It hasn't been a very good year for Bullfrog. The British development team first filed Gene Wars (a very disappointing game), followed it up with Syndicate Wars (a lifeless sequel to one of the company's big popular titles of yesteryear), and managed to not release its most eagerly-awaited game, Dungeon Keeper, at all. Now they've released Theme Hospital. Despite pleasing graphics and a heavy dose of imagination, Theme Hospital never manages to deliver the goods on any of its gameplay promises, proving instead to be a minefield of frustration and angst waiting to spring on an unsuspecting audience.
The follow-up to Theme Park, Theme Hospital is at heart a god-game in the vein of SimCity or Populous. Using a pleasingly simple interface, players are asked to create a hospital that can stand up to a constant stream of patients inflicted with bizarre ailments. Good hospitals will include: the latest diagnostic tools, from the basic Cardiogram to more advanced choices like the X-ray and Scanner; the most advanced treatment facilities, including pharmacies and operating theaters; the latest specialized equipment - Inflater units for patients with Bloaty Heads, Fracture Clinics for those with Bandages, and so on; and, of course, a staff to run, organize, and maintain all of this equipment. Bad Hospitals won't manage to live up to the challenge, and will be shut down after killing off too many people. After healing enough people and earning enough money, you - and your hospital administration skills - will be praised by the Health Board, and you'll be invited to take over a new hospital with a greater set of challenges and rewards. The idea is simple, the gameplay is simple, and all of it turns out to be addictive and entertaining... for a while.
Once you've mastered the basics, your day-to-day life within the Theme Hospital universe will revolve around keeping your staff happy (by keeping them warm and giving them raises), making sure your patients are happy (by keeping them warm and making sure they don't have to wait to long for a doctor), making sure your hospital looks nice (by hiring loads of maintenance men to water the plants and clean up trash), and fighting off emergencies (in the form of visiting dignitaries and epidemics). Most of these tasks are easy to the point of not really mattering - when someone asks for raise you say "Yes," and when you have too many patients you build more rooms. But the tasks that aren't simple are aggravating in the extreme - to the point of making the game unbearable. The game's flawed AI routines seem designed to make sure your staff is never where it should be. Handymen wander the empty halls of your medical facilities while patients stand up to their waists in trash in waiting room. Specialists (surgeons and psychiatrists) always seem to be unable to perform their specific duties because they have volunteered to do the work of the general practitioners, while the general practitioners wander aimlessly through the halls. When a set of emergency cases (which must be cured before a time limit runs out) arrive, there's often no one to meet them at all, even if you have corridors full of qualified personnel. While there are sliders and bars to adjust, which are supposed to affect the priorities and policies that your staff follows, they seem to have little to no outcome on the recurring problems that haunt the game.
In the end, there are a few great things about this game - it boasts fantastic graphics, realistic (if often annoying) voice acting, and a lot of (also frequently annoying) humor. But like many of Bullfrog's other recent releases, the game just doesn't fly. If you think a little hospital managing sounds entertaining, download the demo and pretend that there's no more to the game. This may sound silly, but in the end, it's free, and it's guaranteed to be a lot less disappointing than coming face-to-face with the real thing.