Would that you could still visit theme parks in 2020. Thrill seekers would be soaking in the delights of park rides, paying far too much for novelty hats and screaming into the sky as they loop and curl through the air. Planet Coaster: Console Edition is aiming to offer us the next best thing, as Frontier’s superb theme park manager comes to your telly.
And now we’ve got a date on which all your imaginary theme parks can open. Planet Coaster is joining the masses of games lining up to launch alongside the next-generation of consoles. It’ll be out for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on 10th November, and for PlayStation 5 on 12th or 19th November, depending on where you live.
Having got to briefly go hands on with the game back in August, now, just under a month away from launch, we got to try out the whole game, sampling whatever we saw fit. Imagination failing me, and with memories of some slight awkwardness when building the coasters back in my previous preview, I made my first stop the second tutorial level, in which Eugene introduces you to the various factors you need to consider while putting together your own coaster.
Excitement, queasiness and fear all need to be balanced equally to make a rollercoaster an enjoyable one for your park’s visitors, and the tutorial handily explained how best to approach a design. You want a big drop to start, giving the cars enough momentum to ride up and over successive bumps and turns, you want to give the tracks a camber through turns to channel as much of the G-forces so that your punters feel them squashing or lifting them into or lifting from their seat, instead of throwing them from side to side, and you need to do this in moderation so that people aren’t scared stiff.
Honestly, I can’t quite remember if the interface has changed since August – if only there were a preview video I could check? – or if it was simply that I could run through the tutorial, but it just sat under my thumbs a little more easily this time around. Putting each section of track in place is so simple, the left stick determining the vertical angle and any lateral motion for each piece, so you can create smooth arcs and twists. To add camber, you hold a button and tap the triggers, but this adds a more three dimensional and relative element to how you consider each consecutive piece. It’s a little tricky to explain, but could be something that people struggle with if they lack a certain kind of spatial awareness.
One thing I did still struggle with was going back and editing the coaster. Selecting an individual piece is just a tad awkward, and then you have the headache of really needing to delete half a dozen pieces and then re-building a stretch of track from scratch. Perhaps there’s a better way to do this in game – aside from plugging in a mouse and keyboard – but I couldn’t see it, and my eagerness to move along to experience more than just the coaster tutorial stopped me from digging too deeply.
So I dove into a couple of the later campaign scenarios, each of which is introduced by the charming cast of voiced characters. One sci-fi themed park kicks off with park organiser Oswald B. Thompson explaining that its managers had mysteriously disappeared and you would step into the breach to help out, another simply has a pirate-themed park’s owners wanting to turn its park into a real money spinner. In both cases, you’re given the outline of a park, some paths, scenery, one or two rides, and basically told to get on with it. You can ramp up the difficulty by taking on the Challenge parks in a separate mode, or go freeform with the sandbox mode.
Each level has a series of stars to earn through completing objectives. So for the pirate park, it was about keeping customer satisfaction up, keeping staff employed, and starting to pull in some money. Meanwhile, the sci-fi park lived in almost perpetual darkness around a crashed space ship, with two rides to get you started, but with no other rides, attractions and few stores researched. Luckily you can force the level to have sunlight, making creating your ideal night park a bit more manageable!
Making your initial expansion from those foundations isn’t too difficult; there’s tons of scenery for you to choose from and place wherever you like. The basic placement system lets you quickly plop down new buildings, but if you want to fine tune things, there’s a precision placement and angling tools as well. You can take things even further by delving into your bag of building blocks to snap together scenery of your own making bit-by-bit. As with the coaster construction, it can get pretty fiddly on a controller – this likely wasn’t helped by our preview being played remotely. The prospect of manually creating scenery from scratch like this honestly just makes me want to go and take a lie down, but again, there’s plenty of pre-created blueprints in the game if you just want to indulge in the management side of things, and then there’s the Frontier Workshop.
This is Frontier’s own home-grown user generated content platform, where players can create and then upload everything from scenery and buildings up to shops, coasters and entire parks. I feel it’s sure to be the scenery tab that people visit most often, cutting out the need to dive in and put things together piece by piece, but I also expect there to be a cottage industry of user created challenge parks for people to download and test themselves against.
Frontier Workshop is also Planet Coaster’s way of sidestepping the inability to transfer progress from PS4 to PS5 – Smart Delivery just sorts that out on Xbox. Speaking of which, we were playing on Xbox One X for this preview. The game looks sharp and its performance is robust on the outgoing console powerhouse, but I’d expect it to play well on PS4 and Xbox One as well. Certainly the next gen consoles will serve to trim loading times and make scrolling through the building and asset library a touch smoother.
While I still find the controls a bit fiddly for my liking, Planet Coaster: Console Edition is still a delight. Without the time pressures of a hands on preview session, any control niggles will surely fade into the background, with a big, bright and generally easy to navigate UI letting you dive in and manage your park from top to bottom. I doubt there’ll be many better ways to spend a wintry Sunday to see out this year and savour gaming on our new hyper-powered consoles.