The sim genre of games on the PC is probably the most varied genre in existence, simply by its nature. Developers have had gamers manage hotels, theme parks, zoos, businesses, shopping malls and now, thanks to the guys at Enlight Software, Restaurants. Honestly, telling someone you're playing a restaurant simulator in your spare time sounds like social suicide at best, but don't worry, it probably won't have you hooked for long anyway!
Gameplay - 8.0/10:
I'm one for before-action tutorials, I enjoy getting to know a game before I start really playing it, which is why RE gave me a very good initial impression. Despite the obvious lack in graphical excellence as discussed later in this review, the before game introduction to the story line is actually quite intriguing. What's that, did you say story line? I sure did! RE doesn't just blindly give you control over a restaurant, it also gives you control over a young chef trying to get a break in the dog-eat-dog world of hospitality (or is that human-eat dog? oh wait, nevermind). That break comes pretty quickly into the game, after you convince your retired uncle into giving you his old restaurant to take over. Impeccable convenience, if I do say so myself.
This instantly gives RE an element of roleplay, which is a good thing. Not only do you take control over someone rather than just something, you can actually build up the stats of your chef as you cook more. These stats include the rating you have to prepare dishes representing a certain nationality, like French food. As you progress throughout the game, your skills and reputation increase and hence your restaurant's overall quality gets better, which is certainly a very well thought out implementation of RPG into Sim.
However the problem is, it just takes to damn long for this to happen. Atleast traditionally in RPG games you had control over the development of your character, in RE you just sit there watching your chef cook, gradually gaining skill points. What started out as a strong RPG presence soon turns into a non-existent one, skill develop feels more dependant on the story line than on your skill as a gamer.
However that is not to say RE is a breeze, quite the opposite. You will soon find managing a restaurant, even a virtual one, is a very involving task requiring a lot of work. You ultimately have to keep your customers happy, so they can keep coming back and attract more customers. However there are just so many factors involved in the opinion of the customer you really have to be on your toes the whole time, well, atleast during the busy hours (lunch & dinner).
One factor customers need satisfaction in is meal diversity and quality. You have control over your menu and the price of the food in it. Enlight have added the ability to customize your menu visually with a limited choice of background images and text fonts, which don't seem to have any real impact on the game at all, but it is a nice touch. One thing I couldn't quite understand was adding food to your menu. There didn't seem to be a limit on how much you could add at any time, whatever recipes are available can be added without hassle, which makes me wonder why new recipes aren't just automatically added to save time.
Probably the most frustrating of all customer satisfaction elements is the staff. Hiring staff in this game is a must, there are certain positions that need to be filled no matter what, like waiters, and receptionists. You always have a choice as a manager, whether to go cheap and get inexperienced workers or spend big and go for quality, however it really never seems to make a whole lot of different. Too often your staff are rude to your customers, which in turn depends on their morale rating. To improve morale you pay them more, while you spend even more money on staff training, only to fire them a few minutes later due to their total oblivion to customer satisfaction. It doesn't get much more tedious than this.
Perhaps their morale wouldn't be so bad if they weren't standing there doing nothing most of the day. Besides lunch and dinner, it will take a long time for your restaurant to even attract a few customers outside busy hours, while your staff continue to suck your money for doing nothing. A good shift work option is needed here to keep more staff on during busy hours and much, much less on during the rest of the day.
However during these dull hours of the day, RE allows you to continue micro managing, and there are really quite a lot of options here which are all implemented relatively well, despite the problems mentioned with the staff. You have control over everything from your marketing/advertising budget, to how high quality each ingredient in any meal is. For the first few hours of play atleast you will be busy exploring your abilities and their effects on the gameplay, but after a while the average gamer will fall into a slumber, no matter how challenging it becomes. Unfortunately the gameplay doesn't really keep you hooked, there is only so much clicking, watching and waiting one person can take.
This fact alone means RE is really a game reserved for a niche inside the sim community. If you have never had any desire to operate a restaurant, the lasting appeal is very limited. It isn't like Sim City, where gamers of all kinds kept playing because running an entire city became addictive, rather your enthusiasm about the game only seems to go down over time. Perhaps you will enjoy the everyday never ending hassles of restaurant management, however it just doesn't do it for me, and I suspect many other average gamers.
Visuals - 6.5/10:
When we first checked out a preview copy of RE, we had hoped some more attention would be brought to the ingame graphics, however it seems not much was done at all. Although environments look relatively nice, renders of the people and the food are generally poor. This is odd, as even the highest camera view is relatively close, so the chunky models and block like food is always apparent.
The animations are a little different however, they are probably the high point for the graphics atleast. Although it would be relatively expected, customers show visual reactions to events in the restaurant, like rude staff or slow food. Most of the animations are for negative events, though it is not often one becomes ecstatic physically over a good meal.
Controls - 6.5/10:
This is another area RE really needs polishing in. To begin with, the camera system is hard to master at best. Often I find myself fighting with the mouse trying to get the camera to go in a position I want, as usually the game's tendency for very sensitive camera movement prevails. This makes it hard to focus in on any given area of the restaurant, but with a little practice it gets easier. The camera view range itself is very limited, I find myself swinging the camera around with my mouse more than actual management at times.
Interacting with the environment is obviously a very important part of the game, and most of the time everything is ok. You select what type of object you want via the menus, and simply place it in the 3D world where you want it. This is a very straight forward task, however at times, primarily due to the autosnap, objects are placed in undesired places. There is a move function which works a treat, but time is money in this business! (or so they say).
It is hard to criticize a game which strives to offer something different, and for that we respect Restaurant Empire. However every game can eventually grind down to the fundamentals of its genre, and the sim genre has seen far better implementations than Restaurant Empire in its vast history. What makes it hard for RE to succeed is that it is maybe a little too unique, atleast with a game like Rollercoaster Tycoon there is already a fan base active. With Restaurant Empire, it needs to create a following and pose as a good game at the same time, and it does a respectful job, it just falls a little short in the basics. Never mind however, if you like your food and have fancied yourself as a restaurant manager then you'll enjoy Restaurant Empire immensely, otherwise, you will probably get bored pretty quick.