Ever watched House M.D. and figured "I could do better than him"? Well here's your chance to prove it with Bullfrog's Theme Hospital. The company is known for some pretty awesome gems like Populous, Syndicate, Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper and with Theme Hospital they're putting you in charge of your very own hospital. Can the game stand up to the awesome résumé of Bullfrog? And more importantly can it capture the 'thrill' of owning and operating your very own hospital? I took the game for a spin so let's have a look.
The singleplayer has only one game mode that resembles a board game; there are 13 spots which you have to clear in order to complete the game. Each slot offers a different challenge and these challenges differ from curing patients after a horrific car crash or treating patients rescued from a sunken ship for example. In between these major disasters there are smaller spots which allow you to build your hospital and get familiarized with the gameplay mechanics. At the start of a new game you're given the option to select whether you're new to the game. New players get a helpful assistant that shows you the ropes to running a successful hospital. Unfortunately there is no sandbox mode in the game to experiment a bit.
The game is played from an isometric view and the gameplay of Theme Hospital plays like a real-time strategy game; you place objects, rooms and workers on an empty canvas (known as 'hospital'). Different objects (reception desk, litter bins and chairs for example) can be placed practically anywhere within your hospital and you can even rotate them with the right mouse button. The different rooms available in the game (general practitioner's office and examination room for example) have to be placed a bit differently though; first you draw the blueprint of the room inside your hospital and once you're satisfied with the size and location of the room you can place the door and possible windows on it. After you're done with placing the door (the windows are optional) you can place the necessary items inside your newly created room; a desk for a GP or perhaps a multi-use treating device for an examination room. Each room comes with a set of items and the rest of the items (radiators, plants, etc.) you have to pay extra for.
Once you have a few rooms and a reception desk set up, you need some staff to occupy them. This is where the game really shines; each and every one of the possible staff members up for hire (be it a janitor, a doctor or a nurse) has it's own salary, working ability and most importantly, bio. The character bios are quite possible the most witty and hilarious texts I've ever seen in a video game. Doctor who likes to rave? Check. A nurse who's afraid of octopi? Check. Bios aside, choosing a new staff member isn't exactly an easy task. A doctor with low salary might not have a very good working ability and eventually you'll end up losing money when he does wrong diagnoses and you have to clean up the mess or lose valuable reputation. Take great care when choosing your staff, it'll eventually pay off later in the game (someone should have said that to Gregory House).
Once you have your hospital set up with the bare necessities it's time to open it for business. Quickly the patients start floating in and it's a joy to see your first hospital in action; people walking around and staff members doing (more or less) what they're supposed to do. This is when the game really starts; you have to take care of your patients while keeping your staff happy and productive. Not an easy chore later in the game when you have dozens of GP's offices and hundreds of patients. There's always someone complaining about something, be it a patient dying because of a wrong diagnose or a grumpy doctor saying his office doesn't have enough plants. Luckily the game speed can be changed but I was pretty comfortable with the default speed. You can also pause the game to take a breather but unfortunately you can't build or place new objects while the game is paused. Not a big deal really.
Once your doctors have diagnosed the first patients you can start researching cures for their illnesses. The illnesses are also hilarious; you have invisible grandpas and bloated heads for example. In order to find a cure you need the appropriate room and a (at least partly) qualified staff member to run it. Once your GP has diagnosed the disease you can start researching the cure. It might seem that researching a cure is random but it actually takes a lot of things in consideration; your staff's abilities, their bios (yeah those affect almost everything), your hospital's reputation, you name it. Once you have the cure researched, you can build a room to cure the infected (no, I'm not talking about zombies).
Most challenges are completed by keeping your hospital's reputation up and having a steady cash flow. Your hospital gains reputation by curing patients and with special 'encounters' that happen from time to time. These 'encounters' include stuff like an important VIP visiting your hospital. And again the boy'ish humor of the developers raises it's beautiful face; you can either accept the VIPs visit or literally tell him to 'fob off'. Absolutely brilliant. Just make sure your hospital is clean and running properly if you accept the visit. Cash on the other hand is a bit more easy to come by; just make sure to keep your staff satisfied and fire any slackers that spend more time in the staff room than treating patients.
The game also supports network gaming. There are two different ways to play a network; two human players and two AI players trying to build the best hospital possible and an all-out war between four human players. Unfortunately the multiplayer game mode feels like just an extended version of the singleplayer since each player just minds his own business running his or hers own hospital. One big downside in the multiplayer are the protocols available; multiplayer can be played with either DirectPlay IPX, a serial cable, a modem or with a blast from the past: IPX/SPX! Needless to say that I didn't find anyone to play with. Although pretty limited in the multiplayer department, Theme Hospital should make for a great LAN game (especially when a bit tipsy).
The music in the game support the humorous setting perfectly; the joyful tunes are a pleasure to listen to while you watch your lackeys completing their daily routines. Some might not appreciate the high pitch of the music though but I enjoyed it a lot. Otherwise the game is very limited when it comes to sound effects but the announcer of your hospital deserves an Oscar; the first time I heard "Paging doctor Freeman" I almost fell off my chair. Absolutely brilliant, it's like you're in a real hospital!
The graphics of Theme Hospital are (as the rest of the game) hilarious; every character in the game has excellent animation (although sprite-based) and it's a joy watching them walking around or wondering what to do next. Sure the textures are of quite low quality but that doesn't really matter when you're following a patient that's running away from a rat. The low textures also ensure that the game is playable on almost any rig on the planet. And if it ain't, you can always use low resolution or turn the shadows off (the only graphical options available in the game). My rig ran the game smooth albeit I experienced some stuttering.
Overally the game is fun to play and it's filled with humor; every second you spend playing Theme Hospital you're either giggling or have a slight grin on your face. I can't even remember when I last played a game this fun! The gameplay mechanics are simple and easy to learn and the game has enough content to keep you going for hours. This all combined with a low price (4.60€/$6/£4) make this game a must have for every player looking for a fun and enjoyable game to play.