It's a Sim world after all.
The management simulation genre is really hit or miss. On one hand, you get killer games like SimCity 3000 and Railroad Tycoon 2. On the other, you get games with titles that would make your great-grandfather proud (the one who lived in the dumpy shack and earned a nickel a week scraping gum off old army boots), those thrill-a-minute games like Wall Street Trader 2000 and Capitalism Plus. Just what we all need - a safe place to practice capitalism. I knew I could get the hang of downsizing!
The best simulation game in recent memory was Rollercoaster Tycoon. Combining amazing depth and realism with the fun of running an amusement park, RCT even won the Game Revolution's Best Simulation of 1999 award.
Not to be outshone, Bullfrog has cranked out Sim Theme Park (called Theme Park World in Europe), a brand new version of its semi-classic game, Theme Park. While offering some very cool new twists on the genre, this game eventually falls prey to its own limitations.
Sim Theme Park, I should note, is the very first "Sim" game not made by Maxis. I guess EA thought that slapping the Sim prefix on the title would help out its American sales. Regardless, don't expect this game to follow the 'Sim' mold.
Essentially, Sim Theme Park lets you design theme parks from the ground up. But unlike other simulation games, it has an 'arcadey' flair that both enhances and detracts from the experience.
You can choose from 4 different themes: Lost Kingdom, Halloween, Space Zone, and Land of Wonders. Only two are available at first. By playing the game well and achieving certain milestones, you are awarded golden keys that eventually open up the other two zones.
The general gameplay is familiar. You build shops, scenery, sideshows, and rides. You hire staff to keep the park running smoothly. You research new types of attractions. All the while, you must keep track of finances, taking out loans if you run out of cash. It pretty much follows the simulation game formula of 'build, tweak, save money, build more.'
The rides themselves are fine, though many are fantastical and have nothing to do with what you'd find in a real amusement park. Some of the spinning rides would even make a Zen monk, deep in meditation, toss some cookies. Initially, there's a nice variety. But as you build in the four different zones, you'll soon realize that the same rides crop up over and over again, just with different names and looks.
Ride design itself is very limited. In fact, the only rides you can actually modify are ones with tracks, like log rides and rollercoasters. Unfortunately, the game doesn't really base itself in real-world physics. You can build the most ridiculous track imaginable and it will always work. This is a far cry from the ultra-realistic coaster designer in Rollercoaster Tycoon, which is just a better system.
The graphics are exceptional. You play from a top-down view, but you can zoom in and rotate around your park with a Myth style 3D camera. The inhabitants of your park are all 2D sprites, but all objects in the game (including shops, scenery, and rides) are polygonal. With acceleration, the game uses both D3D and 3Dfx chipsets to create a good-looking environment. You can even use a 'camcorder' mode to walk around in your park via a first-person perspective. And yes, you can finally ride the rides.
This is perhaps the most-hyped aspect of the game, and it's certainly cool. You even get a bit dizzy from the nauseous rides and can feel the speed of the coasters. Of course, this falls under the 'bells and whistles' flag, and while it's a great addition, it doesn't have much of an affect on the gameplay. However, I do hope that it's an option we'll see in future simulation games.
Another nice addition is the ability to publish your park online, or visit other people's parks from the online site. Again, not the most thrilling thing in the world, but certainly a nifty afterthought.
The sound is fine, except for the little 'advisor' guy who updates you on your progress. His constant stream of 'helpful' hints is worse than a nagging housewife. "Your bathrooms are dirty. Better clean 'em up!" Shut up, mom. (which you can thankfully do in the options menu)
Sim Theme Park has its biggest problem with variety. Some simulation games rely on enormous depth and seemingly endless upgrades to keep you playing (SimCity). Others use the 'scenario' formula to vary the challenges. Sadly, Sim Theme Park offers neither. The fact that rides are repeated between the 4 different parks really detracts from the game and marks a pretty big design flaw.
I also have an issue with the difficulty, or lack thereof. It's just a bit too easy to do well. It doesn't seem to matter much how ergonomically pleasing your park feels to the guests - the game is far too forgiving. Getting the extra keys is really just a matter of time.
Frankly, Sim Theme Park's interesting new offerings are overshadowed by its shortcomings. It just can't seem to decide whether or not it wants to target hardcore sim freaks or casual gamers. Unfortunately, the appeal lies somewhere in the middle. Gamers looking for a great amusement park simulation should look at RCT. This one's a kiddie ride.