It seems any chef on telly can manage a vast business chain of posh restaurants worldwide these days. If you’ve ever fancied stepping into the likes of Gordon Ramsay’s shoes or perhaps you’re just culinary-minded, well this is your Championship Manager. Restaurant Empire II is the sequel to the original bistro-managing franchise of 2003 and with over five years since its predecessor’s debut, hopes are understandably high.
The game comes rather well-presented – a sea of colourful gloss shines off of the Sims-like CGI characters and the finely-detailed cities, in which you will soon be serving up your first prawn cocktail. As before, you are taking control of French cooking prodigy, Armand LeBouef (no, he didn’t used to play for Chelsea) as he embarks upon his ‘Michelin’ star-studded journey to corporate prominence. The game is divided into story-mode or “sandbox” open-play - in which you can break free of everything LeBouef-orientated and branch out on your own.
Instantly upon initial load, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were playing this title adrift the seven seas, hence the rather shaky graphical display. The game supposedly auto-tunes itself to your graphics driver and it’s either intended that way, or it is pushing the limits of a 3 gig Intel Core-Duo machine. In fairness, the game speed (even at the highest setting) does perform impeccably and whilst you may have feared the stiffness would impede the game’s overall playability, you will get used to it.
What’s also not clear is the inclusion of the original storyline of the game as the ‘A’ choice of the two story-modes. Whilst it’s understandable that the game will attract new players, it’s just one less feature for fans of the series, who surely wouldn’t want to play through the same game again. The ‘B’ story is set after Armand has had his success and now branches into the coffee-chain market (is he mad?) with his new wife, Delia Delecoeur. Both of these modes have the ‘bonuses of possibly the most gruelling fully-voiced tutorial which explains EVERYTHING in delightfully waffly depth. The ironic thing being that your uncle Michel (whose restaurant you managed to glory in the original game) and Armand’s voices in the ‘adventure mode’ part of the story don’t have the luxury of vocal support, as you are left to scan the mountains of text.
Actually managing your restaurant is of course, a task in itself and the game interface is nicely sorted into helpful sub-categories where you can do everything from hiring and firing staff; manage complaints; design your menu and tamper with the food quality. Graphically, it’s very much like The Sims (though slightly less customizable) as you watch people come in and have their dining experiences. Sadly the movement defaults haven’t been thought through very well. There seems to be no static ‘lock’ function and combined with trying to turn the camera as well as changing the view-level with the mouse, you will find yourself frustratingly flying every which way as you try to place that lamp, exactly where you want it.
The story section of the game is probably its best feature overall, giving you a sense of purpose at least and having set goals to achieve, which aren’t easy. There are quirky (if slightly odd) mini-game functions dropped in to ahem, spice it up a bit, which will have you competing in a cooking contest (which you don’t actually do any cooking in). Achieving the goals will have you serving up cheap food for rip-off prices with the best of them as you battle to score record-breaking profit margins. You will also encounter, what I call the ‘Del Boys’, or business opportunists, who will dine in your establishment, just to discuss a deal with you – offering things from improved recipes to business contacts, all for a sky-high fee. This is a nice touch and offers some much-needed variety to the monotony of running an eatery. Though beware of the auto-save when playing story-mode (which hopefully will be fixed in a patch sooner rather than later), as it doesn’t save and you may find that all your hard work has vanished.
The sandbox mode offers you the chance to create any of the different cuisines (French, German, American or Italian), in any of the cities (LA, Munich, Rome or Paris), with the added option of themed restaurants. Considering only the themes and the German cookbook has been added since its first outing, this is again disappointing for the veteran player. The controls aren’t especially clear in this mode and you’re almost wishing that that annoying voice was explaining to you how to add the toilets or make the kitchen bigger as you struggle around.
For what it is, Restaurant Empire II gives you what it promised and presents it fairly well. What isn’t acceptable is how similar this seems to be to the original, which wasn’t perfect by any means. Whilst you may enjoy certain elements of the game, there isn’t a great deal of replay value or gameplay – it’s just not that addictive. If you’ve always wanted to manage a chain of restaurants you’ll no doubt like it, but this won’t hook the casual or even avid “building-game” fan.