Maybe you wouldn’t detect it from the frequency with which we hand out negative reviews, but you would struggle to find a games writer more sympathetic to PR people than me. I’m a former PR person myself, and I’ve had to squeeze lemonade out of a client’s lemons more times than I’d care to count. It beats digging ditches, but it’s not easy.
So I feel truly, deeply bad for the PR folks representing Rollercoaster Tycoon 4. Not only is it the most abysmally bad major release of 2014, but every big name associated with it is running away from the thing like it’s a radioactive member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Franchise progenitor Chris Sawyer told us flat out that he has nothing to do with it. In an interview with NowGamer, new Atari CEO Fred Chesnais said that the game was mostly baked when he showed up and implies that he just kicked it out the door to be rid of it.
So let’s have a moment’s silence for the poor flacks doing their best to drum up interest in a title that is the gaming equivalent of a trip to the Marquis de Sade’s dentist.
The first three Rollercoaster Tycoon games (they’re dirt cheap on GOG and still wonderful, by the by) were deeply nerdy simulation games about running your own amusement park, designed by Transport Tycoon creator Chris Sawyer. When I say deeply nerdy I mean a game that is almost unsurpassed in its desire to expose its mathematical workings to the player — the true spiritual descendent of RCT these days is Kerbal Space Program.
Designing a roller coaster in the old RCT games meant using a prodigious array of parts to create a track, which you would test over and over again to tweak its performance until it struck just the balance of safety and excitement that you wanted. Maximizing speed and vertical G-force made for a thrilling ride but you needed to weigh that against minimizing lateral Gs to keep the coaster from inducing nausea in your clientele. On top of that, you had to alter your park’s terrain and ensure that new attractions and stalls were priced to turn a profit. The original Rollercoaster Tycoon games asked you to be an engineer, a marketer, and a landscape architect all at once.
The new Rollercoaster Tycoon has cast you in a similarly imagination-stretching (but entirely different) role: it expects you to be a slightly slow toddler with easy access to a credit card.
Here’s the generous explanation for RCT 4: it was designed by a cargo cult. The poor innocents tasked with creating this wretched thing dissected Chris Sawyer’s games and came up with a list of basic elements common to all of them, and made sure to include them in their game. Designing coasters? Check. Opening vending stalls? Check. Laying down paths, erecting statues, and planting topiary bushes? Check, check, and check.
While all of those elements are nominally present like the bamboo rifles and coconut helmets of the cargo cultists, there isn’t any of the depth from the Sawyer games. Your coasters need only to form a complete circuit, for example. There’s none of the G-force or safety concerns of the original, and specialised parts like brakes and chain-driven lift hills aren’t needed: trains are magically pushed up hills by an unseen force and take every corner at a preternaturally correct speed. Rollercoaster Tycoon seems to exist in a magical universe where physics doesn’t apply and claptrap like this is engaging.
Apologists for free-to-play games often say that by and large mobile gamers aren’t interested in intellect-flexing experiences like the original RCT games. Even if you accept that as true (and I most certainly do not), one still struggles to identify the Hodor-like simpleton that would derive any sort of gratification from Rollercoaster Tycoon 4. There’s apparently no simulation at work at all: where you place facilities and rides in relation to one another appears to be of no importance. The game coos and praises you for Herculean accomplishments like “touching a button” and “opening a menu”. The treacly art style vaguely evokes the look of the original games but its chief inspiration appears to be Duplo blocks. It’s a combination of dull and patronising that I normally only expect from cable TV news.
So that’s the generous explanation. The more cynical one is that Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 isn’t designed to be fun, it’s designed simply to bilk money out of the tiny minority of free-to-play gamers with impulse-control problems who bankroll the entire phenomenon. Unusually for a game laden with timers and pay-gates, RCT 4 comes with an up-front price. The PR people repping the game practically begged us to point out that it comes pre-loaded with lots of in-game currency in exchange for this, but that will run out quite quickly and need to be refilled from your wallet. Let’s not pretend that the up-front price had any other purpose than extracting some dosh from fans of the original games who stumble across it on the App Store without reading reviews first — fans who will delete it with extreme prejudice after about 20 minutes. It’s irredeemably bad, and even Atari knows it.
I haven’t deleted RCT 4 from my devices, though. I’ve actually found quite a compelling use for it: it’s going to be my totem, like the tchotckes that Leo DeCaprio and company carry around in Inception. If I ever load up Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 and find that I’m having fun, I’ll know that I’m in some malignant dream world that I need to urgently wake up from.