I loved Rollercoaster Tycoon. I find theme parks and the construction of the rides therein really quite fascinating, so for someone to develop a game based on this very premise was a dream come true. Nearly four years ago Chris Sawyer took the formula pioneered by Bullfrog's Theme Park and pushed it forward dramatically to produce an enormously satisfying theme park sim. Can he pull it off again?
Sadly, the resounding answer appears to be "no". Well, sort of. You need only take a look at the screenshots here to realise that any advancements made to the engine are extremely tricky to spot. You can play it at higher resolutions, certainly, but that doesn't make it look any better than it did in 1999, and in the present company of games like Sim City 4 it looks distinctly... well, crap. The textures are reminiscent of Windows 95 wallpaper tiles, and the colour depth of both the interface and park graphics haven't improved in the slightest.
There's been no attempt at smoothing the landscape either, and your parks just look like mental Lego sets. This was acceptable in the game's first incarnation, when many systems would have been struggling to push it around at 1024x768, but now the functional graphical style has the effect of diluting your experience - it becomes difficult to identify with the world you're creating. Worryingly, RCT2 just isn't as fun as it should be because of this.
Sawyer would have us believe that the underlying code is "all new", but there just isn't much to show for it apart from the fact that your old saved games can't be used. The major additions to the game are the inclusion of a rollercoaster designer for use outside of park management scenarios, and a scenario editor where you can set up landscapes and win conditions to play with. The two tools share the same cumbersome construction interface as the main game, and in the case of the rollercoaster editor, it doesn't ease the construction of rides any further than taking away the responsibility of running a park while you're trying to design your uber-coaster.
There is also a set of twenty new scenarios to play, although you can now go about completing them in any order you like. With this complete open ended-ness, the feeling of progression, achievement and reward from Rollercoaster Tycoon has been replaced with what is essentially a toy set.
I-scream (Boom boom!)
The fact that the developers didn't see fit to improve on the original's frankly clumsy interface either is really quite baffling. They might have felt that the original was so well liked that they can't go wrong by recreating it, but this isn't good enough. Creating simple slopes, tunnels for your coasters and rides to pelt through isn't as simple as it should be, and the fixed ninety-degree rotational angles don't exactly make matters any easier.
How about a function to automatically generate queues when you can't see through pieces of scenery, no matter what angle you're looking from? How about the game taking the initiative and digging some tunnels for you when a ride needs them? It's little things like this that are so obviously needed that it frustrates me that I should even be having to point them out. Even the added functionality of being able to build your own scenery up block-by-block in the scenario editor is hampered by the dated construction tools. Taking what was good about the original and making it twice as good is what we expect to see in a sequel, not a half-arsed effort with some editing tools that could have been given away on the website.
Oh, but what's this on the box here? It's a Six Flags logo! Somebody somewhere saw the dollar signs, and as a result we get a set of scenarios based around recreations of the franchise's parks from around the world. The license does bring some interesting new rides to the already impressive collection, however, and just watching some of the awesomely designed coasters is an absolute pleasure.
Considering that it's perfectly possible for you to create similarly impressive rides for your own parks, it's here that RCT2 redeems itself somewhat; you have absolute power to create rides that you've only been able to dream about before, but it's just so frustrating that a potentially stunning game is handicapped by an absolute dog of an engine and no sign of real innovation. I mean look at it, for crying out loud!
'If it ain't broke, why fix it?' you could say, and as a critic this puts me in a difficult position. I could spend pages mouthing off about how nobody saw fit to really change the game and craft the sequel we deserve after gobbling up the predecessor in it's millions, but RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 is still a pretty good game in its own right, if you try to forget that it's pig-ugly and meant to be a sequel.
If you've never played RCT before, then this is an excellent opportunity to sample what is the still the definitive theme park management sim - add two to the score if that applies to you. If you're a veteran of the series, however, I wouldn't blame you for not handing over your hard-earned for what is essentially a patch and expansion pack in a box. Though it pains me to do it, for the almost complete lack of innovation and progression of a nearly four-year-old title (and a now-budget title at that), I have to hand an old friend a score like this.