When Screamride was first shown, it garnered a similar reaction in anyone of a certain age. "Whoah, a new Rollercoaster Tycoon?". A make-your-own-theme-park sim that gave you total control over every aspect of your park, from the number of bins, shrubberies and stalls through to the design of the titular roller coasters themselves, Rollercoaster Tycoon was the standout amongst a whole genre of theme park management games - and, with Rollercoaster Tycoon III studio Frontier Development at the helm, Screamride looked to be successor in all but name.
As it turns out, this isn't quite the true sequel we were hoping for. For starters, there's no management going on here, with no theme parks to design, no budgets to balance, and no broken rides to fix. What there is is an awful lot of roller coasters - and a heck of a lot of blowing things up.
Divided into three main modes, each section of Screamride is different enough to be classed as an entirely separate game, with little to really tie them together. There's Screamrider - a mode about riding roller coasters, Engineer - a mode about building roller coasters, and Demolition Expert - a mode about blowing things up that has almost literally nothing to do with roller coasters. And while it is a bit disappointing that the modes don't tie together a little bit more, it's not actually that big an issue, as Screamride is a lot of fun.
Starting at the beginning, Screamrider puts you at the controls (yes, rollercoasters have their own, on-ride controls now) of a coaster - and it's up to you to give the riders the most exciting ride possible. With accelerate on the right trigger, and brakes on the left, it's basically like driving a car - only a car that drives down a track, that gives you extra points for getting it onto two wheels with a flick of the analogue stick, and that throws its riders out if you take a corner too fast.
To make things a bit more interesting (or tricky, depending on how you look at it), the game progressively introduces new features and bits for you to think about, from boost sections (if you press X at the very end of them, you can fill up a boost bar - just don't leave it too late!), to jumps, obstacles (forcing you to flip your coaster onto two wheels), and at one point even fitting your coaster car with wings.
The main objective here is to get to the end as quickly (and thrillingly) as possible, with four stars available depending on how you do. Each stage also has a number of bonus objectives to complete - whether it's bouncing up on two wheels for a certain amount of time, or finishing the course in under a certain time whilst also getting a set amount of points, to give but two examples, and only by completing all the bonus objectives can you unlock the fifth star. Plenty of replay potential, then, and it's fun enough - but it's nowhere near as good as the other two modes.
Engineer mode, on the other hand, is as close as the game comes to a "traditional" Rollercoaster Tycoon style game. Here, you're given a landscape, and have to build a roller coaster to match the game's goals. Usually, your main objectives aren't too restricting, asking you to get a "scream rating" of over a certain score, whilst sometimes adding in the odd extra constraint (like getting a duck bonus by having the track come close to itself in a cross-over, or getting a certain amount of passenger airtime), but for the most part, you're given complete creative control. This can be both a positive and a negative, as, while you can make whatever you want, you do find it's all too easy to go a little bit overboard, and make a coaster that chucks all its passengers out on the first turn (blame the sub-standard safety restraints).
Interestingly, getting the highest scream rating isn't a case of simply making the most ridiculous coaster you can, but rather, making the best coaster you can. Building your coaster is easy enough - using the analogue stick to change the direction of the piece you're putting down, and the triggers to rotate it around the Z-axis, there's plenty of scope to do whatever you want, and a whole array of special pieces to choose from, including loops, corkscrews and jumps - but it can tough to see how it's actually going to work in game until you send someone round. Luckily, a quick poke of down on the d-pad sends a willing car of volunteers around - and it's here you get the information you'll need to tweak it. If someone flies out on the one corner, you'll notice your scream rating drop to almost 0 for a good few seconds, as the ride becomes too scary. It's up to you to make the necessary tweaks (and smooth your coaster out) so as many passengers survive as possible - and you get as many points as you need.
Unfortunately, the game doesn't make making changes to your coaster as easy as it should be. Once you're back in edit mode, you'll see a number of icons pointing to various bits and pieces of your rollercoaster, signalling high Gs, rider ejection, or even a coaster crash. But seeing as these icons disappear as you rotate your camera around, and the camera doesn't necessarily start from where your coaster came off the track, it's sometimes tricky to figure out exactly where, or why, you're going wrong - especially if you've just not left quite enough gap between the two sections of track during a cross over (so rather than shooting underneath the one layer of track, you just crash into it instead). The camera in test mode doesn't always help either, and it'd be nice if the game slowed down before a crash happened, or gave you some sort of overlay to help you figure things out. Still, this is good fun, if a little frustrating at times.
But by far the highlight of the game is Demolition Expert, a game that throws caution to the wind, and asks you to blow things up in the name of science. For the most part, this game puts you in control of a giant fairground ride that swings a pod around at high speed. After setting the speed with the triggers, it's up to you to hold A, and let go at just the right moment to fling the pod off into the buildings in front of you, with the aim of razing them all to the ground. Depending on where, and how hard you hit the buildings, it doesn't take too many hits to bring most buildings tumbling down - but it's not always so easy. Later levels introduce walls and barriers, essentially blocking certain weak spots of buildings off from attack from the front, forcing you to take a higher (or lower) route instead, and take a more awkward shot. Luckily, when you first hold A, it slows down time, and gives you a handy dotted line showing the rough trajectory of your pod, but aiming is still a bit tricky to get right - and that's a large part of what makes it so much fun. Release the button at just the wrong time, and you'll send your pod skimming harmlessly across the water instead - or time it spectacularly wrong, and you'll fire it backwards. Some levels even switch your fairground ride out for a roller coaster, and ask you to design the track so it fires the cars into the right buildings. Again, the whole idea here is to knock down as many buildings, and get as many points as you can - with bonus objectives being required to unlock the fifth star.
And there's plenty of stuff to do here, too. While the game provides a main set of over 50 levels for you to play through, Screamride also has support for user generated levels, which you're free to browse, download, and play for yourself from the game's handy level centre. If you're feeling particularly creative, you can try your hand at making your own versions of stages for any of the game's three different modes - or, if you're more like us, you can just sit and browse what those more creative than you have managed to put together. Already, there's hundreds of levels to browse - and some pretty good ones amongst the highest rated stages too, so it's well worth checking out.
In all, while Screamride may not have been the Rollercoaster Tycoon many of us were hoping for, surprisingly, it doesn't actually feel that much worse off for being different. With hours of fun to be had in the demolition mode, a substantial stream of levels popping up on the level centre, and plenty of roller coaster tweaking fun in the engineer mode, there's a lot to like about Screamride. Here's hoping this was Microsoft trying to dip their toes into the water, though, and see if there's any demand for a proper theme park game on consoles. There is. We'll be keeping our fingers crossed we see one soon.