Genre: Open World
Developer: Surreal Software
Release Date: Fall 2008
Midway's third big game at their Gamer Day event was the long-awaited This is Vegas, which came home to Midway after wandering from publisher to publisher for years. While that means lots of time to build up fan anticipation, it also means that once-unique features may have already been covered by another open-world title in the interim. Fortunately, This is Vegas still manages to take advantage of the setting to present some interesting gameplay mechanics, and it has a few unique ideas about how open-world games should work. The mantra of the gameplay is, "Gamble, Race, Party, Fight," representing the four major activities one can enjoy in the title's version of Las Vegas. The racing aspect was not demonstrated hands-on, but a demo video suggested that the big emphasis would be on winning sets of races to earn money in a way somewhat similar to Test Drive Unlimited.
Fight, Gamble, and Party all had demo sequences available for hands-on play. The build is in pre-alpha state, which mostly just meant unfinished animations and missing textures. The feel of the gameplay is very complete. Backgrounds and the overall look of the fictionalized Vegas are already very impressive, especially in the outdoors Fight demo. The Party demo was the most extensive of the three, with a brief Fight demo and a Gamble demo that had only a handful of games implemented but could be quite long, depending on your luck. In the finished game, players will have the option of traveling throughout a fictionalized Las Vegas and engaging in all four basic types of action at any of the many casino areas (roughly two dozen, judging from brief glimpses at the city map). While specific hotels are not licensed for use in This is Vegas, the in-game hotels are designed to reflect the varying types of Las Vegas resort, and a few (like "Olympic Palace") are obvious nods to legendary Vegas hotspots.
This is Vegas generally plays with a light touch. It's not quite a total comedy, but it takes itself even less seriously than the highly satirical Grand Theft Auto games. That said, This is Vegas is driven by a sense of humor that is perhaps a little bit too similar to what gamers have every reason to expect from Grant Theft Auto or the 360's current off-brand alternative, Saint's Row. Open world is already a very saturated genre, and by the time This is Vegas streets this fall, GTA4 will have been on the market for six months. Is the prospect of Gambling and Partying going to be enough to make gamers want to abandon Liberty City for Vegas? These two systems, ultimately, are what set This is Vegas apart from the standard open-world formula.
While it isn't the feature that Midway is advertising most prominently, Gambling in This is Vegas is actually very interesting. Instead of just tossing in some stock Blackjack and Texas Hold 'Em programs, the shortcut most titles would've taken, This is Vegas implements an extensive cheating system you can use to stack the odds in your favor. If you don't use the cheating system, your odds of winning are strictly realistic, and you will lose lots of money. Cheating works somewhat differently for each game, but was demonstrated with Vegas classic Blackjack.
To activate the cheat mode, simply press down the B button when your turn comes up. While you're holding down the B button, you can see marks on a dealer's card. In Blackjack, there are only three important marks: one to indicate the card has a value between two and six, one to indicate a card is a 10, and another that indicates the card is an ace. Using the marks, you could make far more educated guesses about whether you should hit or stand, and about what the dealer's next hand total would likely be. Losing is still possible, of course, but it happens less frequently than it would in a more classic gambling title. There is a catch to the cheating system, though; every time you press the B button, a meter at the lower right corner of the screen fills up slightly. If you cheat so often that the meter fills up completely, then the casino's security will notice you're cheating and throw you out.
Partying is similar to Gambling, in a weird way. When you Gamble, you're usually trying to fulfill a mission requirement that deals with having so much money. The demo, for instance, wanted you to have $40,000. When you Party, your goal is to take actions that increase your total number of points. The more points you acquire, the better the party is, and more people begin packing into the club. You can also lose points by doing embarrassing and off-putting things, or letting "losers" harass people and spread bad vibes. The Party in the demo had three major ways to earn points, and any activity could cause you to lose points if you performed it poorly. Once you got the 10,000 points that the demo required, you got to play the party-ending event, a wet t-shirt contest that is animated in a weirdly conservative fashion, and in gameplay terms only consisted of pointing your hose at one of the three girls' shirts and trying to fill her "wet" meter as quickly as possible. Fill up all three girls' meters in 50 seconds, and you win.
The activity with the most depth appeared to be dancing, where you use timed button presses to string together different moves. The dance move animations are detailed and fun, although the actual timing mechanic is a little awkward. After you initiate a combo, your time to complete the next move is indicated by two lines on-screen that move together toward a goal. Judging when this window of opportunity ended could be difficult, especially if you flub the particular RT + LT command required to end a combo and receive points for it. Weirdly, you seem to do better with dancing combos if you simply hit the button repeatedly.
The other major way to earn points is bartending, which is honestly a little disappointing. Essentially, up to four people come up to the bar to make requests, and you have so much time to fill them by pressing the correct button. Doing things correctly gains you points, while doing things wrong loses you points (though the error animations tended to be quite funny). If this sounds a bit like Cake Mania to you, well … yeah, that's basically what you're playing, just with beer and cocktails instead. This is by far the easiest way to rack up points, but not really the most fun.
You can also get small amounts of points by fighting off "losers," basically frat guys who spawn from time to time in the party and start leeching away your points. Pummeling them restores your points and makes money pop out of their corpses, which is always fun. Interestingly, fighting or dancing well for a while lets you perform a "super move" related to the activity. For fighting, it's a mighty uppercut that instantly knocks out your opponent, while the dancing super move is a chance to do a dance combo that every person on the dance floor will join in. This not only looked fantastic, but you got an extra +1 point modifier for every dancer on the floor at each step of your combo.
The final part of the demo, Fighting, is not in itself interesting. It calls for you to fight a series of wacky family-friendly mascots who have taken over the once-posh and -sophisticated Olympic Palace. The fighting controls are the same as they are in the Party mode: one button to attack, one to block, and the ability to power up punches by holding down the attack button before releasing. The mascots are a little tougher than the frat boys, but the basic action is the same.
What's interesting about the Fighting demo is that it teased a little bit of the This is Vegas story line, which seems fun. In the Fighting demo, you're assisted in your battle against the rubbery mascots by a character clearly based on an aging Frank Sinatra. One of your in-game story goals is, eventually, to find other characters based on the classic Rat Pack and reunite them, as part of your mission to tear down the tourist trap, kid-friendly Vegas and replace it with the shameless den of sin that Vegas was in the '60s. The spoken dialogue during this sequence is incredibly funny (and vulgar), giving the impression that the game's fictional Vegas has the kind of personality needed by an open-world game in order to be memorable.
Some critics are already pointing to This is Vegas as quite possibly the most important title in Midway's 2008 lineup, and certainly Midway's choice of venue for its Gamers Day event was obviously made with this particular game in mind. A lot of the fundamentals of an enjoyable open-world title are already present in This is Vegas, but there are some shaky sequences — bartending and fighting— that Surreal Studios should carefully examine before the Fall 2008 release date. Much of the game's ultimate appeal may rest on its story line, which was clearly too complex for the event demos to get into.
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