ScreamRide review: life on rails

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer Frontier Developments
Release Date Mar 3, 2015

There's more to ScreamRide than is immediately apparent in its premise.

Yes, it's full of nausea and loops and screaming — everything you'd expect in that regard from a game with rollercoasters in it. Like much of the inspiration behind it, you can build new coasters to your heart's content. I would love to tell you about the things ScreamRide gets right about coaster construction, and I will! But developer Frontier Developments leverages an incredible physics and destruction engine to make it more and, sometimes, less than the tycoon-style games of yesterday.

ScreamRide is both more and less than the Tycoon games it borrows from

Missing completely from ScreamRide is a key element of the RollerCoaster Tycoon games that serve as its spiritual forebears — park management. There's no long game to ScreamRide. It's all about the rides themselves, and the engine and the funny things you can do with it. There's no empire to build, no legacy to create. ScreamRide is instead several games, or rather, pieces of games.

There's ScreamRider, an arcade-style racer that sends you rocketing along a series of coaster tracks. It reminds me most of 16-bit era games like Uniracers. It's not about steering, so much as it is controlled, applied velocity — take a turn too fast and you might lose a passenger or two (which is funny just about every time it happens, but can hurt your score, or cause unexpected damage elsewhere), and stay unstable for too long and you might derail entirely.

Then there's Demolition Expert. While still deeply rooted in arcade mechanics of high score chases and competition with your friends list, Demolition Expert instead gives you a collection of buildings to destroy with a variety of cabins, which, yes, do in fact have people inside. Then there's the Engineer campaign, which gives you a series of challenges requiring you to complete rollercoaster rides with specific requirements and limited resources.

Each mode is dramatically different in its goals, enough so that at first it's a little disorienting that they're all together in the one package. But I found common threads before long. ScreamRider is where the game adds new mechanics and machinery to your rollercoaster vocabulary. Engineer is where you use those tools to solve problems, and Demolition Expert ... OK, that just seems like the cool toy that someone at Frontier couldn't help but include in the game.

I can't blame them. While every mode in ScreamRide has something worth saying, Demolition Expert is the one that speaks the most clearly, because it's doing it with explosions.

screamride destruction tall

ScreamRide has the most impressive environmental destruction I think I've ever seen in a game, and it does it all on the fly, dynamically. Buildings don't fall over, they collapse, often with explosive force (and the assistance of several explosions). If debris is flying fast enough, it can in turn cause catastrophic damage that daisy-chains one fallen structure into several.

Frontier pairs this impressive tech with some excellent puzzle design that channels pachinko-style logic — "if I can bounce this off that at just the right angle I can bring down this thing on top of that thing" and so on. Demolition Expert doesn't seem to have right answers, exactly. Instead, some strategies fail, some things work, and some things work much better. I felt clever with my initial strategies in later levels but by the time I was done, I had always found a more sophisticated, higher-scoring way of achieving the same results. It's excellent and casually approachable in some very smart ways.

That approachability carries over to the Engineer challenges, which at first seem a little daunting. But Frontier scales these levels appropriately, starting simple with just a few kinds of pieces and introduces new tools over time, like corkscrews, loops and more. I never felt like I was being given a piece that felt alien to my experience with ScreamRide at the time, though the challenges of Engineer stages ramp up considerably.

Engineer's feedback system keeps ScreamRide feeling honest, not cheap. Any time you're ready, you can hit down on the D-pad to send unsuspecting park visitors through your potentially unfinished ride to see exactly how it works. As the cars make their way down the track, ScreamRide notes events like nausea, high G-forces and lateral pressure on the riders that can cause ejections. It even notes high and low intensity levels, which will help tailor the ride to the challenges ScreamRide is giving you.

Most importantly, you can end the test run at any time, and all of these notes will appear on your track, tagged exactly where each event happened. This allowed me to make proper tweaks to get my coaster exactly where I wanted it. I never felt lost trying to satisfy Frontier's determined rule set for each level, but I also felt plenty of space to experiment and go for higher scores than my friends' on the same level. The same arcade sensibility is present throughout each campaign, and for me, it was a compelling factor in getting me to replay levels again and again until I got the score I wanted.

screamride creator tall

For fans of the Rollercoaster Tycoon series, though, the most important inclusion will likely be the track creation tool, which allows you to make any of the three kinds of levels from the campaign. Given how robust the creation system is, this will probably be pushed into some extreme directions. There's a full-fledged world creation engine at play, from basic geography of stages and tile types to the full collection of coaster creation and also all the tools you need to build demolition stages.

In truth, this is where ScreamRide feels the least approachable. There's an overwhelming amount of options available at any given moment. Many pieces and environment types are tied to progress in the game's campaigns, and if you jump into the sandbox afterward, you could spend half an hour going through everything before you place your first piece. It also exacerbates the finicky camera that is less of an issue elsewhere. And, while you can share your levels online with other players, creating your own custom challenges for your tracks, the process to do so feels bureaucratically weighted down with a checklist of tasks to complete before you can do so.

This is indicative of a slight sensation of aimlessness that can fall over ScreamRide at times. It's a collection of parts that share some very impressive technology and rollercoasters, and that doesn't always feel like the strongest glue. A unifying, bizarre sense of humor helps a little and adds a playfully sadistic sense of humor to the whole thing. The in-game PA system also suggests forcefully that ScreamRide's world has a history, and, in fact, might be part of something larger and more conventionally sci-fi.

Wrap Up:

ScreamRide is one of 2015's first great surprises

The absence of the obsessive management elements that have defined the coaster genre for more than a decade may alienate some fans longing for a return to that kind of form. But behind all that is a game that succeeds really well at the game part, using next-gen tech for something other than a flashier presentation. The result is a little uneven, but ScreamRide still ends up as one of the first great surprises of 2015.

ScreamRide was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" downloadable Xbox One copy provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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