As its name suggests, Airport Tycoon 3 is the latest build-it-and-planes-will-come airport strategy game from developer InterActive Vision. So after three iterations, it'd be reasonable to expect that the developers would have honed the gameplay in Airport Tycoon 3 to a razor's edge. Unfortunately, this couldn't be further from reality. That's because for whatever progress that the series makes in this third installment, it's undone by lackluster gameplay and poor execution.
Airports are certainly an interesting subject to build a tycoon game around, and they're definitely a change from the glut of zoo/wild park/theme park games on the market. As with most tycoon games, in Airport Tycoon 3 you start off with a big plot of land and a large amount of capital. After building a runway, a terminal, and all the support structures, you open the airport for business. Airlines negotiate master contracts for landing and takeoff rights, as well as for contracts for individual flights. As air traffic grows, you need to upgrade facilities, build new ones, negotiate contracts, and make business deals with hotel and retail chains. There's an amazing amount of depth and detail to explore. In this aspect, Airport Tycoon 3 is certainly well researched, and you can learn volumes about the intricacies and economics of the airport business.
It's just so unfortunate that the execution in the game is so disappointing in virtually every respect. For example, the game touts two gameplay modes: scenario and sandbox. There are, however, a whopping two scenarios in the game, both of which are incredibly easy. It's almost as if the developers had planned for more but called it a day after the first two. The sandbox mode that allows you to build an airport from scratch is, for all intents and purposes, the whole of the game. It has the potential to be fun and interesting, but it's crippled by bad pacing. After you set up your airport, you have to sit around and wait for the contracts to trickle in. Contracts roll in at about one per game month, or in gameplay terms, about one every couple of minutes. There's not much to do while you're waiting, but you can't just leave the game running in the background because a contract offer will expire if you don't act on it promptly. So there are whole stretches of the game where you're doing nothing but waiting for the contract buzzer to sound. And, often times, you spend so much money building and upgrading facilities that it can easily throw you in debt, which means that you'll sit around even longer waiting to run up enough revenue to put you back in the black.
Furthermore, it doesn't help that there's a frustrating lack of information in the game. The in-game tutorial is nothing more than a blurry, noninteractive slide show. It basically reiterates the points made in the manual, and neither the tutorial nor the manual explains things that you should know, like what all the numbers and statistics mean, how the contract system works, or how to demolish an old runway to make room for a bigger one.
The RenderWare-based graphics engine allows for much more detailed buildings and airplanes than in earlier Airport Tycoon games. However, it still suffers from relatively bland textures, as well as the fact that there's just not much to look at. Occasionally a plane lands and takes off, and some cars mill about on the roads, but there's no sense of energy or busyness that you expect at an airport. When you accelerate the game to the fastest setting, the sun rises and sets so quickly that it's like watching time-lapse photography. However, the illusion is shattered by the fact that the planes remain in real time. Instead of watching dozens of flights land and take off over the course of a day, you're lucky to see a single flight come in every week or so. Moreover, the game has a peculiar problem with scale. For instance, refueling trucks are sometimes 10 times larger than the planes they refuel. If a developer is going to bother with a 3D engine, there's no excuse for not keeping things relatively scaled.
Considering that this series has survived to Airport Tycoon 3, we can only imagine that there'll eventually be an Airport Tycoon 4 one day. Hopefully, the developers will finally figure out the game that they're trying to make by then. There's a lot of potential in Airport Tycoon 3, and it's frustrating to see it wasted.