Making a sequel to a hit game is tricky business. If you simply rehash the original, fans will complain that it's more of the same. But if you change too much, you risk losing what made the original special. The RollerCoaster Tycoon series stands as good evidence of these potential pitfalls. The first game quietly debuted in 1999, only to become a huge success that spawned countless imitators. But the series stumbled with RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, which was deemed by fans to be too much like the first game. That brings us to RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, the newest game in the series. In many ways, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is the sequel we've been waiting for--the one that updates the gameplay and graphics to modern-day standards. Yet while RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 delivers on those promises, its potential is undermined by some glaring bugs.
Like its predecessors, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 allows you to build the theme park of your dreams and then watch as your guests (known as peeps) walk around and enjoy the rides. Thanks to its next-generation 3D technology, the parks come to life like never before. Though the appearance has drastically changed, much of the underlying game mechanics remain comfortably familiar for the most part. Once again, your job in the career mode is to take charge of a series of failing or nascent theme parks and make them flourish. Each scenario has a three-tiered set of objectives, ranging from apprentice (the easiest) to tycoon (the hardest). In order to accomplish the apprentice objectives (and unlock a new map), all you usually have to do is hire park staff to clean and maintain the park and build a few extra rides, concession stands, and coasters. Using this method, you can blitz through most of the scenarios in the game. But if you want a tougher challenge, you can tackle the more advanced objectives, which will task you with harder goals, such as repaying the park's loans or building coasters of a certain length and excitement level.
British studio Frontier, which developed the game with oversight from series creator Chris Sawyer, wisely didn't stray too far from many of Sawyer's established conventions. You still design the park and build a wide range of rides and attractions, and you can pick from prebuilt coasters to ones that you design on the fly. The coaster-building tool is derived from the first two games, but it's easier to use, thanks to the 3D engine that allows you to zoom in and move the camera around to better understand the layout of your coaster. And you'll still control veritably every aspect of your park, from the entrance fee, research and development on new attractions, ticket prices, all the way down to the color schemes on your rides and employees' uniforms. Meanwhile, Frontier also threw in its own, welcome innovations, such as a fireworks editor that lets you create your own custom fireworks show to go along with a mix of your favorite tunes, which you can import easily into the game. Then there's a new focus on the peeps. Each of your peeps now has a unique appearance, and they are now separated into demographic and social groups. Young peeps steer toward gentle rides, while teen peeps like extreme thrills, whereas older peeps will move toward the more sedate entertainment.
But at the heart of the RollerCoaster Tycoon games is the sheer sense of fun that you feel when watching your peeps enjoy your park. There's nothing like seeing a peep come off a thrilling coaster and pump his hands in the air while the peep behind him looks nauseous and has to sit down. Then there's the satisfaction of building a hot new ride and seeing the peeps queue up in a huge line, waiting to give it a try. RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 manages to capture some of this, but Frontier also loses something in the translation from the original games. Gone is the giddy, infectious carnival music that seemed universally present in the first two games. In its place is a rather mellow, almost New Age theme music, and while you can customize the music on all of your rides by importing your favorite tunes, you have to zoom in close to a ride to hear the music. What's more serious, though, are RollerCoaster Tycoon 3's gameplay issues.
Unfortunately, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 managed to ship with a number of glaring bugs that can make your park feel a bit lifeless, even when there are hundreds of peeps roaming about. For example, popular rides that are hot one moment mystifyingly go suddenly ice cold the next, and even slashing prices to the bone can't seem to resurrect their appeal. Or sometimes you can have a park full of rides, yet few peeps seem interested in actually riding them even though there are no lines--those rides then become money pits that slowly drain your coffers. And in some cases, certain rides refuse to reset properly, meaning that your peeps will get stuck in line and complain. Shutting down and starting up the ride in question doesn't reset the ride, either.
These bugs will probably be addressed by Atari and Frontier in the coming months, but the shame is that they mar what is otherwise a beautiful game. The new 3D engine is a marvel to behold, as you can see hundreds of unique peeps explore parks brimming with sights and sounds. Though the peeps have a somewhat blocky look to them, the rest of the game is exceptionally detailed and well-rendered. And the big, new highlight is the ride cam, which lets you ride both the coasters and noncoaster rides from a first-person perspective. Experiencing a virtual coaster from the front seat is an experience that's the next best thing to riding a real coaster--the only things missing are the g-forces and the wind in your face. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that larger parks with large populations of peeps can slow your computer down, but the graphics engine has numerous settings that let you scale down the visuals.
There's also a lot of content to explore, as RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 ships with five different themes, including generic, space, and Wild West. Each theme has its own distinctive rides and amusements and shops, as well as animatronics and decorations. There's also a huge amount of variety, so you can set up water rides with mechanical great white sharks that lurch out of the water to any style of coaster imaginable. There are also 18 distinct scenarios in the game, though the last two are only playable if you unlock them, which is done by beating all the earlier scenarios on the tougher difficulty levels. These scenarios all present unique settings and challenges, but as with the earlier RollerCoaster Tycoon games, the best scenarios are those that give you something to work with. A perfect example would be the run-down Hollywood theme park that comes with an amazing tram ride that's right out of a studio-lot tour. The oft-requested sandbox mode that lets you build a park from scratch with unlimited funds has also finally made an appearance, giving micromanagers and enthusiasts the ability to build the parks of their dreams.
There's plenty to like in RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, which makes the game's teething problems all the more annoying. If not for some of the glaring bugs, Frontier would have delivered a truly excellent sequel to a beloved franchise. However, it looks like we'll have to wait a bit longer while Atari and Frontier iron out all the wrinkles.