Playboy: The Mansion
Porn, eh? Practically since the first time man discovered he could dab a mixture of soot and blood onto the wall of a cave and make a lasting image of something, he has been feverishly occupied with capturing images of man and woman 'doing it'. And as soon as man invented the home computer he has endeavoured to find ways of digitising porn. From the frankly laughable attempts of the 8-bit era through the lurid world of the 90's FMV craze we have reached an era where porn is unrestrained in its scope on the internet yet curiously sanitised in games. Game makers have been remarkably reticent to show people's bits in games, leaving it up to the homebrew crowd to let us ogle at Lara's titties or spy on our Sims taking a shower. Ubisoft's recent effort allows us to watch our virtual representations going at it hammer and tongs and even permits us to see some virtual voluptuousness in all its glory. But is there enough of a game lurking behind the bush to keep our attention?
In essence, Playboy: The Mansion is The Sims with tits'n'ass. The gameplay is centred on the idea of building up associations between people so as to advance both their personal relationships and their career abilities. But where the Sims was rather open ended and freeform, giving you a set of tools to fashion a virtual life for yourself, Playboy is an altogether more focused affair. Not only is the game composed of specific missions, each of which is broken down into a spread of interconnected goals, but the player also has to build up and run a successful publishing business. Taking the roll of an ever-youthful Hugh Hefner, the player must sort out the various articles and photoshoots that go into making each month's Playboy magazine. The first few missions act as a rolling tutorial, charging you with hiring on some staff and throwing a party or two to attract interesting celebrities. While the Playmates that go into the centrefolds of each issue are, like the writers and photographers, hired directly by Hugh, the celebrities who will adorn the cover and provide articles and essays must be wooed by throwing lavish house parties at the mansion. You can throw parties during the day or night and in any part of the main house. The dresscode is also up to you, although if you find all the mass-socialising a bit tedious one of your minions can take care of the guest list for you.
Both at parties and during the normal working day your prime occupation is people management. Each character has their own wants and needs, represented by the obligatory collection of bars at the bottom of the screen. These needs should be attended to if you want to get the best results from your employees. For example, if you want a particularly good interview it's wise to make sure that the bars of both your writer and the interview subject are all maxed out. It's also prudent to have previously built up some sort of relationship between the two. Hugh has near absolute controls over his employees, so it's rather simple to get your writer to start chatting romantically with their subject. Once everything is in the green, order your minion to carry out the work. Repeat this for the other elements that make up each issue and then you are ready to go to press. If you fill your magazine with the kind of subjects that are in the greatest demand according to the market graph then you can sit back and count the cash as it rolls in. This cash can be used to hire more famous and competent employees as well as to purchase the various improvements to the mansion which can make it an even more inviting place for celebrities to break free of their inhibitions.
Adding items to the mansion or even a complete redesign is a surprisingly simple task. You can add in all kinds of objects, from soft furnishings to entertainment products. It's also possible to totally demolish rooms and areas and start afresh. The tools are easy enough to learn and quick to use. They even show the Sims a trick or two, like painting an entire room in a chosen colour rather than having to apply it to each wall section individually. Any effort you put into improving the look of the house tends to be worth your while as the engine is both fluid and visually pleasing while retaining an ease of use that makes it feel right at home on the console. There may be a few too many screens to navigate through to select household items and there are too many button presses required to escape menus and get back into the gameworld, but for the most part Playboy both looks and runs like a Californian babe rather than a housewife from Scunthorpe.
The characters in Playboy have a strong cartoony look about them, especially when observing the menagerie of huge tits that grace the front of every woman like components in some super-expensive Bang & Olufsen speaker. This being Playboy, I was never expecting anything resembling a realistic female body yet I was disappointed that for a game which takes its inspiration from the adoration of fantasy women that the animation for bouncing breasts is so comically awful. These things bounce up and down at the slightest provocation as if they aren't restrained by the same gravitational force as the rest of the planet. So it's a double shame that they reminded me more of a running dog's balls than of the finest masses of female mammaries constructed by man. If I am going to ogle at virtual women I don't want to be reminded of Old Yeller while I do it. At least the rest of the models are okay and being a bloke I did find that the conjunction of my imagination and all this titillation made for a different feeling of contentment then that experienced while I was playing The Sims 2.
