Screamride: For those who dream of disaster

Ludwig Kietzmann
L. Kietzmann|01.20.15

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Screamride: For those who dream of disaster
It's only fair to start this with an apology to Screamride, which joins us just as every second game gets to be called a 'roller coaster ride,' usually because it has a car chase, some explosions, and at least one scene of the protagonist going NO NO NO N- [explosion cuts off the rest, but an additional NO is strongly implied].

Screamride, in contrast, is actually about roller coasters: riding them; building tightly coiled tracks for them; destroying them in fiery catastrophe. It's so in love with pleasing disaster that it's likely to be wrongly categorized as 'cinematic action game.'
Frontier Developments has a long history with roller coaster games, though they'd prefer the word 'tycoon' to be yanked away with a stage hook this time. If you could plot a trajectory between 2003's RollerCoaster Tycoon, then Thrillville (which had you toying with a whole amusement park) and then 2015's Screamride, you'd see a spike at the end, followed by a zig-zagging drop into a pile of crudely drawn stick figures. And that's what people have wanted all along, according to Frontier.

The pristine aesthetic, the rocket-powered coasters and the collapsible testing ground that masquerades as a futuristic city – these are all things that dress up a crucial decision at the heart of Screamride, which some may read as capitulation from the developer. Frontier, like many outfits in the last few years, claims to have taken player feedback to heart and made it outwardly visible in its newest game. You can see it in how Screamride is fractured into three different career paths, each one suited to what you can imagine is a different player ... or perhaps a different set of survey results.

Gonna Take You For a Ride

As a fan of the 'roller coaster ride' (as defined above), but not games in which you design roller coaster rides, I'll confess that crafting the perfect track isn't something I dream of (though you can still do it here). For people like me, Screamride just lets you sit on the darn things and hurtle through devious tracks made by the professionals. Like the four excited test subjects, color-coded to resemble crash dummies straddling a rocket, you're meant to reel from topsy-turvy, speedy and sudden undulations made by a wicked mind.

The experience is akin to something like Temple Run, where the next turn claims your concentration fully. You have to hit the brakes to make it through sharp turns, tilt your coaster to its left or right wheels if balance is threatened and try to ride out a sine wave without derailing and knocking a hole in the skyscraper next door. Specially marked areas of the track fill up a boost meter, but you lock in more if you press the X button as late as possible, though not too late. Hit it too soon, before the charge-up sound hits a crescendo, and you'll get just a sliver of super-fast fuel. In the later stages of the game (I jumped to the final set of challenges for a laugh), you're expected to come blasting out of a loop, reorient yourself and then tilt precariously because the right side of the track is just not there. Also, you've unlocked faster cars at that point – faster because they explode when you screw up.

Throw: The Humanity

Though going off the rails faster than a child star is considered symptomatic of poor track design, Screamride typically approves of such failure. In your heart of hearts, the game says, you wanted to see those people go flying.

So, of course there's a destructive mode in which the riders are trapped inside a sphere and launched into skyscrapers like an angry bird. The objective is simply destruction while you take aim and prepare to release a baseball full of people, their screams coming and going as a robotic arm winds up. With the proper timing and the appropriate level of speed, you can knock out a nearby building's support and watch it crumble in glorious, arguably over-simulated destruction (complete with realistic water to absorb the debris). The tension between aim and well-judged release, as it's often employed in golf or tennis games, is hardly a new feeling, but it's surprising to see it represented here and in such ... fidelity.

The destruction is toned down (morally, maybe?) by virtue of all buildings being evacuated and disposable, as if constructed out of lego. They're also reconstructed nearly instantaneously when you give it another try. Screamride isn't exactly sterilized, however, as evidenced by the camera zooming in on the motionless bodies of the post-test subjects, moments before they bounce up and realize they had loads of fun and didn't totally die in a high-velocity crash splatter.

Fine, I'll Build Something for a Change

Screamride's third career mode starts bleeding into the roller coaster construction business, which some of you are here for. There is, of course, a gigantic 'Sandbox' mode with which to create islands, buildings and the elevated tracks snaking through them, but the 'Engineer' mode takes smaller steps toward that freedom. Here, you're pointed to gaps in a nearly complete track and encouraged to complete them using the editor.

Flourishes and dramatic drops excite the riders more, giving you a manageable window in which to be creative. The results of a test ride, easily initiated right from the track editor, will give you important feedback: this is a good plunge, this part is too steep and, oh, people get ejected from the ride here. So, you'll want to fix that and ... wait, why are you putting in another deadly corkscrew? What is wrong with you?

The three personalities of Screamride - the rider, the breaker and the builder-in-training – don't feel convincing in the one-on-one conversation. They're arguably shallow reductions of a full simulation, sorely missing the tycoon to tie everything together. But in removing the suit and tie, and exaggerating a flagrant disregard for how its game 'should' be played, I think Frontier has found something new, living in the overlap of building, enjoying and smashing your designs. Perhaps even game makers must go through all three stages.

[Images: Microsoft]

Screamride is coming to Xbox One for $40, and Xbox 360 for $30, on March 3, 2015.
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