Many moons ago, back in the days when a Pentium 90 was cutting edge, the Tories were still in government and you could say you'd been to a 'rave' without sounding like a pillock, a game landed that was like the bastard love child of SimCity and a lunatic. Theme Park was all of the addictive building/god stuff that made SimCity great, but twisted it so you could construct a theme park instead. And it rocked. Hours turned into months as your life drifted by in a haze of Pringles, beer and lost sleep. It was good. Then came Rollercoaster Tycoon, which was the same game with a more serious angle. Again, supplies of munchies from Tesco dropped to an all time low. And then there was Theme Park World. Which was, frankly, not a patch on its predecessors. So now the latest pretender to the crown enters stage left - Theme Park Inc.
Initially Theme Park Inc seems great, after all it's visually stunning (all spinny rotatey), and unlike Theme Park World, the graphics are crisp and clean edged and the resolution goes above 800x600. There's a wide variety of rides to build, and your lab technicians can research and come up with a whole load more. But all that glitters is not gold. After you play for more than an hour, you start to realise that this is really nothing more than Theme Park World spruced up with a set of dubious challenges tacked on, and looking like an afterthought rather than the crux of the whole game.
The game itself is in three parts: Polar, Desert and Invention (substitute the word 'invention' for 'grass'). Within each are three or four sub sections which get activated when you complete a challenge. This would have been OK if the challenges weren't so simple that a brain dead chimpanzee could do them standing on his head. Tasks such as "Try to get 40 people in your park" when you've already got 500+ parolees queuing for the Go Karts or "We need to sell more Hot Dogs" when just lowering the price to 'Free' solves that tricky little number. And they stay easy as you go through the game. Oh well, perhaps other parts of the game are better.
Sadly, you're going to be disappointed here again. One of the great things with Theme Park and Roller Coaster Tycoon was both the humour and (believe it or not) the physics. If you built a roller coaster that made its passengers pull massive G forces then threw them around like a spin-dryer, they would either fly off it in all directions, or at the least, vomit and up-chuck the second they got off. It was sick, masochistic fun. However, the game wasn't stupid - if you tried to build two roller coasters into each other, it wouldn't let you. Not so Theme Park Inc, which seems to have rewritten the laws of physics to suit. You can loop the loop at 5mph, yet no one falls out. And you can even build rides into each other, so they merge like some kind of Big Dipper sandwich. It can end up looking like a set from Barbarella.
For a game produced in Guilford, by EA developers Bullfrog, it's amazing how un-British the game is; everything's in $, chips are called 'fries' and they managed to find the world's most patronising voice to do the voice-over for the tutorials.
It wouldn't be so bad if you could just disable the voice help, but the problem is that she doesn't just do tips, she lets you know when real problems crop up. The financial management side of the sim (such as there is) seems perfectly suited for the 7+ age range. It's all so damn fluffy.
And that's the problem with Theme Park Inc. It's all so cosy and pre-packaged. There's no feeling of open building that you got in Theme Park, everything's drip fed. The challenges are way to simple, and despite looking fantastic, the lack of realism in the rides again shafts any good feelings you may have had. It's definitely the sort of game parents would buy their 10-year-old kid, but everyone else will just find it bland.
Download Theme Park Inc.
According to Sigmund Freud, there is a childlike sense within each and every one of us that is constantly fighting against our adult will. This theory could help explain the huge popularity of everything theme park related in both children and adults alike. But enough of the psychobabble, we've got a game to look at.
Following on from Theme Park World, TPI attempts to take all the fun gameplay and addictiveness of its predecessor and incorporate an on-going storyline around it. You see, the only problem that us journo bods had with the last game was that it became repetitive far too quickly. Once you had a prosperous theme park up and running, there was very little left to challenge you.
The plot will revolve around the takeover of a set of theme parks by an up-and-coming business consortium. You play a young assistant manager who the company's president has taken a particular liking to. In fact, he likes you so much that he sees you as his successor, which inevitably saves you from having to brown nose your way up the corporate ladder.
Anyhow, in order to take over you're going to need a 51 per cent stake in the company, and the way to gain shares will be to successfully complete a series of tasks that the old man gives you, such as raising the happiness of a theme park to a certain level and keeping it there for a set amount of time. Once you've completed the objective, you'll move on to another theme park and be issued with new orders. This looks as though it will make TPI far more focused, and as a result, far less repetitive.
There will be 15 levels set over three themed areas - Arabian Nights, Polar Zone and New Sciences, each with their own set of rides and unique architecture. What's more, you'll have greater control of your finances, as you'll now be able to set the price for each individual ride, rather than just the admission fee, and choose how much to pay each of your employees.
Further improvements to the gameplay will include new types of visitors, such as flower-loving OAPs, freak weather conditions and an easier rollercoaster-building interface. With this, you'll be able to build and edit your rides with a few simple clicks on your mouse, and having seen it first hand, we can tell you that it's looking pretty intuitive.
The demonstration we sat through gave us plenty of reason to believe Theme Park Inc may well be more than a match for its main rival, Rollercoaster Tycoon, and could possibly even better it. However, the omission of a free-play option is somewhat baffling. Still, this aside, it's looking pretty good and we've all gone and booked ourselves a one-week ticket to Alton lowers over Christmas so we can do some research on the ideal type of ride. It's all part of the service...