by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Sim or fun?
Creating a simulation game cannot be an easy task. Focusing on extreme realism will cause your audience to shrink. Emphasize fun and many players won’t take the game seriously. Where do you draw the line? Project Highrise walks the tightrope here and it’s fairly successful in doing so.
Where most tower management games lean towards entertainment, Project Highrise leans more towards a true simulation. You’ll be designing your tower, seeking out potential occupants, renovating rooms and you’re even in charge of providing services to homes and businesses to keep them happy and collect the rent money. It’s a tricky balance, as any new service that you provide will wreak havoc on your budget, especially when your tower is still modest in size.
Playing Project Highrise, I was struck by the sense that I was playing a vertical city builder where the production paths have been replaced by room types and upgrades. In a historical city builder production lines allow you to use simple goods such as wood and pottery to craft furniture and wine. With Project Highrise you’ll have to successfully navigate lower tier - and lower rent - restaurants, shops, businesses, apartments and basic services to get to the next tier. You cannot simply skip straight to the expensive rooms that attract the high-paying customers. When you do reach the next tier, your next expenditure becomes something of a balancing act. Higher tier customers demand more advanced services and placing these into your tower is expensive, as are the associated monthly costs. It only becomes financially attractive when you have multiple customers using the same service. Until you do, you’re investing in future revenue, taking the costs today.
All of this is as it should be, and it works remarkably well. Perhaps a bit too well. The game makes no apologies for being a business sim. You are the manager of a commercial tower building and are involved in almost every aspect of its operation. You connect wires and plumbing, you advertise available space, you keep track of customer satisfaction and strive to provide every higher quality services. Yet very little of it feels very personal, or particularly rewarding. There’s a machine-like feel to it all, which is partially due to the distinct graphical style. The low-colour, simplistic graphics make everything look a bit drab and uninteresting. I am sure the idea was to give the game a unique vibe - and it has - but it lowered the long-term appeal along with it, or at least it did for me.
If you are here for the simulator side though, there is plenty to love. I particularly liked how the game lets you create concrete floors before you can assign rooms to the empty space. Drawing the lines for water pipes, phone lines and other utilities is an easy enough task and the utility closets that you need to house on each level add that little bit of extra depth that you would not find in more casual sims. Similarly, noise and smell are not something you would expect having to deal with in a regular tower sim, but in Project Highrise they are very real mechanics that cannot be ignored. More often than not, noise and smell collide with the needs and wants of your tenants. Printing services, for example, are noisy but a key service to unlock higher tier businesses. Almost everyone will want a garbage dump on their floor, but no one wants to live next to it. In some cases, the solution is simply keeping the noises and smells on a different level, on others it’s not so simple - if the tenants want something on their own floor you’ll have to be creative in how you place things.
The game increases in complexity with each new tier and it can take a little time to get used to the new complexity. The balance here is good, though, you may feel a little confused on how to reach a new level. But once you’re there the first steps are pretty obvious. And when they are not, pop-ups and mouseovers will usually save the day.
I’ve always known aesthetics are important to me. I generally don’t care too much about high polygon counts or ultra realistic imagery, but I do need the game to be attractive enough for me to enjoy it. The green, lush world of Oblivion, for example, was far more inviting to me than the cold, white winterscape of Skyrim. Project Highrise falls in the cold department and fails to attract me for more than a few hours.
Looking beyond the aesthetics, fans of the genre will find a pretty deep business simulation that is worth exploring. The challenge increases along with the height of your tower and stays challenging right until the very end, though there will be some quiet, less exciting times somewhere along the way.