The Movies Review
With the huge success of EA's blockbuster hit The Sims, developers have been trying to breathe new life into the "sim" genre that will pull players of EA's behemoth away. So far, few games have been successful; there have been a glut of business-oriented "tycoon" games, various city-building titles, and a few that take on The Sims directly (even if these games might include an R- or X-rated twist). Lionhead Entertainment has been working on The Movies for a couple of years, and now that it's out in stores, I can tell you that this is a fantastic game that really has something unique here.
You'll play as an ageless movie mogul who can control his brand new movie studio starting from 1920 all the way up to the present day. You won't need to worry about your "character", but you will need to do many things involving your celebrities, finances, and movie lot to keep your studio making great films and raking in the cash. When you start out, you basically have a big, blank dirt lot and a few building blueprints - there is a very, very helpful tutorial that you can use to get started, and it's highly recommended for all new players of The Movies.
You'll start out by hiring some builders and tossing your first essential buildings down (including your first movie set), then it's time to hire an actor and a director. Each person has starting statistics, including their overall image, looks, and their likelihood to fall into alcoholism or obesity. There's also an experience level with the game's five major movie genres (Comedy, Action, Horror, Sci-Fi, Romance) and you'll need to make sure that both your actors and directors have some experience in the genre you're making them work in. Well, you don't have to, but if you want to make a good movie, then yes. And if you've got a janitor you'd like to suddenly turn into a director, they'll do that too! Just make sure that when you're adjusting salaries for all your employees, you need to have a good reason for a raise or a pay cut. Give some pet star a huge raise just because, and the other actors will get jealous and might even threaten to quit!
The whole game is controlled by your floating camera that overlooks the lot. You can zoom in with the mouse wheel, pan around by moving the cursor to the edge (or using the WASD keys on the keyboard), and rotate the view by holding the middle mouse button. Check out the stats on any of your employees quickly by using the game's simple but info-filled interface, and watch for upcoming events in the world timeline at the top of the screen. Need to see what reviewers think of your studio or your last movie? That's two mouse clicks away. Overall, the interface can make or break a game of this kind, and if I were to rate The Movies on just its interface, it'd get a near-perfect score from me.
At the start of The Movies, the path to success seems pretty easy. The tutorial will hand you a couple of scripts for free, and you drop the people required to do the movie into the appropriate building. They'll rehearse for a bit, and then automatically go to the set you've built and shoot it. Then all you have to do is release it, and the money will start rolling in. The reviews for your very first movie are going to be terrible, but so will the other, competing studios' films. It seems simple, but the game adds complexity one step at a time to where you'll always have something to do.
As the years go by, you can expect rival movie studios to be innovating, and you're going to need to do the same by researching new fashions, movie-making technology like cameras, and new special effects as well. Your stars will become even more "plastic" and artificial, so sending them out for makeovers to improve their self-image is a must. The timeline at the top of the screen marks off major events like World War II which will most certainly affect not only the reviews your films will get, but the money you make at the box office as well - make sure to make movies that match the times! Every five years there will be an award ceremony, much like the Oscars, that will rate the best studio and various movie categories.
As you get further in to The Movies, there are dozens of things you'll need to juggle simultaneously to keep your studio running smoothly. The cleanliness and layout of the studio lot must be maintained, while stars will find solace at the bottom of a bottle. The reviews for your latest movies complain about overuse of your favorite actor, while the script you pieced together yourself is causing too much stress on the two actors you've casted for the lead roles. You'll need to manage your lot, your business, and your employees all at the same time and balance between keeping things up and not breaking the bank in the process.
And this is what makes The Movies so unique - it combines the "building" and "tycoon" sims like you'd see in a game like Rollercoaster Tycoon with the "people sim" style we see in The Sims all into one. Then, as icing on the cake, you get to basically script out, film, and release your own movies. This game even has an online component where you can release your movies on Lionhead's website and have other players rate your films. This in turn will reward you with new props and technologies to make even better films.
The amount of control you'll have in building your films is incredible. Along with various sliders to adjust a scene's mood, you'll have access to hundreds of actual scenes to add in whatever order you like, and with the ability to even record your own dialogue or fine tune the exact look of your stars (this is done through an external mini-application called StarMaker), you can make something that's truly yours. I can't think of a strategy or sim game ever made that gives the player this kind of creative freedom. I do want to note, though, that while the game can review your movie based on many factual and objective criteria, the game can't subjectively appreciate the many artistic flourishes you might put put in. Instead, that's what the online portion is for, and you can still be rewarded by other players of The Movies for your custom dialogue or subtle scenes that maybe the game can't evaluate on its own.
If I had to complain about a couple things in The Movies, it's that your first couple of games are going to be a stress-filled experience. Your first movies always get terrible ratings (as movies seem to be rated on an "absolute" scale, and not on a relative scale of being compared to other movies of the day) and the player's initial reactionary approach to solving problems will cause you problems within a couple of hours. If you're not proactive in fixing the little things before they become major issues, you'll find that your studio will be in for a rough ride.
But the biggest problem I've found is that the game starts slow and it's just not terribly gratifying to make 1920s movies, because these things do somewhat reflect the real ones made in the 1920s - they're downright hideous. The AI-written reviews pull no punches, and rival studios will start off making better movies than a novice player will make during his first couple years of operation. As you go on and gain the ability to control the actors and order scenes how you want, it gets much better, but I'm concerned that some gamers won't ever get to that point, hours into the game, to see it.
For those players who might not make it through those early days of moviemaking in the full single player game, Lionhead did include a "Sandbox" mode which lets you start in a decade of your choice with some specific starting options - this way you can focus more on the moviemaking if you want. It otherwise acts just like the campaign, but the ability to customize how you start lets you practice your skills at developing scripts and shooting movies.
Despite some minor problems, The Movies breaks new ground in the sim genre by putting business elements together with people-sim elements to create a wholly unique experience. The creative element of being able to create your own films (and even record your own dialogue with a microphone) adds something to The Movies that no other game of its kind has even attempted. I'm not much of a fan of these crazy sim games, but this one is very interesting and fun to play, and it's at the very least a unique game with some elements that have never been seen before. I fully recommend this game to anyone even remotely interested in sim-style games, and will even suggest that those who aren't such big fans give it a shot anyway.