Theme Hospital (PC) review
"Bullfrog have been no strangers to strategy games, producing hit titles such as Theme Park, Populous and Dungeon Keeper, but this is a different take on the genre altogether. Managing hospitals without the stress, the A&E bloodshed and patients that love to sue isnít what you see released every week. Here you have hospitals infiltrated by patients with humorous illnesses caused by equally ridiculous symptoms, but this aside, Theme Hospital is no doddle. A title focusing more on depth than breadt..."
Bullfrog have been no strangers to strategy games, producing hit titles such as Theme Park, Populous and Dungeon Keeper, but this is a different take on the genre altogether. Managing hospitals without the stress, the A&E bloodshed and patients that love to sue isnít what you see released every week. Here you have hospitals infiltrated by patients with humorous illnesses caused by equally ridiculous symptoms, but this aside, Theme Hospital is no doddle. A title focusing more on depth than breadth, this is a real micro-managing maverick.
Starting from scratch with a limited amount of cash, youíll need to get the hospital running while planning for future expansion. The available funds requires prudent spending, yet trying to establish a decent reputation, maintain staff morale and knowing when to make the investments on clinics. Most hospitals will not start with adequate building space and will require purchasing extra land to avoid congestion. Small cramped rooms and corridors will not only cause the hospital to become an NHS slalom course but will also demoralise staff. Corridors need to be furnished with benches to seat waiting patients, radiators and drinks machines to keep patients warm and quenched, plus placing plenty of fire extinguishers and plants will sustain morale and impress VIPís. The arrangement of rooms is paramount for minimising walking time for staff that will need to often switch rooms and even patients in emergencies.
Aside from the layout, a successful hospital depends on efficient staff. Doctors run GPís offices and clinics; nurses rule the pharmacies and wards, while handymen clean up everything that patients belch onto the floor while repairing damaged clinics. The basic routine comprises of a GPís office visit, further diagnosis, then off to be cured. Cure rooms consist of pharmacies, specialised clinics, the operating theatre and the psychiatry; in the case of the latter two youíll need doctors with surgical or Psychiatrist skills. At the start of each level though there are few available clinics; so specialist researcher doctors must develop appropriate cure and diagnosis facilities, from the basic cardio to ultra-scan. Advanced machines make it easier to identify diseases to develop clinics for, whilst increasing the efficiency of existing cures. To make staff matters worse trainees are usually the only available doctors later on, these will need to be trained by consultants to increase their productivity and even qualify them for a specialisation. The wage bill needs to be kept in check whilst having sufficient staff; putting the time in to develop trainees can lead to cheap but effective doctors.
Theme Hospitalís core game-play plays like most of its decent contemporaries. The tough level objectives insist on earning a decent amount of cash, a good reputation and a high cure count to progress. An intuitive graphical menu interface and the bright, quirky isometric visuals effectively accompany the ludicrous diseases on offer. Patients appear with proportionately massive heads (cured by bursting and re-inflating the head), slack tongue (simply cutting off the excess tongue), and thereís even cases when the Psychiatrist must cure patients who wonít stop impersonating Elvis. But despite providing a challenging management game that doesnít get too complicated, there are two major problems with this engine.
Firstly, this game is plagued with bugs from shoddy AI to in-game crashes. Surgeons who are needed in the operating theatre end up volunteering in an inflator room when a swarm of emergency patients come through for operations, whilst doctors remain sedentary in a clinic without visiting the staff room, before demanding a pay-rise from tiredness and low morale. Handymen are a misery bunch of old farts that demand constant pay-rises when a litter bomb hits the hospital, no matter how you much you set them to sweep litter they still manage to miss chasms of organic trash on the floor. Paging a handyman to fix a machine assigns it exclusively to one on the other-side of the hospital as opposed to the nearest one, by that time the machine will have probably exploded and rendered the room unusable. The shoddy AI of staff, patients who decide to go to the toilet just before an operation, and emergency patients that donít jump the queue leads to masses of extra manual management. A large amount of glitches causing staff to get permanently stuck alongside random crashes does not help.
A second major problem is how the game is extremely repetitive. Hospital designs do not vary a notch, with the same types of rooms, objectives and more diseases offering no more than a cosmetic change. Despite the gradual introduction of epidemics (cure all cases of an illness before youíre caught) and machine-damaging earthquakes; every level procedure is the same; you start off with very few clinics and is the same routines of watching yourself spiral horribly into debt as you build the hospital; combat a wave of patients who all decide to start throwing up, and then expand the hospital when cash rolls in. All you need to do then is get a reputation and watch the level complete its objectives for an hour. How about actually having objectives that focused on specific things instead of making the whole lot cumulatively harder? Or even levels that are actually scenarios, where maybe an existing hospital starts off as a trash pit of vomit and dead machines where youíd reverse its fortunes? Even just varying the themes and designs of the hospital would at least make it look less repetitive. Having eleven levels doing the same thing fools no-one; youíd do well to endure past the fourth.
Theme Hospital does have that charm of novelty value to make you come back every year or so, watching doctors burst bloated heads or nurses cure invisible patients by prescribing some medicine. But sooner or later youíll realise why you never completed this game in the first place; the frustrating AI and laborious string of levels becomes increasingly exacerbated throughout. Itís a shame really, as the core game mechanics here are actually fairly decent and incorporate the vital parts of a management came quite well; a strong emphasis is placed on staff and patient morale; as well as focusing on the basic financial matters. The high points of this title show that this diverse idea was one with plenty of potential, but hasnít been until Deep Redís mediocre Hospital Tycoon in 2007 where we to see another attempt on this. If you want real medical comedy, watch Scrubs, as the novelty of silly illnesses soon wears off and starts to feel like decent game cut and pasted five times to make it longer.
Community review by bigcj34 (May 21, 2008)
Cormac Murray is a freelance contributor for HG and is a fanboy of Sega and older Sony consoles. For modern games though he pledges allegiance to the PC Master Race, by virtue of a MacBook running Windows.
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