In the original Restaurant Empire, you played the role of Armand LeBoeuf as he rose from hopeful chef to Hall of Fame megachef. Along the way, he managed to take down corporate food giant Omnifood, and the moral of that tale was don't mess with anyone whose last name translates to "the beef." Released in 2003, the first game stood out from a quagmire of hastily made tycoon games as a deep, well thought-out and engrossing strategy game. Now, six years later, what tasty morsels are on offer with Restaurant Empire II?
Sadly, the answer is: not enough for you to leave the table satisfied. On the plus side, developer Enlight chose to not fix what wasn't broken, leaving intact much of the solid core gameplay that made the first game so satisfying. Unfortunately, in the six year interim, hardly anything else has changed. There are a few new features that you'll have fun exploring for a while, but the graphics engine has not been overhauled to bring it into 2009, and in comparison to other games in the same genre, Restaurant Empire II's visuals are showing obvious signs of age. In addition, many of the first game's key problems were not addressed. Although it still has the addictive gameplay from the first game, the overall impression is that this title was hastily put together and that it works better as an expansion pack to the original than as a standalone sequel.
Restaurant Empire II picks up right after Armand and his wife Delia's honeymoon. Delia has plans to open a coffee shop and Armand, in a fit of generous supportiveness, offers to financially back her plans. Meanwhile, he discovers a career opportunity as a television celebrity chef and decides to pursue it. As with the first game, a fairly well-told narrative is told in between each section of gameplay using in-game rendered cut scenes. Although they're not exactly eye candy, they're a welcome break and even bring some welcome drama to the restaurant business.
For the uninitiated, Restaurant Empire II can be a slow starter, and you'll need some patience to get over the initially steep learning curve. It will certainly help to have played the first game, as the gameplay concepts are identical; Enlight has also thoughtfully included it as a bundle, which gives you plenty of bang for your buck. There's a lot to learn because behind Restaurant Empire II's simple exterior is the heart of a deeply involving strategy game. Happily, unlike the first game, the second game's tutorial is not front-loaded but spread evenly throughout the game as new concepts arise.
Setting up a restaurant from scratch is where it all starts, and it will be a familiar experience to anyone who has played The Sims series of games. Before you even admit the first paying customer through the door, you'll have to lay out the tables, choose the décor, equip the kitchen with gadgets, hire staff, and decide which food items will comprise the menu. There are new functional items, such as espresso machines and other coffee makers, as well as new paintings, plants and furniture to spruce up your environment rating. For fans of this sort of customization, it can be a lot of fun changing out wallpapers, floor patterns, lighting, and experimenting with the dozens of other ways you can personalize the look and feel of your restaurant. Beyond being a neat feature for customization junkies, the layout of your tables is crucial because customers can and will complain about noise if the tables are too close together without any dividers. The second game comes with new modern styles and more décor items to choose from. The selection also grows as the game progresses and you meet furniture dealers in your restaurant. For those with a proper aesthetic and design sensibility, you can actually end up making your restaurant look and feel like a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.
Once everything is in place, you can micro-tweak practically every aspect of your restaurant, from the uniforms worn by your staff to the radius and intensity of a single light bulb. The downside to this depth of interactivity is that it can sometimes be difficult to see the relationship between cause and effect. I can choose to dim the lighting in the corner of my restaurant, but I'm never really sure if it will have any effect on the customers' happiness beyond an aesthetic one. Questions like these are frequent but part of the fun, and the path to success lies in discovery and figuring out what makes the game tick. Separating high-impact actions, like increasing your staff training budget, from low-impact decisions, like setting some flowers on a table, is part of figuring out the way the game operates and can result in a pretty engrossing experience for those who are willing to invest the time. However, along with the high degree of micro activity, some macro-level global slider options would have been greatly appreciated so that I could streamline my decisions and not spend so much time repeating the same activities with every restaurant in my ownership.
Gameplay is structured around a series of objectives that usually include a combination of achieving a targeted number of customers, profit and specific ratings. Starting out simple, these objectives can quickly become quite challenging to fulfill within the time period you're given and if you fail, you'll have to restart that particular section of gameplay again. This can be pretty devastating as one scenario can sometimes take over an hour to complete and the lack of clear guidance can sometimes mean you're left clueless as to how to win. The problem is somewhat alleviated by a great design choice which allows players the ability to retry the scenario with an easier set of objectives.
As well as traditional gourmet eateries, Restaurant Empire II offers you the ability to take control of coffee shops, dessert shops and to explore German cuisine. Like the first game, the developers really researched their gourmet food options, and you have the ability to add a wide variety of hot and cold beverages and delectable snacks. Foodies will get a kick out of seeing ingredient lists for a wide variety of tasty-sounding gourmet dishes, and an hour of playing this game will leave anyone hungry. The game also wins points for small yet salient details related to modern coffee shop culture, such as customers using their laptops and cell phones while they sip their espressos.
