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Graphics: Restaurant Empire might be the first tycoon game to make the move to real-time 3D but it is hardly pretty. Instead, graphics are used to help better understand the relationship between different aspects of the simulation: so players can accurately gauge the lighting level in the restaurant, estimate table crowding, and other factors that come to life with the addition of the ability to view the establishment in the same way that its virtual actors do, breaking away from a fixed 2D overhead perspective. As such, it is not entirely fair to pick on poor textures, especially in some of the non-restaurant “adventure mode” scenes, and low polygon models that often abruptly switch in complexity when zooming in especially when what matters, the food, is always rendered exquisitely and certainly always looks good enough to eat. Watching things in motion can be fascinating, being able to view each worker fulfil his or her own distinct role.
On the other hand, from an educational standpoint, there are many cases of Restaurant Empire dropping the ball: Ionic columns are missing the one feature that makes a column Ionic and the teepee is attributed to the Iroquois. Dishwashers tend to look more like home units than commercial machines. Many items are intended to be humorous in nature, such as a “Jackson Michael’s” hit-album plaque that is entitled “I want to be white,” although they result in an inconsistent atmosphere, where the product never seems to commit to an overriding philosophy. Other furnishings seem to be mislabeled, as a basic bathroom stall is more expensive, comfortable, and decorous than other alternatives which have more interesting names, often appropriate to specific cuisines or themes, and appear much less Spartan visually.
Indeed, while French restaurants, the first type introduced in the game, have a host of accessories, each theme that is pioneered after that point has progressively less art assets, as if Enlight’s artists ran out of steam halfway through the project. To put things in perspective, French restaurants have a list of twenty-six items for covering their walls while rock & roll franchises the last to be introduced during the campaign have but four. It also seems that the economic rules have been altered in accordance with this: it is frighteningly easy to achieve a 100 percent decoration level using only the best quality seating in addition to table lamps. While including further props might make the place more visually appealing to the user, they do nothing for the inhabitants of the virtual world, and have a high monthly maintenance fee, causing successful restaurants to often appear somewhat bare.
Interface: With a glossy presentation that includes candy-coated icons, Restaurant Empire certainly has a lot going for it when it comes to interface. There is a minor issue with the fact that all of the windows are transparent, making text sometimes difficult to read at higher resolutions in the adventure mode of the game, but more problematic is that icons within overlapping windows both highlight when the cursor moves over them. Though initially confusing, as one is not quite sure which option is being selected, there were only a few cases of it becoming a major difficulty. Otherwise, the interface is keenly adept at presenting all the necessary information within the boarders of the screen, facilitates jumping from one restaurant to the next, and makes reams of statistics available to those who desire them.
Gameplay: It is very easy to create a great restaurant; making a profitable one, however, is an intense struggle. Juggling the various factors of the business in Restaurant Empire makes for an enthralling experience even if it lacks the visceral thrills of the Rollercoaster Tycoons and the theme park management simulations that enjoy popularity, it is much more applicable to both our own lives and our real world understanding of economics. On the spreadsheet front, Restaurant Empire is a superb number cruncher, having an immense amount of depth, though the great interface packages it in a glossy way that makes it much more palatable for those who are merely amateurs when it comes to finance. As a game, its strongest point is the persistence of the player’s accomplishments from one scenario to the next. In many strategy releases, discrete scenarios invalidate the gains of the participants; Restaurant Empire relishes in them. Being able to manage the same restaurant among others from the first scenario to the last brings a much needed sense of continuity to the product, making it easy to grow attached to both the facilities and the virtual employees. Immediate goals always have a sense of affecting the future, and appear much more meaningful than in competing offerings.
The only abstraction made that seems to hurt the experience is the way employees are handled, especially during the campaign. At the beginning of the game, the only ones available are very poor in skill and while it is possible to spend money to train them, the cost is exorbitant. This might be acceptable, but as the campaign progresses, better staff becomes available for hire. As such, loyalty to one’s employees goes out the window as it is cheaper to merely fire poor performers and replace them, rather than training them up to spec until there is a plot contrivance introduced in the penultimate scenario that increases the efficacy of training fivefold. Also strange is the proportional way salaries are tied to morale. Increasing pay to compensate for bad work is counter-intuitive, as there is no need to reward good service: expect wait staff to have salaries matching that of the best chefs.
