Saturday, June 23, 2007

Hospital Tycoon Review

Hospital Tycoon, developed by Deep Red Games and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Self-sufficient AI, unique room specialization mechanic, decent graphics, good tutorial
The Not So Good: Linear and repetitive gameplay with lots of waiting, nothing terribly innovative, absolutely annoying Simlish-like dialect, very short and not challenging, bothersome camera angles
What say you? Only tycoon fanatics will enjoy this boring and tedious retread: 5/8

The renaissance of the medical drama is in full force. Starting with the venerable ER and continuing with Grey’s Anatomy, people can’t get enough of moody surgeons getting it on with moody nurses. With the insane popularity of The Sims and tycoon games in general, it was just a matter of time before we got a tycoon game set in a hospital. And we did, 10 years ago. Cashing in on the renewed interest is Hospital Tycoon, a game that is pretty self-explanatory: you’re running a hospital, caring for patients and hooking doctors up in a giant orgy of medical care.

Hospital Tycoon is rendered in 3-D, and the game looks good for the most part. The game has an overall cartoon feel to it, and this extends to the graphics. The characters in the game are well-detailed, big-headed goodness and all. The hospitals are obviously square in design, but there is an appropriate selection of things to place to make it look a bit more realistic (although the giant pin-ups of nurses and doctors are kind of weird). Despite being highly exaggerated, Hospital Tycoon also has some special effects to represent each of the game’s diseases. A good deal of work was done perfecting a specific setting and it shows. However, the camera angles are limited at best. Despite the fact that you can follow people around from a first person perspective, you can’t watch the game from any angle between first person view and an inconvenient isometric perspective, making it difficult to see what you want to see. This is a very odd design decision since the engine can obviously handle higher draw distances. Hospital Tycoon is also limited to one fixed resolution for some reason; I guess I can’t use my swanky graphics card to its fullest extent. The user interface also needs some work: the computer display takes up the entire screen (a lot of it blank, of course) instead of being relegated to the edge of the screen. Tool tips also need to pop-up more quickly; since the game features hardly any real equipment, it’s difficult to tell what each icon is representing. While the graphics are generally good, the sound in Hospital Tycoon is absolutely atrocious. The game uses a blatant copy of Simlish from The Sims games, but Hospital Tycoon butchers it and makes every character speak in an overstated shriek. This is exemplified in your secretary that gives you objectives: she repeats the same high-pitched exclamation no matter what she is saying. I cannot relay how truly annoying the sound is; it’s a good thing you can always mute the game, or at least burn your speakers in anger.

Hospital Tycoon is broken up over twelve “episodes” scatter over three “seasons,” since the game is trying to cash in on the popularity of medical dramas. The game is really short (12 missions don’t take long to complete); Hospital Tycoon comes with a sandbox mode, but the gameplay there is exactly the same as the campaign (more on the linearity of Hospital Tycoon later). There are good tutorials in the first season of the game to get your acclimated to the game environment, but the story is very boring and feels completely tacked on as it’s superfluous to the main gameplay. The happenings on the show are just so unnecessary, but thankfully you can skip right past the cut scenes. Also, who names their show “Hospital Tycoon” (yes, the name of the game and the show in the game is the same: good job, guys)? Each mission has clear objectives and obtaining them is fairly simple as no part of the game is very challenging. Unfortunately, you’ll be done with the game rather quickly.

Hospital Tycoon does have some innovative construction mechanics (unless, of course, they ripped it off from another game). All of your rooms are empty to begin with and its specialization depends on the equipment you place in it. For example, if you place a research machine in an empty room, it becomes a research lab. The developers could have just eliminated the intermediate step by just making templates for each kind of room, but then that would reduce the gameplay to complete inanity. Each type of room also has a specific worker trained to operate the equipment that can be hired. This is done through the computer interface (which, as I mentioned earlier, takes up way too much of the screen). Here, you can also see the status and health of all of your patients; if they are not treated in a timely manner, patients can die and this is not good for business. In addition, you can check the status of all of the equipment in the hospital (engineers can fix them). Your hospital is rated in four areas: patient care, staff care, capability, and beauty. Beauty is a measure of how many plants you have; I just put them all in a corner to fulfill this condition.

Probably the highlight of Hospital Tycoon is the great AI: your doctors will go about their business automatically. As long as you provide the correct resources, your hospital will run smoothly. There is almost no micromanagement in the game, which is great for people (like me) who detest specifically instructing minions to complete menial tasks. You can order people to interact or use training equipment, but there’s no point (outside of meeting objectives) and everyone’s pretty busy most of the time. Hospital Tycoon hits you over the head with the cartoon atmosphere as everything is exaggerated. Part of the appeal of medical dramas is the realism, but Hospital Tycoon features explosive farting. Maybe a 3rd grader would find that funny, but it’s just way over the top. The cycle of gameplay in Hospital Tycoon remains the same in each mission: discover a new disease in the lab, then build all of the equipment required to diagnose and treat that disease. Thankfully, the game is very specific in the needs for each disease which makes it easy to expand your hospital. The tradeoff is that finishing the game is too easy. The slow pace of the game is also a problem: a lot of the time you are just waiting for things to finish. Thank goodness you can accelerate time. The linear nature of the gameplay really limits the potential. Tycoon games are normally open-ended and that’s part of its appeal: giving the user the freedom to make their own designs to reach the objective. However, Hospital Tycoon is linear and the unknown diseases come about in a predictable order; you are pigeonholed into your decisions. The fact that the game resets your creations for each new level makes completing each scenario seem like a waste of time.

While components of the game are well-designed, the majority of Hospital Tycoon is just not interesting. The gameplay is exactly the same each time and the title tries its best to restrict your freedom, something that goes against the credo of tycoon games. Some people might enjoy the completely unrealistic theme, but I find it too much. The show within the game seems entirely pointless and tacked on. The degree of randomness that is normally present in tycoon-style games is eliminated in Hospital Tycoon; there is no unpredictability to deal with and everything is laid out right in front of you, so playing the game is really inane. It’s too bad the excellent AI is wasted in this game. Hospital Tycoon is too limited and too linear to be interesting to anyone other than really obsessive tycoon gamers.