Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Restaurant Empire 2 Review

Restaurant Empire 2, developed by Enlight Software and published by Paradox Interactive on Gamer's Gate.
The Good: Really robust menu items, recipe research
The Not So Good: It’s almost entirely the same as before, convoluted interface not improved at all, “autosaved” progress not really saved
What say you? More auxiliary content, but a miserably unchanged six-year-old management sim: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the benefits of being a chef is that you get to cook food for a living. One of the drawbacks of being a chef is that you most likely will get yelled at by Gordon Ramsey. Then again, you might get to stare into the eyes of Padma Lakshmi. So it all evens out in the end. For those of us with no culinary skill to speak of, computer games have filled the void, offering up cooking games throughout the years. One of these was Restaurant Empire, one of those Trevor Chan games (that Capitalism guy) where you got to run your own restaurant, poisoning the general population with your foul creations. Well, it’s back six years later in the cleverly named Restaurant Empire 2. Has the game changed for the better?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
After six years of hard work, the developers of Restaurant Empire 2 have upgraded the graphics to…2004. Yeah, the game looks a lot like The Sims 2, which came out only a year after the original Restaurant Empire. Your customers are the highlight of the graphics package, offering a nice variety in appearance and pleasant animations while they wolf down your delicious entrees. There are a number of themes available that can offer some differences from the outside, but each restaurant still lacks that important aspect of distinction. Some of the lack of visual diversity stems from the fact that all of the restaurants have static dimensions, and you are only there to fill the empty boxes with objects. That said, you can come up with some nice arrangements with the variety of in-game objects that the game offers. However, options for a single design theme are limited, meaning one steakhouse will generally look like every other steakhouse. The sound design is a bit underwhelming: while the game is voiced, the restaurants are disturbingly quiet unless you are considerable zoomed in. The game music is also very sporadic, cutting in and out seemingly at random. It’s clear that this area of the game benefitted from no changes whatsoever. For a sequel, I would have expected a more significant visual change than what we have here.

ET AL.
Restaurant Empire 2 contains all of the content of the original game with some new additions, the first of those being the new campaign. After defeating the evil corporation in the original game (spoiler alert!), you embark on a dessert binge with your new lady friend and encounter new challenges that are eerily similar to the old challenges from the original campaign. I’m usually not big on the story line, and that’s the case here, so the new campaign is really just sixteen more missions with generally the same goals. The new locaions (Munich!) and themes (garish racing café!) are visual changes only and have no discernable impact on gameplay whatsoever: shiny things meant to distract. The sandbox game offers potentially infinite replay value, but the core gameplay is really interesting enough to keep your attention held for that long. Plus, the game said it autosaved my campaign progress but it really did not, deleting several hours of my hard work. Bah!

By far the most impressive aspect of Restaurant Empire 2 is the sheer number of recipes in the game: 600. Scattered across fifteen categories of food, from main courses to pudding, and four nationalities (American, French, Italian, German), you have a crazy variety of things to cook up. The recipes are also very detailed, showing the exact amounts of each ingredient required (and the cost associated with them) for every creation. Each menu item comes with a rating that can be adjusted by paying more or less for the ingredients. Since you do not want to serve expensive, four-star food in a one-star place (people will not expect to pay so much), this option lets you tweak your menu. Certain foods can also require certain appliances like a food processor or microwave, and some products take longer to prepare. You can also adjust the price of your food, but the game never really states an appropriate price point based on your quality rating; it’s completely trail-and-error and one of the many shortcomings of the game’s interface. You can get new recipes by giving an exorbitant amount of money to random customers or research them. This is the only radical change to the gameplay, sadly. Despite all of this variety, using one single recipe over another really doesn’t change the game at all, so the variety is very superficial and strategy is minimal.

You can’t do it all yourself, so you’ll need to hire a staff. You can choose between other chefs, captains (who take the orders and deliver the bill), servers, porters (a fancy name for “dish washer”), and receptionist. There’s no strategy in who to hire: better people are more expensive, and it’s quite a linear relationship. You are limited in the beginning to hiring really bad people that will cause a constant stream of complaints, even after they have been fired (thanks, crappy interface). You can train them to be better over time, but it’s almost easier to fire and replace. There’s not much else to do with your staff, so let’s move on.

Customers want to give you money, and you’ll take it from them. Success in Restaurant Empire 2 is fairly easy as long as you aren’t idiotic in your pricing and layouts. There are a number of objects to place, from functional things like tables and stoves to decorations like paintings and statues. Lighting is dumb for two reasons: lamps don’t cover a large area and you cannot install ceiling lighting. You can hire live performers (the rare new feature in Restaurant Empire 2 that isn’t simply visual), but they impact your restaurant the same as adding other objects. Getting feedback from your customers is both good and bad: while the game clearly spells out the top complaints in a list, the list doesn’t clear quickly enough, so you can have your top complaints solved (like a particular employee or an expensive menu item) but not reflected in the list. In addition, clicking on the complaint does not take you to the pertinent menu item. You would think these were the things that would have undergone an overhaul in six years. The interface is also way too small: I would much rather have a greater proportion of the screen devoted to the interface than watching people eat. There have been absolutely no changes in the interface, which is too bad since it was crap to begin with. Most of the icons for scrolling through items are seriously three pixels across, and a game of this type should not require that level of dexterity. Restaurant Empire 2 feels, well, like a game from six years ago, as the outdated interface has not fared well.

As your initial business becomes more successful, you can open others and expand your restaurant empire (where have I heard that term before?). You can adjust the hours of your restaurants, staff training, the uniform, advertising, loans, and suppliers of live music and special items. The game also gives you charts and graphs showing your progress (or lack thereof) in the business. The goals for each level in the two campaigns are not terribly varied, usually involving some combination of profit margin, restaurant rating, and customer satisfaction. Most of these things are inter-related anyway, so as long as you do a good job, you’ll do fine. You certainly do not approach the game differently depending on the goals, so each successive game of Restaurant Empire 2 plays just like the last. This cuts down on replay value and the viability of the sandbox mode considerably. The sheer amount of fluff contained in Restaurant Empire 2 is impressive: the game would play exactly the same with half the recipes and items, as the different kinds don’t let you play any differently. Since all Restaurant Empire 2 is additional fluff on top of the original game, the new version in the series is identical to the last in the areas that truly matter.

IN CLOSING
Almost the entire review so far could have been written for the original game, so what is $20 getting you six years later? The new sixteen mission campaign effectively doubles the goal-based content of the game, but it’s nothing radically different from the original campaign (which is also included) with the same type of objectives. The graphics are better but still behind the curve. The new restaurant types, themes, objects, foods, and locations (everybody was clamoring for Munich!) are all unnecessary additions meant to justify the existence of Restaurant Empire 2 instead of making the gameplay better. More is better, but it does not justify keeping everything else exactly the same. Even the live performers, a potentially interesting addition, have about the same impact as placing a couple of paintings on the wall, so the interest wanes quickly. Really, none of these things have any impact on the core game at all, and that’s a horrible and cheap thing for a sequel to do. The fact that the problems the original game had, namely the interface with its plentiful shortcomings, still remain shows the single focus of the development team: add objects and that’s enough. This is more like Restaurant Empire 1.5, or an expansion pack, than a true sequel. Of course, the $20 price tag reflects that thinking somewhat, but I still deride the lack of significant changes with six years of passed time. Indeed, the feeling of déjà vu is strong with this one.