Genre: Simulation / Tycoon
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Release Date: November 8, 2005
Sometimes when a game concept sounds really, really cool, it sets off alarms in the mind of a cynical gamer. "Wait," you think to yourself as you read the interview where the creator outlines his game's ambitious vision, "How the hell is he going to do even half of this on current hardware?" Still, you keep following the interviews, and previews, despite the sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach. Finally the day of release comes, and you suddenly realize that instead of the Earth-shattering new gaming paradigm you'd been hoping for, you've actually ended up buying a near-unplayable experiment like Black & White or a complete disaster like Daikatana. You can weep bitter tears of shame, howl out your fury at the creators on any number of online forums, or just ditch the game after a few disappointing days, but one painful fact always remains: the really cool game idea you read about so long ago wasn't realized, and probably never will be.
Have that tight, miserable feeling of anxiety building up in your stomach as you read this? Relax; you're not going to hear about dropped features or miserable gameplay in this preview. The Movies has delivered on just about every promise and every feature, all while sporting beautiful graphics and obsessively compelling gameplay. Anyone who's ever gone nuts over stuff like Railroad Tycoon or The Sims will find that The Movies is absolutely the next game they need to think about playing. On top of that, the near-revolutionary movie making software included within The Movies will draw the interest of players interested in machinima, modding, and create-your-own titles like RPG Maker. This is one of the rare, much-hyped "revolutionary" titles with the potential to create just that.
The Movies is a game that takes place in roughly two parts. First you play through the main game mode, in which you found a motion picture studio in 1920 and try to keep it alive and prospering up through the present day. This unlocks all the props, sets, and camera options you need to make full use of the game's Sandbox mode. Initially, the Sandbox will only allow you to create fashions and use props dating through the 1950s, so creating a studio that lasts into the modern era is a must for a player who is looking forward to making really complex movies.
There's a definite Sim City-ish feel to the first hour of so of gameplay, most of which you'll spend naming, designing, and decorating your studio. You have to place certain buildings in order to generate actors, crew, and maintenance personnel. In order to keep the employees on your studio lot happen, you have to pay careful attention to how you arrange the buildings, connect them with paths, and decorate the area with greenery, furniture, and statues. You have enough landscaping options that it's really easy to blow your first hour of gameplay entirely on decorating your studio.
The buildings you get early on dictate your gameplay options pretty narrowly. You'll start with a building where you can create builders and janitorial staff, who will build and maintain the other buildings. Then you make a stage school, which lets you convert unemployed persons into star actors, directors, and extras. A production office lets you release and archive your films, and also manage the finances of your studio. Your first set, a simple stage suitable for a silent film-type picture, comes next. After that you can build a crew facility that lets you generate the support personnel you need for more elaborate productions.
Your first few moves will be made from pre-set scripts, The Baggage Boy (an old Buster Keaton routine) and Love's Lasso (a Western-themed romance). Making these films gives you your first experiences in dealing with film genres; you'll want to put actors and directors with a gift for Comedy in the former and Romance in the latter. How well your staff is suited to the genre of a picture factors heavily into what the final quality rating of the film will be; each character has particular rankings for the five in-game film genres (also represented are Action, Sci-Fi, and Horror) that you can look at by hovering over their icon. Early on even the most favorable production situations won't boost your quality levels more than a fraction of a star, but later on having genre-proficient actors, directors, extras, and crew can be decisive.
As the game develops, you gain more and more freedom over what movies to make, what quality level they'll be at, and how you edit your films. When you begin with the Basic scriptwriting office, you'll be able to assign scriptwriters to generate semi-random pre-written scripts of certain genres. For basic scripts you'll only be able to plug actors into the predefined scene roles, but once you have access to an Advanced scriptwriting office, you'll be able to start editing films to your own specifications – settling on how many lead actors and extras to use, moving camera angles, things like that. This doesn't seem to occur until very late in the game, and was only demonstrated to us in sandbox mode. The editing features are extremely powerful but the in-game tutorials didn't seem sufficient for allowing good film editing. Hopefully the game's instruction manual will offer more details.
Visually, The Movies is a simple game, but one that will demand powerful processing power and high-end graphics cards just to handle the sheer numbers of objects onscreen. The computer we tested the game on was a high-end gaming PC (although we couldn't obtain precise specs), and after a few hours of play it occasionally experienced bouts of slowdown when displaying the studio map. In The Movies, every single onscreen object is tracked, including the movements of your employees and their interactions with the environment. You can zoom in on any on-studio happening to watch it close-up, and larger studios will inevitably be hotbeds of activity.
In terms of audio, The Movies went the Grand Theft Auto route for map management - you hear period-appropriate music and humorous commentary as you play. Music for your films is assigned by genre. Supposedly, you will be able to import music and dialogue sound files when editing your own films in advanced modes, but we were not able to experiment with this option during the demo. Aside from that, your films will be automatically assigned genre and period-specific soundtracks: gratuitous theremin abuse for '50s sci-fi, chirpy piano tunes for '20s silent films.
The Movies is shaping up to be the next big title for the PC. Its unique emphasis on user-created content and complex simulations will require major processing power, but players who can run the game well have a chance to completely immerse themselves in the process of making and releasing movies. Players who enjoy releasing their own content and participating in game-oriented communities also have a lot to look forward to, as the game's creators have promised a website where player can download and upload their own The Movies-created films. Just a few hours with the game betrays incredible depth matched with a slick interface, so if all goes well, gamers will have a chance to experience it for themselves when it hits in early November.
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