From the makers of the acclaimed Black and White series comes The Movies - a game where you make and break the stars and hit movies in Hollywood. When I first heard about The Movies and its promise of offering gamers the chance to run their own virtual movie studio, I was a little skeptical. I didn't for see a game that gave the user much control, and I generally expected a game that would grow old very quickly. While in some regards these two concerns aren't totally unfounded, much to my surprise, The Movies offers much more control and much more playability than I obviously initially expected.
Unique ideas in the management genre are not exactly rare - we've seen everything from Restaurant management to Transport management, and even Trailerpark Management just to scratch the surface, however many of these games failed to fully immerse the gamer into what it offered. By this I mean, many games have had the goods, but have failed to explain and introduce them in a way that lets you fully utilize what's on offer, and hence, to fully immerse you in what's on offer. The Movies is not one of these games. The very first thing you'll notice about The Movies is Lionhead have painstakingly made sure just about every last bit of detail is explained in a hands on matter at the very start of the game's main mode - you won't be sitting there watching a boring 10 minute introduction video, you will be guided through the world that is The Movies in the form of a easy to follow tutorial that requires you to do the actions. This may not sound all that impressive, but the amount of times I was put off by a game either failing to explain everything or trying to do so in a boring static video is more than enough for me to fully appreciate effort when I see it, and Lionhead really nailed this aspect of the game. Even as more items and abilities are introduced in the game you will be guided about their use - if you choose to allow help, that is.
However, while the initial tutorial and introduction excels in explaining the ins and outs of The Movies thoroughly in a reasonably short amount of time, perhaps the best aspect driving the game's "easy to understand" status is the way in which world's interactions are structured. Basically, the buildings you have available in your studio act as "hot spots" when you hover over them with your mouse, changing from normal looking buildings to blue prints, and just about everything in The Movies can be executed, accessed, or whatever by dragging and dropping onto these blueprints. For example, if you want to hire a builder, you grab a person lining up to submit their resume and dump him or her over the room in the employment building labeled "Make Builder", and this action is consistent with everything - to make a movie, you drag your writer(s) to the script writing building and dump them in the room labeled with the genre of movie you want to make, and after a few minutes, you drag the finished script to the rehearsal building to begin production of your movie, as well as dragging over any actors and directors you may need. Once you get the hang of it, doing everything in your studio is a piece of cake, as it all follows this basic, Windows native method.
Seeing as the game does feature some level of micromanagement, you will also have to access a fair about of information boxes and again, these are blessed with ease of execution, and consistency. If you want to check out the moods and approval ratings regarding specific elements such as salary, image etc of a particular actor, you simply right click on them and the information pops up in small speech bubbles on the screen, and this can be said for just about everything else - building information, finding out what genre's are hot, skills of prospective stars - you name it. Of course, this wouldn't work so well without a well designed interface system and I can happily say The Movies also excels in this area. As mentioned, most information is displayed in handy, easy to see bubbles hovering over the subject that submerge themselves in the game - meaning, these pop ups don't dominate the screen or stop you from interacting with other objects in the world at the same time. These bubbles go away when you click elsewhere, while important bubbles require you to click on them to disappear. When it comes to interacting with your studio and the interfaces relating to your studio, The Movies gets a big thumbs up for sure. Not only does it come off as a very unique way of interacting with a management game, but it does so while remaining easy and efficient.
Once you've mastered the interface, which will happen pretty quickly, it is time to get deep into the game, and unfortunately this is where a few issues arise. First of all, it doesn't take long to realize making movies in this game is a collection of very repetitive actions (the dragging and dropping). For a significant period at the start of the main mode, you won't have access to custom script making, so you will rely on the auto generated ones. As described above, the process involves dragging and dropping and while this process is simply and efficient, it also grows tiring after a while as at times it can become a little too easy to master for your own good - after a lengthy period playing the game, the drag and drop process of creating a movie will become second nature, and it isn't hard to get into a reasonably bland state of mind whilst playing The Movies - at least at the start.
