Introversion has given early supporters of its upcoming prison simulation access to several snapshots of its slowly evolving alpha. Now that we're on the eighth major-version alpha release, how is the game shaping up?
Prison Architect is much more of a functional game now than the last time I dug into it (for a print preview in the January issue of Game Informer) thanks to new prisoner behaviors and tools for the player. The challenges of building and maintaining a profitable and (reasonably) safe prison complex by designing its layout and hiring staff are still rough and often nebulous, but expecting a "fun" game out of an alpha version is unreasonable. As of the most recent alpha, though, glimpses of Introversion's vision are starting to shine through.
Prisoners aren't organizing themselves into gangs and running meth rings out of the laundry yet, but they react much more organically to situations. Being aware of dangerous situations like shower time or yard exercise is important, especially before you can afford security cameras and additional guards. Some dumb issues still exist, with edge cases like hungry prisoners escaping lockdown or solitary confinement because the cell door doesn't close fast enough only to be chased down and returned by a guard in an endless loop. Hungry prisoners complain instead of eating the food literally right in front of them as well, but the general flow of prison life is beginning to take shape.
The fog of war is much more important and smoothly implemented than in past alpha releases. If your guards can't see an area, you have no idea what your prisoners could be up to - and they're more than likely taking advantage of that fact to sneak improvised weapons, break stuff, and get into fights. Maintaining visibility across your prison is one of the major challenges, at least until you have a comprehensive CCTV system.
The new staff-only mode for doors is a huge boon to players' ability to control the flow of traffic through their prisons. Since you don't control your staff directly (except for guards, which Introversion has said is likely to change for release since Prison Architect is supposed to be a simulation, not a real-time strategy game of quashing riots), having separate entrances and walkways for staff is great for both efficiency and safety.
More advanced options, like calling in riot cops and firefighters, will be important tools at some point in the future, but at the moment the game struggles to stay in the fun, tense zone between a smoothly operating prison that prints money with little risk and a failed ruin where the staff are under siege and escapes are the norm rather than the exception. Those times when you're trying to contain a riot while keeping the kitchen running so that things don't deteriorate any further are great, but Introversion has some work to do to ensure that those situations are neither simple to defuse or quickly spiral out of control.
Envisioning a roadmap between Prison Architect's current state and the game Introversion hopes it becomes is relatively easy now that more of the core building blocks are implemented. If the developers can come up with more interesting events, behaviors, and goals that bust players out of their box, Prison Architect could be something special. I'm pleased to see the progress made over the last few months, even though Introversion has many more months of effort to fulfill Prison Architect's potential.