, and publisher Atari is getting it ready for its release early next month. We're busy working on our review, but meanwhile, here are some impressions of the final code.

There's a great deal of customization in the game, all the way down to the messages on signs.

The introduction of a fully 3D engine has had a dramatic effect on the series. Gone is the aged 2D graphics engine and in comes the beautiful new 3D graphics engine capable of rendering an impressive amount of detail. Not only can you see all the wooden and metal struts of a coaster, but also there are hundreds of unique peeps, or guests, walking around your park. The new engine also allows you to zoom in and out and swing the camera around, so you can get up close and personal with your park. But, more importantly, the new 3D engine now lets you ride all the rides from a first-person perspective. Frontier had previously stated that you would only be able to ride the coasters, but the designers were able to figure out a way that will now let you ride any of the rides, not just the roller coasters.

The significant graphical upgrades aside, the gameplay mechanics themselves remain very familiar. Basically, your job is to expand the park and build the rides, amusements, services, and facilities needed to keep your guests happy. This includes thrill rides like coasters, gentle rides such as Ferris wheels, souvenir shops, food and drink stands, restrooms, and more. You're given a large amount of control over each object, and you can tweak the object's color scheme to the prices that it charges your guests. You can even decide whether you want to offer cheese on the burgers at the food stand, or what color of balloons the balloon stand will offer. You can gauge your success instantly just be watching your peeps and seeing if they queue up to buy what you're selling. If not, you may have to rethink pricing, or redesign a section of the park to make it more peep-friendly. For instance, it's usually not a good thing to put the concession stands next to the stomach-churning rides.

Design a family of peeps and then watch them have fun in your park.

RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 does add a number of new features to the familiar RollerCoaster Tycoon formula. For example, there's a much greater emphasis on your peeps. There's even a peep editor that will let you create entire families of peeps, complete with a father, mother, teenage children, and younger children. Group behavior plays a big role in the game, because you'll see social dynamics and demographics at work. For example, teenagers will be drawn toward the extreme thrill rides that boom out loud music, while wives and younger kids will most likely steer toward the gentler rides. The trick is to balance the needs of the group while at the same time not alienating them.

There are a number of gameplay modes, including a campaign where you're put in charge of a theme park and given three tiers of objectives. In order to beat the scenario, you simply have to beat the easiest set of objectives, usually by raising the number of guests in the park or increasing the park's value. Doing this will unlock a scenario. If you want a tougher challenge, you can go back and achieve the second- and third-tier objectives, which are much tougher. But if you manage to unlock the second-tier objectives across all the scenarios, you'll unlock a hidden park. And if you unlock all the third-tier objectives, you'll unlock the ultimate theme park.

The game will also include a sandbox mode, so you can create your own theme park from scratch with unlimited funds, as well as a coaster editor that will allow you to custom create a coaster and then save it for later use in a theme park. The coaster-editing tools aren't that much different from those of the original two games, but one nice new feature is an auto-complete function that will let the computer automatically finish your coaster. It'll be useful for those moments when you've got 75 percent of a coaster completed, but then realize that you may have misjudged an elevation earlier. Instead of having to undo all of your progress, you can let the computer recommend a work-around solution.

There are other thrill rides aside from coasters, such as the giant sling.

You can personalize the music in the game simply by dropping your favorite music files into a specific folder on your computer; you can then associate certain songs with certain rides. And if you're a big fan of the earlier games and have a lot of custom-built coasters on your hard drive, you can import them into RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. Keep in mind that certain coasters may break in translation, but it's still a chance to bring a previous personal favorite to life in the new engine.

From our initial time with the game, it looks like Atari and Frontier have accomplished their task of delivering a next-generation RollerCoaster Tycoon game. As to whether the fans will embrace it is a question that will be answered when the game ships early next month. We'll post our review at that time.

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