If there's one game developer that knows roller coasters and theme parks, it's UK-based Frontier Developments. From 2003-2005 they made a name for themselves with three Roller Coaster Tycoon games and several expansions before switching publishers to develop a pair of Thrillville games. Eventually Frontier produced Kinect Disneyland Adventures and 2013's Zoo Tycoon for Microsoft, perhaps to less player acclaim.
Now Microsoft and Frontier team up once more for the Xbox One and 360 exclusive ScreamRide. Billed as a spiritual successor to Roller Coaster Tycoon, ScreamRide is a roller coaster building and riding game with a focus on destruction. With three campaign modes and a full sandbox mode with coaster sharing, ScreamRide is surprisingly robust for a game about coasters. But those gameplay pieces don't always fit together as well as they should, threatening to derail the fun.
A reason to ride
Before you dive into ScreamRide's sandbox mode, you'll want to give the career mode a go. Besides introducing gameplay elements at a gradual pace, career milestones will unlock a variety of pieces and environments for sandbox mode. Nobody wants to ride a basic vanilla coaster; they want to try exciting ones.
ScreamRide's campaign actually has a light story to it. Each time you reach a new area of the campaign, you're treated to a fly-by video of the area while a blatantly GLaDOS-like robotic voice talks about the area. You'll also see short in-game cinematics featuring the uber-bland coaster riders/test subjects before and after every level. These can be skipped, but I wish they could be turned off entirely.
The cinematics are overly sterile and devoid of personality, at least early on. But in later areas, the game hints at the larger history of its world and an ongoing story. Nothing too surprising, but it at least made me curious to see the conclusion. Sadly, the difficulty spikes to such unfair levels that I might never get to see that ending. But we're getting ahead of ourselves!
The career offers three separate game types to choose from: ScreamRider, Demolition Expert, and Engineer. Progress in each game type is separate from the others, so you can focus on the one(s) you like and save the rest for later.
The game is divided into six unique areas, each with multiple levels per game type. You'll receive a score-based star rating for each level you clear. Just clearing all of the levels in an area won't unlock the next area. Instead, you must achieve a specific cumulative star rating for that game type in order to move on to the next area. I had to backtrack and improve my scores/star ratings for several levels before I could unlock the sixth area in ScreamRider, for instance.
Further adding replay value, each level also has two or more optional objectives. Sometimes they're gimmes that you would do anyway, but often they require playing skillfully or differently than normal. The optional objectives can be a lot of fun, but they also get pretty hard (and beyond my abilities) in some levels… Trying not to derail the car in later ScreamRider levels especially inspires frustration since you have to restart if you make even one mistake.
As the name implies, this game type is all about riding roller coasters. That ends up being more interactive than you'd think. ScreamRide's coasters aren't bound by current scientific knowledge or even the laws of safety. They're sci-fi coasters and they knock the riders around like crazy (though regrettably, they always survive).
At the start of the track, timing your acceleration perfectly (quite easy) will net you bonus points. Tracks have turbo sections in which a correctly timed button press will add to your turbo meter. Hold the turbo button to empty the meter and activate a big speed boost.
To stay on the track, you'll have to manage your speed as well as where your rides lean. Using the analog stick you can make them lean left or right, causing the car to go onto two wheels. Later tracks have one-railed sections or obstacles that require lots of two wheeling it.
Tracks also have jumps that would never fly in today's safety-concerned world. Sometimes you need to accelerate to clear a jump, but other times you'll want to watch your speed to avoid striking objects above the landing zone. Tap a button just before your car lands for bonus points.
The ScreamRider levels start out fun, but by the fifth area or so they give way to intense challenge. Once you reach the sixth area, you might as well not have a turbo meter because it's more likely to derail the car than to help score points. And in fact, I reached a turn in 6-2 (pictured above) that seems impossible to pass safely. I retried more than 30 times with no success.
ScreamRide's odd-mode out is Demolitions Expert. These levels charge players with firing a vehicle at islands filled with buildings in order to destroy as much of them as possible.