Enlight has made a solid decision in appealing to fans of The Sims through its strong narrative elements and emphasis on interior decoration. However, each of these design considerations has hurt the resulting product as much as it has contributed to its success. While the rather limited assortment of props for many cuisines and the ease of achieving a 100 percent decoration rating have detracted from the appeal of furnishing the various restaurants, the narrative of the plot renders it completely unsuitable for the educational market. Though some talk is made about being an equal opportunity employer during the scenarios that take place in the United States, essentially forcing the player to take on first a female chef and then an African American one, these are done in an extremely negligent way. In the first example, the chef in question is Delia, Armand’s love interest throughout the plot demonstrating that men rarely have a problem with affirmative action when they want to sleep with the employee in question. Much younger and still in culinary school, Delia is essentially an intern being constantly propositioned by a man who owns a large chain of restaurants; a confusing lesson for those learning about what is or is not acceptable in the workplace.
While many characters are rendered in comical ways, from the Italian Mafioso to the Los Angeles native who runs a hydro shop that carries an assortment of herbs, the treatment of the singular black character crosses far more lines and does not offer a more balanced alternative treatment to show just how exaggerated the stereotypical one is by comparison. The chef Tyrone Simpson wears a gold chain, throbs uncontrollably against kitchen equipment, gyrating at the pelvis between orders especially so when time acceleration is in effect and manages to say “homey” three times in one paragraph. As the sandbox mode does not offer any additional chefs, apart from the 30 or so that are included with the campaign, there is an extreme lack of range in the choices that are included. While mature players can form their own opinions about how this impacts their enjoyment of the product and parents can decide what is best for their own children within their homes, Restaurant Empire should be regrettably kept as far away from schools as possible.
Multiplayer: There is no multiplayer component in this game, so this category is not rated.
Sound FX: From the snappish “pop” sound that rings when selecting an item or person to the metallic rumble of a trash can when firing an employee, the sounds in Restaurant Empire are quite effective, although limited in scope. Customers converse in a low warble that is unintelligible, a prudent design decision, as it seems less repetitive than stock phrases and is conducive to localizing the product in different markets.
Musical Score: There are only a handful of included themes, none that tie in especially well with the varieties of included restaurants, and they seem to begin without any sense of reason. As most of the game is played in silence, their abrupt appearance becomes all the more strange. What the music punctuates seems fairly random, starting up even when the pause feature is in use. While none of the tracks are particularly complex or moving, they do have a certain charm, and might make fans of Sierra’s 1991 The Adventures of Willy Beamish a bit nostalgic for the days of Adlib sound cards and electronic bebop.
Intelligence & Difficulty: Restaurant Empire is balanced superbly: while it might be hard to meet certain objectives, players will often be surprised at their own success at the end of the month. Not all goals must be achieved to move on, so even those that seem out of reach can be attempted without fear of failure. Only a few objectives seem impossible, such as one early on that asks the player to achieve an average profit of around forty dollars per customer. I believe that I completed the scenario with an average profit of precisely zero dollars per customer, though the restaurant was still making money overall; either the way the game was calculating that number was in error or the holy grail of business management is still beyond my reach, but it was still possible to move on. Failure in a scenario presents the player with the option to start again with easier goals set in place, although this option can be a hard pill to swallow after working through a half dozen months of operation.
The AI has a somewhat strange way of dealing with kitchen appliances. If there is more than one item of any kind, porters and chefs tend to alternate between them. A kitchen with two stoves might see the chefs alternating between them every time a meal is completed; wasting time and making them look confused as they scramble back and forth, exchanging positions. The situation is even worse with porters because of their dual roles, as waiting stations also employ this alternating rule, where they must be visited in sequence, no matter how many there might be. This means that a kitchen with two porters will have each worker visit a station and then a dumbwaiter, only to repeat the process with a different station and a different dumbwaiter, the two porters finally switching dishwashers at the end. All this running around makes diminishing returns set in far too quickly when installing more than one of any fixture. The fact that workers are not hired in shifts also complicates things: a restaurant might need a half dozen servers to work both floors, but in the morning before any customers need to be directed to the upper level the excess servers remain clustered around the lower story, often blocking the paths of both other workers and patrons, some of whom grow confused and meander into the kitchen something that is usually not permitted in real world establishments.
Overall: With so many releases competing for players’ attention these days, it can be hard to recommend a title that has participants fighting off a brunch-rush rather than a tank-rush, but as a strategy game, Restaurant Empire excels and mainstream developers have much to learn from Trevor Chan. The combination of statistical depth and the persistence of the player’s accomplishments is not to be ignored. Unfortunately, it does not quite reach the level of crossover appeal that it seems to desire, as it fails to meet fans of The Sims all the way with an interior design aspect that is both broken and hamstrung by a lack of artistic assets and contains plot elements that disqualify it from the educational market. Beyond that, however, Restaurant Empire is a worthy addition to the tycoon genre and maintains a level of credibility that fans cannot afford to overlook.
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