Summary: The Movies, Peter Molyneux's latest title has been out for a while and resident machinima and tycoon buff Christiaan has been cranking out the raunchiest flicks he can get away with. Oh, and a review of the game.
And besides, making movies, being a star, seeing your name up in lights - that has become the real American dream, hasn't it?
Now, more than three years have passed and the game is here. Is it all that was promised? Is this your chance to finally get recognized as a great film talent?
Well, before I answer that, its important to point out that there was more than one game that emerged from the development process. The Movies is really the fusion of three different games, each with its own level of depth and complexity.
The first one I'll mention is a small application called Starmaker. Not really a "game" by the strictest of definitions, it is nevertheless one of the most enjoyable elements of The Movies. A standalone program included on the disc (or downloadable from the game's website), it functions as a character generator for the larger game. It is a very powerful little tool that allows you to tweak every aspect of a figures appearance before importing them. The depth of customization possible as well as the simple interface makes it easy to spend hours changing things like tattoos and eye color, jaw lines and hairstyles, until you create your ideal star. For most players, this character usually ends up looking uncannily like themselves. In fact, the level of modification allows you to easily create avatars of friends and family for use in your movies - fodder for many hours of mischief.
The next component of The Movies is the tycoon-style studio management portion of the game. Since The Movies breaks many of the conventions of traditional tycoon gaming, this portion can be best compared to the single player campaign of most titles. It starts you out as the owner of a small studio in the 1920s, struggling to distinguish itself from the competition. As you advance through time, the revenue from successful films fund technology advances that allow you to create better films, all while managing your employees and the studios grounds.
The game engine's incredible zoom and scaling capability does help a little bit as it allows you to pull way back and look at much of the studio from a considerable distance. Push the scroll wheel forward and you come to stop at about eye level with your employees who looked the size of ants moments before. Visually, the game is impressive even though it clearly isn't going for photo realism or effects like high dynamic range. If you can let go of a need to find things like vertex shaders and self-shadowing, there is still a level of detail found among the sets and buildings that warrants appreciation.
And though the visual detail of the environment and buildings of The Movies is impressive, there is some inconsistency in respect to the people you employ. While there is a dizzying diversity of shrubs and fountains to decorate your studio's lot with, a look at your employees will have you wondering if someone is shooting a remake of Attack of the Clones. With all the power and variations made possible through Starmaker, it is a real shame that most of the people walking around your lot look so similar.
But that doesn't detract too much from the endearing satirical creativity the game is loaded with. Newspapers and radio broadcasters chime in from time to time with humorous headlines or news bulletins that do a good job of capturing the flavor of the era you are currently working through and many of the structures you unlock come straight from the covers of the magazines we pretend to ignore in the grocery store checkout lines.
All of these must be monitored fastidiously because they all effect movie ratings and your studio prestige - which in turn effects what awards and certificates you earn. Since the game has absolutely no story to speak of, achieving them is your only indicator of your success in the tycoon portion of the game. In traditional tycoon-style games, some micromanagement is to be expected and could be considered part of the fun. But here, The Movies actually suffers a little under its Hollywood theme. Most players will find that their perception of the film industry may be too idealized to appreciate the attention to detail needed to keep the studio in the black. After a while any respect you had for the "brilliance" of the idea to make a game where you get to run a movie studio turns into "who's idea was it to make a 'Spoiled Stars Personal Manager' simulation?"
But once you progress far along enough in the game and establish a rhythm for balancing out the needs of the "talent", you can finally spend time crafting your very own magnum opus. And this is the third game alluded to in the introduction. If you choose to give up before you explore this aspect of the game you are doing yourself a real disservice because the quality of content you can produce versus what you may have watched through the previous portion of the game is like day and night.
As just one example... Even though The Movies uses conventional genre divisions like Sci-Fi, Action Horror, Romance, and Comedy, the mini-films generated by the game's engine often do a poor job of showing any distinction between them. What you end up with are pictures like one of my higher-grossing films, "Buffalo Hunter". Though the script it was shot from designated it an "Action" picture, it featured the main character dressed like Davey Crocket, fighting against ghosts and a werewolf against the backdrop of a modern cityscape. The result of this strange disregard for the classification system, is that every film comes out a comedy. Its even further compounded by the Sims-style over-acting and unintelligible gibberish used for speech. Very humorous the first few times, but unrewarding thereafter.
Once those two buildings are unlocked though and you have researched the movie-making technology out to 2010, you can spend most of your time in the games Sandbox mode where you can dial up the money you start out with and disable the more tedious parts of the game like building decay, and star tantrums. Now your free to fully appreciate the power of the built-in movie creation and editing system. You can add custom music tracks, select different scenes, props, and behavior templates. You can even record your own dialogue over the existing gibberish and then have the game's engine sync the actors lip movements to your provided dialogue! The only real negative in the custom movie making aspect of the game is that now matter how much time you spend crafting your movies, it appears to have little or no effect on the awards the game gives out periodically. What that means is that nearly every time it goes up for the game's equivalent of an Oscar, itís the madness of 1999 all over again with Shakespeare in Love taking Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan, or in the case of my last game, the engine-created action film called "Delver & Fudge" (no joke) from another studio beating out my labor of love, a comedic space opera called "Zero? Gees!"
The A.I.'s lack of taste aside, most gamers who haven't learned programs like 3D Studio Max and Maya, should find The Movies' creation tools fascinating. They provide a freedom and creativity that is unexpected after wading through the early portions of the "single player campaign" portion of the game. And if the micromanagement and the canned films of the tycoon portion of the game are the single player campaign, then the custom film making capabilities are the title's online multiplayer - in a very literal sense. Having chosen to delay this review until a number of weeks after the game's release date, we have had some time to assess the games longevity, not just from the perspective of hours to completion or replayability, but in terms of community and developer support. Both Activision and Lionhead Studios seem prepared to continue to support the product. They have just recently released the first pieces of bonus content, available from the online prop shop. Currently there isn't too much beyond a picket fence, stagecoach, a Santa suit, a few new hairstyles, and a couple dogs. But more is on the way and it is all only accessible by way of a currency earned through posting your movies online and having them viewed by others in the community. It is a well thought out system that should encourage the community to keep producing new films for a long time to come.
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