Most levels involve aiming a pitching machine that throws a spherical projectile at your targets. Think of it as a 3D version of Angry Birds, only with unintuitive aiming. After adjusting the throw strength with the trigger buttons, you have to hold A to aim. The arm just keeps spinning in a circle, but the guide line that appears will help you know when to let go. The behind-the-back camera angle causes the aiming line to be obscured for much of the arm's rotation. Throwing this way is doable, but it never feels good.
Other destruction levels let players launch an actual roller coaster car and then pilot it to varying extents through the air. One of the car types can actually fly with precision until it strikes a target, which feels a bit like hang gliding in Nintendo's Pilotwings series. I love the increased precision of the roller coaster levels; shame we can't choose between roller coasters and ball pitching for every level.
The actual destruction is extremely well done, by the way. Once you figure out a level's gimmicks (like where the chain-reaction explosives are stored), you'll be able to knock down one or more buildings per throw. It's good fun watching the buildings shatter and fall to the ground.
This puzzle mode is my least favorite, and the most challenging from the outset. Each level starts with a partially completed track. You have to complete the track while also accomplishing a checklist of goals. The game limits how many pieces can be laid, so the constraints often prove fairly tight.
Once you complete the track, you have to test it by sending a fully automated coaster through the track. If the coaster derails, you fail and must return to the editor. The game points out areas of the track that caused you trouble, at least. But every time you fix something you have to watch and wait as the coaster goes through the track again, which proves tedious. The testing phase should be skippable.
Sandbox mode – Make your own coaster and try the Windows Central track!
Career mode might have its ups and downs, but it's really just an appetizer for the main course: creating and sharing your own levels. You can create levels for all three game types, in fact.
The process starts with creating an island on which to build your level. Next you'll decide what type of level it will be and build the actual track and other elements. Then fill it out with objects and decorations, and you have a basic track.
The actual editor is fairly complex, mapping a lot of functions to the Xbox controller's buttons and sticks. But the functions are always labeled on-screen, so at worst you have to scan around to figure out how to do something while you're still learning. Constructing buildings from scratch is not very intuitive, but placing other types of objects and track pieces proves much easier.
After completing the basic level layout, master builders must set the scores for star ratings and assign optional objectives. You can save the track at any time, but it won't become shareable until you complete the level and complete all objectives. The idea is to prevent people from creating impossible goals.
Even if you're not the creative type, browsing and downloading other players' levels can provide nearly limitless entertainment. We happen to have a track titled Windows Central demo track for you to try. Just head to the Level Center, press Left Trigger to search by name, and search for Windows Central to find it! Be sure to give the track a high rating after you complete it.
ScreamRide has 49 Achievements worth 1,000 GamerScore. The career Achievements involve beating every level, five-starring every level, and completing all optional objectives. As I said earlier, career gets really hard – many players won't be able to accomplish some of those things. On the other hand, each game type has some fun ones to go after such as building a really steep drop in Engineer mode.
Sandbox mode also has several Achievements, including basic ones like sharing a track and downloading and rating someone else's track. The Achievement for having your level downloaded more than 30 times might require some boosting.
A rough and uneven ride
ScreamRide is a unique but uneven package. The three game types in career mode are so different, some people won't enjoy one or more of them. Then you have the steep difficulty that works against the inherent casual appeal of a roller coaster game. In fact, that punishing difficulty had me doubting that I really liked the game... until I I tried Sandbox mode.
Building levels and coasters has a learning curve, but once you get into the groove it really clicks. I'm not one to dedicate a lot of time to creativity modes in games, but I still had a blast making my own track. And even more fun was trying out the different coasters that other players have made. Player created tracks can vary wildly in quality, but the rating system and download indicator make it easy to find the good stuff. Whether you want a relaxing track, a challenging one, or just an insanely fast ride, the community has already got you covered.
A roller coaster game is an odd choice for a console exclusive game in this age of AAA shooters and action games. But Microsoft bet on creativity and uniqueness with ScreamRide, and it has largely paid off. I do hope for a patch to smooth out the difficulty, though.