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How bad exactly is Atari's Rollercoaster Tycoon World?

Snark and rides.

Atari's reputation as a gaming label is now so far down the pan that virtually every release is met with a mixture of resigned inevitability and something akin to a macabre glee. Recent abominations such as Alone in the Dark: Illumination and the bizarre survivalist reboot of Asteroids haven't simply been bad, but so explosively atrocious that the games transform into a circus of mockery and ridicule. In the centre of the ring is a lousy clown who remains entertaining purely because the audience gets to throw pies at him.

It's fair to say that Rollercoaster Tycoon World was similarly expected to step out of its tiny car, trip over its oversized shoes and somehow hang itself on the high-wire, causing the big-top to collapse, the elephants to escape, and the lion to seize this golden opportunity to eat its tamer. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on your perspective) it isn't as bad as all that.

It's still bad, mind you. Rollercoaster Tycoon World could in no way be described as a good game in its current state. But I don't think it is entirely beyond redemption either. There is a functioning, sensibly structured game here, possibly an enjoyable one given a hefty dollop of work.

Anyone who has played a management game in the last ten years will be immediately familiar with how Rollercoaster Tycoon World works. Starting off with a few thousand in funding and a small plot of land, you lay a few paths, construct a couple of basic rides like merry-go-rounds and haunted houses, organise some basic amenities (toilets, janitors mechanics and the like) and then open up your fledgling theme park to the public.

The dream.Watch on YouTube

Yet behind the colourful facades and the laughter of children is a serious capitalist machine. Alongside the initial ticket cost, entry to each ride can be priced as high or low as you like, food outlets and bathrooms will cater to your punters' basic needs at a premium, while souvenir stalls will further fleece attendees of any green in their pockets. As your cashflow increases, more expensive rides can be unlocked, including the titular rollercoasters, which can either be purchased as completed tracks, or designed and tested yourself.

While Rollercoaster Tycoon World's heritage is obvious in its theme, in terms of structure it owes a lot to Colossal Order's Cities: Skylines. Your basic building plot, for example, can be expanded out via a top-down tile map, and each new plot costs twice that of the previous one. Progress is tracked by attendance and funding milestones, achieving which unlock new rides and so forth. There's even a traffic management element to World: lay out too few paths and certain areas of the park will quickly become overcrowded, impacting upon the overall happiness of your customers.

All the familiar elements of theme-park management games are present too. Alongside park construction and casual extortion, you need to ensure that rides are maintained, vomit is cleaned up, and that any coasters you design yourself aren't going to kill anyone. There's a fair amount on offer for an Early Access title too, including plentiful rides and multiple game modes.

In short, on a fundamental systemic level, Rollercoaster Tycoon World works. It is in no way inventive or progressive, but it functions as you would expect a park management game to do.

For about the first 30 minutes.

After the half-hour mark, performance issues kick in like an emergency brake on fun. As your park expands and the crowds inside it grow, the framerate begins to tick down to the point where the game becomes virtually unplayable. I was playing Rollercoaster Tycoon World on a GTX Titan, and after about three hours the game was crawling along like a walrus with a heart condition. Alongside this gradual degradation in performance, are more specific issues, selecting a ride to build, for example, causes the frame-rate to plummet like the Tower of Terror.

Rollercoaster Tycoon World's abysmal performance is downright baffling, because it isn't like the game is a graphical powerhouse. In fact, on the visual side it's pretty ropey. Some of the rides are nicely modelled, but the lighting is flat and the textures basic, and unless you're zoomed right in, attendee models look as if they've arrived straight from the Dark Engine, ugly clumps of polygons seemingly battered into a vaguely humanoid shape. The problem isn't so much a lack of technical fortitude, however, as an absence of style. Rollercoaster Tycoon World is colourful but artless, like a child's painting.

The combination of poor visuals and worse performance result in Rollercoaster Tycoon World being a rather unpleasant experience. Designing rollercoasters is particularly impossible, although this is perhaps as much to do with the tools you're given as the creaking engine behind it. Rollercoasters are designed by connecting "nodes" of track. Laying out the basic track is fairly straightforward. The game is pretty generous when it comes to how your coaster can twist around, over and beneath itself, although altering the track's elevation with the mousewheel is agonisingly slow. The problem occurs when you need to make mechanical additions to the track, such as chains or acceleration and braking systems. Attempting to do this is fiddlier than an obsessive-compulsive violinist, and I lost patience with halfway through my second custom coaster.

The reality.Watch on YouTube

The path-finding system has some serious problems too. It's extremely difficult to create pathways that are a sequence of clean straight lines. The grid-snapping system causes more problems than it solves, resulting in wonky paths that look unappealing when viewed from above.

Finally, the bugs. I didn't encounter as many as some users have claimed to, but those I did encounter were absolute doozys. It took me about half an hour to get the game to start, as it kept me on a completely black screen until I pressed Shift and Tab. It gave me a fantastic idea for a sequel, however: Rollercoaster Tycoon Abyss, a game in which you build a theme-park for the damned.

The most spectacular bug occurred when I placed a souvenir shop underneath a custom rollercoaster, at which point every single person in the park disappeared. Everyone gone, as if my latest foam-hand stand had inadvertently triggered the Rapture. For a few moments my park was utterly silent, then about 2000 people poured through the ticket barriers at once. This tsunami of bodies netted me around $15,000 in a matter of seconds. Technically this is a complaint, although I have to admit as an experience it was quite remarkable.

Alongside these hard problems are a few smaller but equally weird idiosyncrasies. To briefly return to the subject of circuses, you can build one in Rollercoast Tycoon World. But it's subject to the same systems as everything else. So at one point my circus broke down. I'm not sure how this is possible. Was a trapeze artist malfunctioning? Did the fortune teller suffer a memory leak? Was there a stack overflow in the human pyramid? Did the contortionist encounter a burst error? The reason given was "Emergency Stop." But that just makes things more baffling. Incidentally, how do you stop a circus? Go for the juggler.

Facetiousness aside, Rollercoaster Tycoon World has a fair old climb ahead of it. The basic skeleton is passable, but it's a technical mess and the systems need considerable refinement. Even then, the chances of it being anything other than acceptable are fairly remote. But there is a chance, and for a game being published under the much-maligned Atari label, that is a considerable step forward.

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