Better than actual roller coasters? We've played Park Beyond at Europa-Park
Recently we travelled to the German city of Rust to play the upcoming theme park game Park Beyond and compare it with the real deal.
With games such as RollerCoaster Tycoon, Theme Park, and later Thrillville, the 90s and early 00s were a great time for fans of amusement park simulators. Unfortunately, the genre kind of dried up, but soon Limbic Entertainment is aiming to change that with Park Beyond. To mark the occasion publisher Bandai Namco invited us to try the game at Europa-Park, a real theme park in southern Germany close to the borders of France and Switzerland.
A stroll through the bustling streets of Europa-Park made me ponder why the genre faded away. There are probably many reasons, but one of them must surely be that few games in recent years have managed to capture the atmosphere of real theme parks despite the advancement in graphics. As a result, you often end up feeling a bit detached, like you're some sort of functionary in a ministry of fun aiming to make people happy while not sharing in the joy yourself.
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If you look around the park, there are all the basic rides, which sell a fantasy to the people who go onto it. With Park Beyond we wanted to make this fantasy real.
I get that the more abstract aspects are also part of the appeal. After all, these are management games, and in Park Beyond you still get a host of advanced features to tweak and adjust. But developer Limbic Entertainment has clearly tried amplifying the atmosphere by taking full advantage of the special benefits you get by running a digital amusement park compared to a real one - mainly the fact that safety is no longer a factor, and that the law of physics, while still somewhat applying, are way more forgiving than in real life.
"In Park Beyond designing your theme park is at the heart of the experience. But we wanted to add something on top of this. We introduce players to the 'impossification' of rides," explains producer Marco Huppertz while directing our attentions to the surrounding attraction on a busy square in Europa-Park. "So, if you look around the park, there are all the basic rides, which sell a fantasy to the people who go onto it. With Park Beyond we wanted to make this fantasy real, and impossify the rides into something you wouldn't be able to experience in real life."
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While playing I found the results of this impossification to be quite varied. In a water slide you might meet an actual Kraken or on a roller coaster the cart might be shot out of an actual cannon. The feature also extends to staff members that, when impossified, might use a plethora of advanced gadgets to turn their mundane task into an entertaining activity. It's not in any way ground-breaking, but it does breathe a lot of life into what is otherwise a somewhat generic art style with very bright colours and cartoony characters that look scarily doll-like in their appearance.
While impossification remains central to the game's atmosphere, it wasn't the main focus of the actual preview where I played two missions and messed around in the sandbox mode. After having constructed a huge roller coaster in the first mission, I was thrown directly into building up my own park from the ground up. It starts easy enough as I build flat rides such as Ferris wheels and carousels and then lay paths between. Placement is easily handled, and you have great precision in terms of adjusting rotation and the exact location.
For a roller coaster or any other attraction, you'll need to think about the guests first.
Having laid the foundation, I'm ready to open the park, but unfortunately the guests bring with them a host of problems, and I scramble to build benches, toilets and food stands while hiring four or five sanitary workers, since the primary teen audience that I'm aiming for seems unable or unwilling to use the garbage cans I have placed at every step of the park. Beneath the crazy and colourful surface there is a slew of mundane problems that must be tackled, and sim nerds will probably have a field day with advanced features such as heat maps showing possible improvements and the possibility to adjust the prices of individual items in the shops.
I'm mostly here for the roller coasters though. The final challenge of the game's second mission will have you constructing a huge roller coaster with several unique "hooks." Apparently, this is also how you approach the challenge of building real roller coasters, I later learn, while speaking to Mathis Gullon, a project manager at the construction firm Mach NeXT: "For a roller coaster or any other attraction, you'll need to think about the guests first. What do you want them to do, what do you want them to feel. And then you'll need to check what space you have available of course, what budget also, and then you can make a design out of it. But really, it's guest, space, budget."
Since this is only the second mission, budget is not really a problem (later missions will be more challenging though) and there is little chance I will run out of space. With the audience being my only real consideration then, I decided to go for some insane drops and crazy turns to keep the bored teenagers from falling asleep. Unlike in RollerCoaster Tycoon, you can't let your guests ride an unfished ride, sit back, and wait for the mayhem. This is a German game after all, and a safety check must be performed before you can open any ride. Also, you have to consider factors such as speed and momentum, which can be controlled with special track sections that pull, slow down, or assist the cart around corners.
This might sound like it limits your options, but that isn't the case, which becomes quite obvious when I look at the player on the screen next to me. While my roller coaster is somewhat safe and subdued despite my ambitions, hers is truly insane, rising several hundred meters into the sky and only being supported by what seems like long sticks of spaghetti, as the algorithm clearly struggles to autogenerate support beams for a build of this ridiculous height. After the agonizingly slow crawl towards the blue sky comes a sudden fall and then a truly vomit inducing vortex of insane twist and turns, which for some reason I can't fathom, still ends up getting past the safety inspection and gets approved for guests. In short, you can build some truly unique rides, and we only got to try a tiny fraction of the many tools during this preview.
The impossifictation features, the surprisingly deep number of management and customisation options and, not the least, the tools for constructing roller coasters. All of this seems very promising. But still, having played the game at Europa-Park it's hard not to compare the game a bit unfavourably with the real deal.
The park is a huge wonderland of varied styles, with 18 themed areas, most of them based on European countries. In comparison, Park Beyond has five different themes and many of them are quite generic such as Western or the Candyland, which I tried during the preview.
Perhaps it's an unfair comparison. Europa-Park has been slowly expanding for fifty years, while Limbic Entertainment only wrapped up production on their last game, the excellent Tropico 6, three years ago. Hopefully the last few months of development will further refine the already solid features, and when they are finally ready to show the full game, the remaining themes and all the impossible rides will result in the theme park simulator we have all been craving since the competitors ran out of steam a decade or two ago.