Even though Hugh is getting on a bit I can't imagine that the goings on in the real Playboy mansion are quite as sluggish as they are in this game. The load times are inexcusably long considering the fairly basic nature of the graphics. The fact that every area of the mansion, from lower and upper floors to the pool and grotto, must be loaded in separately means that the little snippets of Playboy trivia that accompany the loading bar quickly become repetitive. Even more frustrating is Hugh's sloth-like movement speed. Unless he's whipping of his clothes or going through the mandatory five second animation every time he uses the stereo, Mr Heffner moves with all the energy and immediacy of a WWI veteran in an opium den. I have a personal issue with slow-moving game characters and while Hugh isn't so slow that he couldn't outrun a glacier I wouldn't mind if the developers had found a little Viagra for his legs. The unskipable animation sequences also begin to annoy. No matter what Hugh or anyone else does the player has to watch the entire animation sequence that the developers have created for that particular action. It's at its worst when you join a group in conversation, as the game enters a cycle of everyone talking to each other that can last upwards of fifteen seconds, a long time when the player has no control over the proceedings. When you add up these regular waiting times the amount of time the player spends watching things happen balloons into a hefty chunk of your waking life. Whether this was intentionally done to help pad the game out or whether the developers thought the spectacle of Hugh and some Playmates so beguiling that they couldn't imagine anyone wanting to hurry things along is a mystery. All I do know is that I got more than a little impatient waiting for the animations and conversation sequences to run their course and began to dread the prospect of having to intertwine two potential workers together as the whole process could take a tedious five or so minutes. At first this doesn't seem so bad but if you are of low patience like me then the time all adds up to the point where your enthusiasm for continuing is proportionally diminished. By level five or so you have also pretty much exhausted all the topics of conversation so repetition becomes even more of an issue.
Each time you complete an objective you will get a reward, either in unlocked items for the house or in credits. These credits can be used to buy cheats which can then be turned on and off at will. Some of the cheats are fun, like Massive Implants and Drinking Contest, while others give massive stat boosts to employees that change some of the game's underlying parameters. To me these latter kinds of cheats seem like a realisation by the developers that the core gameplay may begin to bore some players rather too soon, so they included the cheats to give the game longer legs. Playboy has 12 missions to work your way through. By the time I got to mission six I was becoming uninterested in the gameplay. Thanks to the loading, the constant moving from one location to another to throw a party or spending some cash on new interiors was sapping my will to continue. The repetitive nature of building up the inter-personal bonds and the slow process necessary to boost the relationship's between staff and celebrities was beginning to leave me feeling cold. The game does throw up some unusual and more interesting objectives in the latter missions but the basics of the gameplay, those slow and methodical conversations with people, never really change beyond what you experience in the first two missions. There are still plenty of new objects and cheats to aim for and while the game does settle the player into that half-focused state of mind that defines management-type games, by around the middle of the game I'd realised that nothing fundamentally new was going to happen again.
It's a shame that Playboy relies so heavily on such repetitive gameplay tasks. The setting is interesting even if you have a social life and have seen an actual naked woman. There's something exciting and alluring about running a virtual copy of the Playboy empire, even if you strongly suspect it has been heavily sanitised. The goal-orientated mission structure adds a sense of purpose and direction which makes you realise how sadly The Sims misses a little bit of structure. The music also deserves a special mention, with a wide range of licensed tracks from all kinds of different genres injecting some much needed variety into the game's environment. Some of the musicians, such as Felix Da Housecat that feature on the soundtrack even appear in the game itself, so if you are a fan of his music you can invite him to your inner circle and enter new levels of celebrity delusion. But all of the game's many good points are eventually soured by the necessity to perform repetitive tasks over and over again with next to no chance of anything unusual or surprising ever resulting from the chore. If you don't get bored of tending after the Sims sanitary and dietary needs then you probably won't tire of sorting out the casual, formal and romantic lives of the denizens that inhabit the mansion. However, if you are a casual gamer lured in by the prospect of some virtual lovin' then be warned that plastic melts when overheated.
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