RollerCoaster Tycoon wasn't the first tycoon game, but its popularity ushered the wave of tycoon games that followed. It also single-handedly defined the formula for the genre; virtually all tycoon games borrow the same 2D isometric graphics and interface established in RollerCoaster Tycoon. Even RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 mimicked its predecessor--perhaps too well, as one of the complaints of that game was that it didn't feel like a sequel. But the upcoming RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 promises to give the RollerCoaster Tycoon franchise a major overhaul, and we've had the chance to play with the game to see how it's shaping up.
The important thing to keep in mind about RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is that RollerCoaster Tycoon creator Chris Sawyer isn't working on it. Instead, another British development studio, Frontier, got the nod to make RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. Sawyer has an advisory role on the game, but RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is, for all essential purposes, all Frontier. This is made obvious when you load up the game--gone is the giddy, infectious park music that greeted you when RollerCoaster Tycoon 1 and 2 started up. In its place is an almost sedate, laid-back, New Age theme that reflects the changes in the game. And while this is a RollerCoaster Tycoon game that stays loyal to the concepts of the first two games, it's an entirely different beast under the hood.
Of course, the big new upgrade in RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is the new 3D engine, which replaces Chris Sawyer's almost trademark 2D graphics look. This new 3D engine is beautiful, as it incorporates a lot of eye candy that wasn't possible in the first two games. You can move the camera around, zoom in and out, and even "ride" the coasters from a first-person perspective. The 3D engine also manages to place plenty of detail, from the countless wooden struts that make up a giant wooden coaster to the unique appearance for every individual in your park. Then there are the other pieces of eye candy, including a day/night cycle with changing lighting conditions, a beautiful lighting engine that allows the colored lights on your rides to glow softly from a distance at night, and eye-catching water reflections.
One of the joys of the original RollerCoaster Tycoon games was simply sitting back and watching your peeps, the virtual visitors to your park, as they had fun exploring and riding the rides. The new 3D engine also allows each visitor to have a unique appearance, so now you really get a sense of a diverse audience visiting your park, from young to old. A cool new feature to facilitate the people-watching is the attract mode, which is implemented by hitting the Ctrl and the A keys together. The camera will then fly around your park, locking on to a random peep and doing a close-up before pulling back and finding another peep to lock onto.
As pretty as the new 3D engine is, it does present some challenges at first. The ability to move the camera around is nice, but getting a feel for the controls takes some time. At first, it's easy to accidentally move the mouse, causing the camera to fly away from what you were trying to zoom in on. After some practice, we discovered that the best control scheme required using the WASD keys to move the camera up, down, left, and right, while using the scroll wheel to zoom in and out.
RollerCoaster Tycoon also introduces a new user interface, and it's notable not because it's difficult to use, but rather because it's different from what we've come to expect from Tycoon games. Keep in mind that the interface at this stage isn't final, so what we saw could very well change. However, for now, the UI consists mainly of a series of buttons to the left side of the screen, and clicking on any one of them opens up a submenu of other buttons, which, if you slide your mouse over any of them, causes a little tool tip to pop up telling you what it does. Click on a ride, and a circular window opens up in the bottom right-hand side of the screen, and all the ride controls are accessible through this radial menu. While the interface is fairly self-explanatory, we did find ourselves wishing that it presented a little more information. For example, when you click on a building in your park, it's a bit hard to figure out what exactly the building does, because the game doesn't present that information to you clearly.
The mechanics of building rides and attractions remains fairly similar to the original RollerCoaster Tycoons. You select what you want to build, rotate it around to orient it in the direction you want, and plop it down. You still have a considerable amount of customization that you can do, from changing the color scheme to micromanaging the prices that it charges. You'll start off with just a fraction of rides and options available to you, but by diverting revenue to research and development you can unlock new rides and attractions. You'll also have to worry about human resources, as you once again need to hire all maintenance people, mechanics, security guards, and entertainers to keep your park clean and safe. You can also assign a particular worker to a section of your park, that way you can ensure that all the mechanics are spread out so that should a ride break down, someone can fix it quickly.
As beautiful as the game is, we also noted a distinct lack of music playing in the background. In fact, the only time you really hear crowd noise or the sounds of your park is when you zoom in close. When you're zoomed out, the game is quiet. Hopefully this can be rectified in the final version of the game, as part of the fun of RollerCoaster Tycoon was the sheer infectious joy you got from just watching and listening to it in action. At this point, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 strikes us as a more mature and more sedate version of the original RollerCoaster Tycoon. The shift to a fully realized 3D graphics engine is a welcome one, and it definitely makes RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 one of the prettiest tycoon games we've seen. Frontier is working on putting the finishing touches on the game, and we should see it ship sometime this winter.