Frontier Developments' rise has been gathering pace of late. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying things, but there's an argument that you could chart the studio's current trajectory from the launch of Elite: Dangerous on Kickstarter, a move that helped the developer find the wriggle room needed to grow on its own. Now the studio has evolved into a publisher, it's taking on big licensed games (Jurassic World, F1), and it has a healthy stable of independently-owned homegrown IP.
Next to Elite, the Planet series is the other headline act in the company's lineup, and it's the new Console Edition of Planet Coaster, the first entry in the series, that is being ported first. Ahead of launch, as part of a recent showcase event, I was able to get my hands on a short demo.
Planet Coaster might be part of a relatively new IP, but Frontier's expertise in this area is extensive. Underneath the cheery, cartoonish veneer is a tycoon game where players must balance the needs of parkgoers against the bottom line, making enough profit to justify continued expansion. That means more, bigger rides to please the crowds.
As we've seen most recently with Jurassic World Evolution, there's a big appetite for these theme park tycoon games, and in that respect, it makes sense for Frontier to bring Planet Coaster over to PlayStation 4 & 5 and Xbox One/Series X. The family-friendly nature of the visuals certainly make it look and feel accessible, and the various themes that you can explore around your park are all very exciting. Naturally, rollercoasters are likely going to be the centrepiece of any new build, but there are plenty of additional attractions that you can add to spice things up further (check out the attached screenshots and you'll see plenty of examples).
Planet Coaster gives you the tools to put things where you want, connecting new rides to your existing infrastructure with ease. Once I had got going, sculpting the landscape and dropping items where I wanted them felt intuitive, and I understood what I needed to do straight away, despite limited personal experience playing these kinds of games on a console before (I've played a bit of Zoo Tycoon with my son on Xbox, but that's about it).
Sadly, I didn't get to see the new camera mode that lets you build from the perspective of the track. In fact, playing on a controller meant I struggled to get the hang of the camera at first, and on a couple of occasions I found myself staring at the back of a wall or some trees after some sloppy zooming or panning. At this stage, I'm prepared to give Frontier's UI designers the benefit of the doubt and lay the blame squarely at the door of this old PC strategy gamer. The rushed nature of the demo didn't help either; Planet Coaster is the kind of game you should sink into over hours and hours, not try in a hurried burst over a remote connection.
Potential camera quirks aside, the rest of the game seemed logically laid out, with a series of characters joining you to dispense wisdom and set you mini targets. Not only was this introduction to the game personable and lighthearted, but it also helped give me a sense of the core gameplay elements that I needed to focus on. The whole UI has been overhauled for this console port, with quick access panels and radial menus that make some of the more complicated actions easy to initiate. While there is a lot to take in and process, the path forward was never too obscured and the characterful narration not only kept me on track but it also helped to firmly establish the overall playful mood.
Frontier knows what it's doing when it comes to tycoon games, and Planet Coaster is a friendly and engaging entry in the genre. On top of tutorials and an expansive sandbox, Frontier Workshop integration means that there'll be player-made content too, further expanding the range of things you can do. There's tremendous flexibility in terms of how you go about your business and the game offers everything from a gentle experience where you decorate your world with pre-prepared blueprints and focus on the fun, to a more involved simulation where you can have complete control of virtually every aspect of your park, right down to the tiniest detail.
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