This "tycoon" game has players designing, constructing, and managing a complex devoted to one of the nation's (unfortunately) fastest growing industries: the prison system. Too strict a facility can create a tinderbox for riotous uprising, but too lenient a penitentiary promotes gang-related troubles and other corruption. Beginning with a minimum security campus, players must balance the hiring of guards, wardens, and counselors to rehabilitate criminals as efficiently as possible, in order to earn funding for expansion.
I've dreamed and pondered the "what-if?" scenario for a lot of different career paths. With the developers creating simulations for everything from ski resorts to ant farms, if you can think it - someone can build it. The question is - should they?
I like movies about prison. I'm not very interested in experiencing that first-hand, but am fascinated by the lifestyle, there. From the funny ones like "Stir Crazy", to gritty "Papillon", they're a glimpse into another world. There always seems to be an evil warden involved. With Prison Tycoon, you get to play that role, yourself. However, because of the reality-factor, it's best you don't get too evil. If you want to succeed here, as in any Sim, you need to watch yourself and be good at what you do. So, no guards versus inmates football games to play. This is a specialty game - to the max. Prison Tycoon is definitely not geared to be fun for the whole family. Still, it's a fascinating niche to fill.
You are not technically the Warden (though you will be for some of the Challenge Mode options), but more like the Owner of a bad-guy Club Med. As with all Sim games involving humans, happiness makes money. Believe it or not, you have to have happy inmates for great success. That keeps the money flowing, and more prisoners will come (back), which brings the funding.
Beginning with a large fenced-in square area, you must create your prison from the (literal) ground-up. Guard towers, housing, places to eat and "play". All of that has to be setup and placed for maximum efficiency. Once your structures are laid out, the law-enforcing fun begins. To prevent rioting and negative activity, you have to keep your deviants happy. Exercise, food and basic comforts have to be balanced, or you will encounter dangerous, attention-drawing outburst that will turn a nice day into a money-draining fiasco. Hail, Hail.... the gang's all here! Well, they will be - if you're too lax in your methods of control and discipline. The way your prison is run reflects on how it matures and prospers. That's a given, but since this is an unusual genre for a Sim game, there are interesting factors like food and entertainment to keep people from killing each other. Success creates reformed members of society and there is the potential to have such hard-core deviants that a Maximum Security area be created for Death Row types. That's a difficult hurdle to manage.
In fact, much of the game is difficult to handle. Right from the awkward clunky graphics and quickly annoying blues tunes, this game leaves you wanting to escape your bonds. Some games short-cut graphical splendors for the sake of superior game play, but something was forsaken here... and not anything for any known benefits. A potentially engrossing challenge is reduced to a misdemeanor of mediocrity.
The camera angles are annoying, and offer limited control to make it better. The instructions are terrible. The box comes with nothing, and the only help is on the disk. Good luck. So, only someone that's played a lot of sim-types will have a chance at making fun from this jail-break from reality. You know the basic idea is to make everyone happy - but you have to really explore trial and error to find out how. Sometimes, that's fun. Myst is one of those challenges that kept you coming back for more - no matter how lost you were. The payoff was worth it. Here, your payoff is that you get to experience something later on that's even more annoying than the previous disaster. If you manage to create the required bunking and other start-up necessities without jumping off your roof in anguish, you get to practice pausing the action over and over to try to figure out what to do next. It's like having a treasure map with only an "X" on it - no directions or images to help you along.
The visuals are clunky at best. You can decrease the graphical load by adjusting your options, but this just makes things more weird-looking. The trees and other natural objects look like Lego pieces. Nothing looks like it belongs to the scenery. It feels more like an unfinished Railroad diorama than a realistic environment. No effort was put into shading, perspective or depth. The icons for player control are fairly easy to understand, but hovering your (key) cursor over the icon will display its function. That does help.
The sound is mediocre. The music is a blues, somber deep-south creation. I guess all jails are modeled after the glamorous digs from Cool Hand Luke. Either that, or maybe The Longest Yard? While enjoying that type of music a lot, it got on my nerves pretty fast, as it lacks depth. Where's the gritty concrete music you'd associate with a Joliet or Alcatraz? Turning it off might help your mood. You can also make adjustments for the other sounds (such as intelligible inmate crowd noises). Effect sounds are simple blips and chirps as you create or destroy matter.
I think there is hope for such a niche. I really liked the idea of this kind of sim, and approached it with vigor. It's just a shame the idea was treated with such single dimension and lack of depth. It's a budget title, and it grossly shows. It plays like a senior project for a game-design student. Not bad if it's viewed in that perspective, but to ask regular-game money for a light weight effort is a mistake. More (hard) time and more work. After a few hours of the crude navigation and quirky challenge options and I was ready to put someone in The Chair. I honestly needed some time in solitary confinement after banging my head on the desk for a while.
The controls are complicated by terrible camera angles. It swerves and twists as you try to get a good view-- just to drop a building into position. This must be repeated over and over to create the "yard" and surroundings for your facility. It never got much easier or more fun. It was a chore-- rather than a joy as experienced in such games as Maxis' The Sims. The payoff is not much-- considering the work involved just to create a functioning prison. The Challenge Modes offered a pleasant reprieve from some of that agony. Those are more fun, but not enough to redeem the manual free play gaming.
From what I have seen on the Discovery Channel and TLC, prisons are complex-- inside and out. However, I am now led to believe that they are crude and closely resembling my Junior High School-- with a bit of Gomer Pyle mixed in. The bricks and walls seem fine, but throw in something with curves or detail, and forget about reality. The object is, of course, to run a successful prison and not to make paintings, but the lack of eye candy is depressing.
The saving grace of the game is some nice blues music. But, like other triumphs in the game, it soon falls into the annoying category. The environmental noises like fighting and general population chatter is horribly generic and distracting. I don't want to hear every inmate's conversation, but the sheer force of random noise in the place of decent effect makes it stand out even more.
Prison Tycoon is hard to figure out-- using the limited Help or not. This is not for the first time sim-player, and even experienced sim veterans will be challenged by the interface and odd points of view. You'll spend so much time trying to get a decent angle-- you'll be unable to monitor your vital stats. If you can't do that, you can't succeed. By the time you get a good view of an event, it's too late to act on it-- properly.
I love the idea of running a prison. I really hoped this was going to be more than it was. I don't judge games by the price-point, as I have found some great gems in the under $20 pool. But no one seemed to appreciate the potential that they had in their cuffed little hands. I think the creation department was in lock-down for most of the concept meetings. Maybe the inmates were running the jail.
I really feel bad about this being so.... bad. Being able to create your own security force, guard towers, exercise yards, food and punishment areas. That should be a recipe for tons of fun. However, every critical ingredient lacked what it needs to be more than average. It exists in a life-sentence of mediocrity. There are brief moments of glee when you create something that boosts inmates' morale, but then something happens that requires quick action, and you are mired in a battle to get a good view of the issue. The only fighting I want in a game like this is between inmates! Play this for more than a few minutes and you'll need a straight jacket. The best bet is playing the Challenges more than suffering through the Free mode. At least most of the layout is decent. Even that, however, lacks depth as the goal of the dozen-plus challenges are all the same: Your prison needs to be more successful. Wow. That's original. This isn't Shawshank, and there sure isn't any Redemption coming your way. You better just hope for parole or a reduced sentence for good behavior.
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