First there was Populous, and the there was another one. Of it. Then there was Syndicate, a sort of future Populous with guns, and killing and stuff. And now there's Theme Park, a game best described as Nice Populous with a bit of Happy Syndicate thrown in for good measure. I'll say one thing for Bullfrog, they certainly like their forced-perspective, highly-populated world, master-of-all-your-survey games.
I'm sitting here trying to work out what to write after about four days of playing Theme Park and I'm having all sorts of problems. It is a very, very big game. It is a game of epic proportions. It is a game that modern urban myths and legends are based on, and possibly so large that any single human brain might well explode if all the facts and details were crammed into it, and the thing is that even after sitting in front of an Amiga for far longer than is healthy, even though I ignored advice to take ten-minute breaks and ploughed mamoth sessions building up my own entertainment empire, even though my food intake has consisted entirely of pasties, coffee and yoghurt, I still haven't built a rollercoaster, developed all of the 36 or so rides or got anywhere near taking over the world. Not being sent a manual didn't help much either, mutter moan grumble etc.
Theme Park is a multitextural game that works on a fascinating number of eclectic levels (You have to do lots of things - Ed) but on the surface layer, it's similar to Sim City. You're given a finite amount of space in which to build your park, and you've got to work out the best way to make the punters part with their money using all the underhand and sinister methods that modern creative marketing can manage.
You could, for example, concentrate everything in a small space near the entrance, but such a dense network of paths might confuse the public. At the other end of the spectrum, you could run a path right around the park area and dot rides all over the place, but there again, the public could well get bored with all the walking. Finding the right balance is the key to success.
You're given a finite amount of space
On a broad level, Theme Park is similar to Syndicate in that you've got to try and conquer all areas of the world by building parks all over the place, but unlike Syndicate when you leave a country you sell your park and use the proceeds to buy another one.
Different countries have varying tax rates, real estate prices and terms for loan repayments. They've also got differing weather conditions, so whereas Europe's rainy and miserable (a fact the Euro Disney people found out the expensive way, tee-hee) and not really the right climate for outdoor entertainment, California is great. Yakutsk in Northern Siberia, with its freezing weather and minimal population, is rated as fiendishly hard for obvious reasons.
Casually observing the game it seems like the tourists wander around randomly, but not so. They talk to each other, react to all manner of different stimuli and have drastic mood swings, and it's this 'intelligence' that makes Theme Park fascinating.
If tourists go on a ride and like it, they'll tell the people they meet, who will in turn want to go on the ride. However, if they eat a stodgy, overpriced burger, have to queue to use a smelly toilet or are forced to walk for ages to buy a drink, they'll gradually get more and more miserable, put a downer on everyone else's day and eventually head for the exit.
Making (and keeping) the tourists happy is a job that uses the majority of Theme Park's strands of gameplay and once you see how they work together you start to realise what a complex game this is. You can only increase the admission when you've got more attractions (otherwise consumer groups complain) so you've got to plough money into research for new rides. Keeping the tourists well-fed produces more litter, so you've got to employ more maintenance men.
Planning rides with long queues commits tourists to the ride, but you've got to keep them entertained by employing a Rhinoman or two. You see? It all interlocks.
As well as making pots of cash you compete against up to other 40 theme parks for the annual awards. To date, I've managed to have the most aesthetically pleasing parks (which I put down to scented bushes around the toilets and tree-lined promenades) but consistently lose massive amounts of money due to my inability to swindle people and sack malingering staff.
When I discovered two Teddy Men (the cheapest and therefore most suspect members of the staff) lying in the path I assumed they were drunk or something and instantly sacked them, only to discover they'd been mugged. Oops. In another (possibly apocryphical) tale, a writer on PC Format magazine swears blind that he saw a Chicken Man sloping off into the bushes and smoking a quick ciggy. Still, these stories all go towards showing you what an intricate little world it is.
To go on and on about all the features would take up another four pages, so I'd better cram in a bit of comment at the end. Despite the obvious cute look of the game, it doesn't take you long to realise that it is all a bit hard nosed and cynical. That's not a bad thing of course, as you're supposed to be making loads of cash, but after an hour I was starting to wonder I'll ever go to a 'theme park' again.
Marking up toys over 100%, watering down the booze in the bar and packing burgers full of fat instead of meat are the only ways you're going to afford repayments on your loans and survive in the cut and thrust world of international fairgrounds.
Sloping off into the bushes
Against all my expectations, the business side of it is really fun, and once you've played the game with it and go back to the Sandbox level (where you just plan out the park) it all seems very sparse. Setting out paths, making sure tourists don't get lost and trying to channel them towards shops is fun for a while, but trying to keep your income higher than your outgoings is truly the sport of kings. Sacking staff may be distressing, but it's not as bad as watching a ride explode because the mechanics were overworked.
The bits I don't like is the staff and goods negotiation screens, which are intrusive and always seem to happen when I've gone to make some tea. Every year or so, you've got to agree on stock and wage rise, but using the system or moving a hand up and down a scale until you quite literally shake on it means that I'm always committing 20% rises. Apparently you can get it as low as four, but I've never managed it.
And that's my criticism? Well, yes, I suppose it is. I could go on about how you use the mouse and how the system of placing rides works, but why bother? The tutorial section of the finished game's on the front of this mag, so you can find out all that stuff by playing. If you've not played it then why not? If you haven't got a computer then why are you reading this? What are you, weird or something?
But anyway, if the music gets too annoying, you can ditch that, if the year's dragging by you can speed it up and if you're not getting new rides fast enough, you can pumps masses into research.
You're given warnings as you run out of cash so the end isn't a surprise and you've ten save positions to record your triumphant rise and (in my case) breakneck decline. Bear in mind that the game takes hours and hours to play and is likely to ruin sleep patterns, marriages and exam revision schedules. IN short, it could well destroy your life.
Bear in mind also that I realise that I've only skimmed the surface of the seemingly myriad possibilities of this game. I dare say that when I've played it fully, I'll probably look back at the score and wish I'd added another percent or so. In six months or so. Maybe.