Sim games get turned out left and right these days, and every now and again, someone gets it right. Globalstar Software's Airport Tycoon 3 is the latest contender in this genre, and while it comes pretty close to getting it right, there are still unfortunately a few key elements missing.
Part of the mystique of simulations is that they put you in the driver's seat, in a position you'd normally never get to be in on your own. For example, how many of us have day jobs that let us build roller coasters, rebuild houses, or even plan and build entire cities? Some of us do, of course, but if you're not one of those individuals you can always pick up a sim and pretend to be one, right along with the rest of us unfortunate schmoes. Now, what I say next may seem like heresy to sim fanatics at first, but the key to successful sim games is rarely an interesting focus. Before Maxis' blockbuster "The Sims" first appeared, how many of us thought "Gee, I'd like to spend hours of my life training a brainless sloth to empty the trashcan and not urinate on himself"? (The parents in the audience can put their hands down now.) But just a few years later, and the Sims' franchise shows no signs of slowing.
Globalstar Software is betting that running an airport is bound to be a whole lot more entertaining than potty-training a yuppie, and they're right, on that count. They've included everything associated with airports; baggage and cargo handling, emergency services, transportation services, and even terrorist attacks, if you're a little too lax on the security side of things. They unfortunately left out a major function of many sim games, however; the distilling of a complex process down to its key components.
But wait! A plane arrives!
For example, there are literally pages of pricing options you can set for your airport... how much fuel costs, how much an airline has to pay you per passenger, catering costs, baggage handling costs, ticket surcharges, and so on and so forth. Each of the physical items can have associated contracts along with it, such as refueling service contracts. On top of this, every single airline, and every regular flight they schedule, can have a separately negotiated price. You might have six people offering you refueling services, and fourteen different prices you're charging the airlines for different flights landing at your airport. If that's not confusing enough, just wait, because you've got the same hodge-podge of contracts and pricing available for catering, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
You can also take the same micromanagerial approach to your airport terminals if you like and, while you can't construct them piece by piece as you would probably wish, you can at least decorate and place items such as photo booths and information desks around the terminal as you wish. The novelty of this wears thin pretty quickly, unfortunately, because it's a decently well-done part of the game's interface.
Ground support vehicles earning their keep
Because of the myriad of controls, it's very difficult to tell how to proceed in the game. After opening my first airport, I had no airplanes landing until I'd fast-forwarded four months in the game (about ten minutes of waiting, in the high-speed fast-forward). This, despite the fact that I had no complaints or warnings pending.
I discovered early on that adding plants to your terminal is about the cheapest way to make passengers happy, and so if you have the patience, you can practically turn your airport into a greenhouse, and bump your airport rating up about forty points.
There are only two scenarios included in the game, and neither of them provides much guidance or places the user in much of a situation where they will learn about airport management. In this regard, the game is more like a large box of building blocks, instead of a model kit. Unfortunately, the scenarios are the part of any sim game which should be like a model kit, in order to teach you how the varied parts of the game fit together.
"...passangars are dreading..." ?
The second scenario, for example, requires you to keep an airport plagued by fires and crime safe for an entire year. So, I built two new police stations, one fire station, placed fire extinguishers on most hallways inside the terminal, and let the game run for a year's worth of gametime. Bada-bing, scenario completed. No challenge there.
All in all, the game plays fairly well, and the interface is decently intuitive, but because of this morass of options available, you soon lose track of how much individual items affect the larger picture. It's like sliding behind the wheel of a brand new car and, instead of seeing a familiar steering wheel and gear shifter, you're presented with a panel of three-hundred buttons, each of which modifies some aspect of the vehicle's performance and steering, but unfortunately, nothing is labelled usefully.
There are no terraform tools in this game, which does simplify things a bit. Unfortunately, it also means the gameplay area is entirely flat. Roads can't cross over areas with buildings or service roads (called the "apron"), so you inevitably end up with a sprawling mass of airport, poorly connected. In one game I was playing, the game's transportation AI kept complaining that I didn't have enough bus stops, when in fact, I had seventeen of them. The problem might have been that they weren't as well connected as the game wished them to be, but certainly, I had enough of them in place.
Your reward awaits
Graphically, there are a few glitches. Two vertical lines appeared down the side of the interface after I brought up the menus the very first time, and nothing short of exiting the game seemed to be able to get rid of them. Text is sometimes bunched up in the display as well, and there are numerous typographical errors in both the in-game tutorial, and even in menu options and event descriptions. After vandals rioted in my airport due to a lack of police coverage, I was informed that "Some vandal youngsters have caused demages to the equipments of one of your terminals", and that "My passangers are dreading". While the meaning is still clear, the spelling errors and awkward phrasing found in the game text detracts from the experience.
The graphics are, overall, nothing to make one wax ecstatic, but there is one very nice touch; during the day, the shadows of buildings change to follow the path of the sun, and the color of the lighting changes to match. Whatever beauty is added to this game by this is rapidly undone when you note that the clouds in the sky are merely rotating dark-grey blobs. One would think that the sky would play a significant enough role in an airport simulation to merit serious attention, but apparently not.
Runway allocation may confuse some
The interface itself is visually pleasing and easy to navigate, and the controls are easy to master. There are a few goofs, such as having the runway timetables read from left to right for each hour, one hour per row, instead of top to bottom and across, an hour per column. This tends to make interpretation a little awkward, and until you realize the problem, you will likely bungle your runway scheduling. I wasn't aware of any events in the game which focused on runways being scheduled too tightly, so this doesn't seem to matter too much in any event.
Traffic moves along roads like in most familiar sim games, and people will similarly wander through your terminal. I followed one fellow around the terminal, and while he didn't have any apparent purpose in mind, he did at least wander in a path which was apparently non-predetermined, showing some decent base AI under the hood.
Adding elements to your airport terminal
Soundwise, this game provides a good bit of variety in its sound effects. While inside the terminal there is only a looped sound of people milling about, when you zoom in on individual planes or vehicles, their sound becomes audible. It would have been nice to hear some radio chatter when planes landed, or some intercom sounds inside the terminal, but the sounds which are there are nicely placed and believable. My only complaint, sound-wise, is that there only seem to be two pieces of music in the entire game, one for the game menu screen, and one piece while playing the game. Both of these are well-composed and quite fitting to the game, but hearing the same music repetitively for hours on end probably won't win the hearts and minds of players.
Speaking of repetition, while the differing cities you can choose to build your airports in have differing needs for travel and cargo handling, and while they have different images for terrain and background, that's about the only thing setting them apart from one another. It would have been nice if the different locations offered differing challenges, or at least a variety of building materials and styles.
The growing airport, almost a year in
Overall, this game will be best-received by those who already have an an interest in airport management, and for its bargain price of under $20, it's worth that investment for a few hours of playability. If you're seeking a cohesive sim experience though, this game probably won't win you over.