The depth of tweaking extends to your dishes and can be quite astonishing. You can alter the quality of the key ingredients, which in turn affects both its final cost and quality of the dish. You can also source high-quality ingredients by networking with suppliers who frequent your restaurant. If you serve expensive dishes of a high quality in a restaurant that's just starting out, customers will complain because the dishes don't meet their expectations. The trick is to start out low and gradually increase the cost and quality of your food as the game progresses and your restaurant's reputation grows. It's a tricky balancing act but satisfying to master, and the only thing that could make it better is more thoughtfully laid-out menu interfaces and high-level macro-tweaking options.
Once the restaurant is open, your options for adjusting and managing multiply. You can set the hours of operation, decide if you want customers to be able to share tables, tune the font and background picture on your menu, allocate advertising dollars, take out loans and much more. There are detailed statistics screens to help you make better decisions, and these are mostly laid out in a way that makes the information easy to digest, although a greater ability to sort and filter the information in useful ways would have been greatly appreciated. With such a degree of options to change, manage and monitor, it can feel a bit overwhelming — especially when you start to run multiple restaurants simultaneously. The good news is that with the exception of a few extremely difficult objectives, the game mostly allows you to run on autopilot, and as long as you don't mess things up too much, you'll be able to progress at a good pace.
Among the new features introduced in the sequel is the ability to allocate part of your budget to researching specific cooking disciplines. Over time, the money spent will help you unlock new recipes that you can slip into your menu. Unfortunately, there are so many categories that it becomes a bit overwhelming to decide where to spend your money, and with new recipes coming in all the time from customers, it never really feels necessary to spend even more money to acquire these. Another new addition is the option to have live entertainers perform in your eatery, which boosts the environment rating. It's a nice feature but not one that I would have placed high on my priority list.
Managing customer satisfaction is perhaps the most important, time-consuming and often frustrating activity. From the dreary décor to the rude wait staff, your customers won't be shy about telling you why you suck, and the sequel comes with all-new complaints! There are many ways to find out what customers hate about your restaurant, but it's a little less easy to respond to these problems. One of the most frequent complaints you'll receive is that it takes a long time for customers to get their food, and if you spend any time actually watching your restaurant, you'll soon discover that this is due to brain-dead waiters operating under lousy AI pathing. Like the early Sims titles, in-game characters have trouble navigating past each other if a narrow pathway is blocked, which can lead to severe problems if you didn't apply some foresight in the planning stages. This same problem plagued the first game, so it's really a letdown that given a second chance, Enlight didn't choose to address this issue.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that in the six-year interlude between the first and second game, the graphics haven't really improved. It's obvious that Enlight is using the same engine that powered the first game, and even pushing the sliders all the way up to the max won't alleviate the feeling that somehow, you're playing a retro game with crude textures and lighting, and poorly animated low-poly 3-D models. On the plus side, this game might be the perfect excuse to bring your aging behemoth of a PC that you're using as a doorstop out of retirement.
Besides the subpar graphics, the sound is perhaps the next most lackluster part of the title, consisting of halfhearted Sim-lish style babble and the same intentionally cheesy repetitive tunes from the first game. It seems that no attention was given to improving the sound effects or adding some new tracks that might be a better fit for the new restaurants and themes on offer.
Throughout the day, you'll receive special alerts from customers in the restaurant who want to offer you business and networking opportunities, such as offering their family's secret recipes or advising you on ways to improve your recipes. One of the new additions is that customers will offer to sell you mysterious items that can improve the morale of your staff. Is your chef feeling a little down in the dumps? Treat him or her to a vintage chardonnay for a 10+ boost to morale. They'll be so drunk they won't care that their restaurant is failing! All of these items come at quite a hefty cost, though, and while they're a neat idea, the frequent alerts can grate after a while. After all, a busy chef doesn't have all day to chat with customers!
Restaurant Empire I allowed you to enter high-profile televised cook-offs reminiscent of "Iron Chef." Restaurant Empire II revisits these but also lets you develop Armand's career as a TV celebrity chef. Where the first game used mini-games as factor in your victory, this time around, you get to play a "match three" style of game where you have to line up three similar ingredients — think Puzzle Fighter with food. It's a great idea and the perfect style of gameplay for this casual game. Like all match three games, it is addictive, fun and easy to play. Unfortunately, I encountered lag when playing this, which entirely ruined the experience, but a patch is on the way.
Restaurant Empire II's biggest failing is that it missed the opportunity to iron out some of the major flaws from the first game, including buggy AI, sometimes-clunky interface and less-than-impressive graphics. The depth of strategy that made the first game so much fun are still there, but they were not really iterated and improved on in a substantive way. This shouldn't be misinterpreted as suggesting that Restaurant Empire II is a bad game. On the contrary, it's a robust simulation game, and fans of the first title and the genre in general will find many hours of absorbing and addictive gameplay. Just don't expect too much.
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