Luckily, variables such as keeping your stars happy, which includes actors and directors, do provide something to keep you awake, however I can't help but feel after a while, these variables will too become predictable and easy to maintain. While the game claims to feature unique personality traits for each star, they certainly don't feel evident enough - if someone is stressed, give them a leisure activity to do. If someone is bored, put them in a movie. If someone isn't happy about their pay, pay them more and so on. The idea here is fundamentally sound, but the execution is a little lacking - it gets to the point where it doesn't really matter which star you're dealing with, the same things that worked with the last one will work again. At times, you get the feeling these aspects were added to simply spice up an otherwise pretty unexciting game, however they often feel little more than unnecessary micromanagement nuisances - does the owner of a movie studio really have to deal with such trivial tasks? with as much money as you earn in this game, you'd think you could hire someone to hire someone else to keep your stars happy, at least in areas such as their image and relationships with other stars.
With those aside, it must be said that one of the coolest parts about The Movies is the in game timeline. Although you do start out in the 1920's, the game progresses year to year at a set rate, and with this comes advancement in fashion, technology, world events and trends. You may start out in a sketchy black and white world with bad frame rates and no sound effects or voice, but before you know it, colorful full framed cinema with the Surround Sound powered cries of your movie's murder victims are at your disposal as you witness the movie industry take on its dominant status as we see today. You will even see the emergence of the movie star as a profession - your humble moderately paid performers may start out as mere mortals, but as the industry progresses, and as the world around you latches onto the industry that is Hollywood and its characterization of movie actors as super humans, they will start demanding more and more - increased salaries, bigger and better trailers and assistants just to name a few. What's great about the timeline is it does act as somewhat of a difficulty variable - running a big time movie label is going to be profitable without too much hassle, so it was wise for Lionhead to pursue other avenue's rather than simply keeping afloat financially as a means of progressive difficulty - such as the increased demands and competition of the movie industry over time. You probably won't find it hard to make a profitable studio in The Movies, but to own actors and movies that are considered the best, you will really need to put some energy in.
Of course, perhaps the main attraction to The Movies is the fact you have complete control of not only a studio, but the movies it produces. While I'm sure the director you've hired wouldn't feel too cheery about the owner of the studio meddling with his masterpiece, you do sign the cheque's I guess, so tough luck. Basically, just about everything is as your disposal, from being able to write your own scripts, to adding enhancements to pre-made ones, to changing the way certain sets and characters look in particular scenes and so on. While the script writing does have its restrictions (i.e. the 3D model interactions in scenes are not editable), there is still a lot of control - you can add sub titles, sound tracks, sound effects, and custom voice overs (which would require a microphone) - you can even force the game to lip sync to your custom voice overs, which is very cool indeed. On top of this, there is even an external program outside of the main game called "StarMaker", which allows you to make stars in incredible detail, including everything from looks to the 3D mesh shapes of their face and body. Once your movie and everything in it is finally done, it can be released in game like any other movie, but you can also export it to share online for other gamers to view. The amount of customization on offer in The Movies is enough to consider it two games in one, really.
Visually, The Movies is actually quite impressive, which is surprising given this genre hardly ever receives such accolades. Even though for the most part a long range camera view is used, just about every building and set has a great level of detail on offer. You will see everything from the wood grain on a stool in a western bar set, to the muddy, leaf ridden terrain of your horror forest set. This detail means when you do zoom in close (and you can zoom in very closely), you won't shudder in disgust of the lacking textures and models like some other management games in the past. On top of this, the game did run reasonably smoothly even with loads of buildings and vivid activity going on, although we did conduct the review on a high end system (4000+, X1800XL) - on a less powerful system, you'd more than likely have to tone down a few visual settings.
The Movies is a very unique game, so unique in fact, it may scare a few people off. While the game can get repetitive very quickly, if you play it in smaller doses you will find an enjoyable, totally different experience to anything you've ever played before - in recent times anyway. The Movies isn't so addictive that it will likely cause you to lose sleep like some management games, but the time you do spend with it will probably prove to be some the most enjoyable "tycoon" style gameplay you've had in 2005.