Preview: Prison Architect
Introversion's prison management simulator has been in alpha for some time now; more than a year, to be exact. Although this seems like being forever in development, the developers are making sure patience doesn't run low by involving its backers and fans by releasing a pay-to-play/early access alpha.
Having first come across the game and those behind it at Eurogamer Expo 2013, Introversion have kindly allowed me to play the game to preview it. Now in alpha version 14, there's a whole load of new features, including sniffer dogs and prisoners escaping via tunnels. Whilst it's still not a complete game, there's still plenty for players to get stuck into.
My video supplement to this preview.
Tutorials Are For Wimps
Whilst there is a short and very basic tutorial that automatically runs when you first start the game, there's not much else that comes with it that will show you the ropes. It's suggested on the forums that this will form the first part of a wider story campaign, so there may well be a gameplay direction that's a bit more comprehensive and will smoothly introduce the various gameplay elements.
However, it's actually quite refreshing to be left in the lurch to try and figure things out. After the tutorial, we're plopped straight into sandbox mode without so much as a talking paperclip for help; it makes us realise how much the gaming community has been spoonfed by games in the past ten years or so. But it does make things less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff! You won't be completely alone, as there's a huge community that has built up around the alpha alone--guides, tips, and discussions can readily be found on the official Prison Architect forums or even on Steam.
But, getting to grips with the game is by no means impossible, and you'll quickly end up dedicating yourself to the game without a second's thought, either out of enjoyment or sheer determination to master it. You're kept involved because, even with all the bugs that still need to be sorted out and the placeholder features like electric chairs and lawyers, it's a simulation that works really well, making it a joy to play.
Keeping You on Your Toes
The game keeps you interested by really being intelligently involving. As you first build your prison with little rhyme, reason, or understanding, you'll very quickly start to constantly evaluate how you could do things better, and what improvements in positioning, size, and order you research things, for your next prison after spending considerable time studying the AI behaviour.
Throw in things like prisoners smuggling in weapons and contraband, attacking guards and/or other prisoners at will, and even trying to escape, all make for an incredibly dynamic, challenging, and addictive game. The fact that you can have so much fun in this unstructured, unguided, and incomplete sandbox shows a heck of a lot of promise and potential for the full game to be absolutely stellar.
Whilst the game looks basic and the prisoners and prison staff are a little cartoony, it's not distracting at all. This is down to the fact that the simulation itself is the most involving and important aspect of the game. So although things might look a little silly on first impressions, trying to animate anything more detailed and serious is unnecessary as it will really add nothing to the gameplay.
But even so, these simple geometric convicts also complement what humour there is in the game, especially with some of the more "creative" descriptions the game's backers have given them. There's a nice balance of severity, dark humour, and the ridiculous, and is never too maudlin or juvenile.
Furthermore, with the indication of further story quests, we really hope we see some more of the exquisitely drawn 1950s comic book-esque illustrations that appear on Polaroids in game, which are worth a mention in themselves.
Even in its current unfinished state, it's well worth buying and playing the alpha. You'll, of course, automatically get the full game upon its release regardless. But if you're going to invest early in the game and support Introversion, you might want to consider forking out that little extra money for some neat little bonuses. These include the ability to get your name in the game as one of the prisoners, being able to write a biography for your avatar, right up to even having your likeness etched upon one of the prisoner's circular faces.
As it's a bit of a long-haul to understand the mechanics at first, and the fact that there are still bugs and missing features, it can be a little frustrating. Also, after a while, you may find you've hit a rock by having done everything you possibly could have because end-game features haven't been added yet. But with new versions and updates being released every two to four weeks, there'll always be something new to play around with.
"This is one of the best simulation games of recent years, corrective facility-based or otherwise, and it hasn't even finished being made yet!"
Anyone wishing to get involved should be fully be aware that this is an alpha, and therefore only approach with a willingness to experience rough edges, and also be forthcoming in assisting the developers in improving the game.
Otherwise, this is one of the best simulation games of recent years, corrective facility-based or otherwise, and it hasn't even finished being made yet!