Playboy: The Mansion is a social strategy game that calls on players to build a virtual empire of wealth, celebrity, and freedom from puritanical repression and intolerance. This is accomplished by developing a fully functioning Playboy mansion, to attract and accommodate influential celebrities and beautiful young models who are willing to strike the right poses. Players who can build a suitably entertaining and well-equipped mansion, while adhering to "the Playboy philosophy," are rewarded with "the Playboy lifestyle," surrounded by powerful trendsetters, influential pop idols, and sexually liberated young women. In short, the game invites players to take the role of a virtual Hugh Hefner.
As Hef, players will be responsible for keeping the Playboy brand relevant to its ever-evolving audience. One good way to do this is by attracting celebrity friends to the mansion, and making sure they have a good time when they visit. With enough money, players can build new facilities like swimming pools, movie theaters, or tennis courts, which may have special appeal to particular celebrities. It's also a good idea to introduce these V.I.P. guests to Playmates who share their interests. The game's main interface should be familiar to Sims 2 players; characters are directed through their 3D domestic environments with mouse clicks, and clicked objects offer pop-up menus of available interactions.
Coaxing powerful celebrity friends to appear in an issue of Playboy magazine can boost circulation, bringing in more income for future developments. As Hef, players can determine the content of each issue, choosing the articles, essays, cover shots, and centerfolds. They'll also have an opportunity to direct the photo shoots, choosing the location on the mansion grounds, the model, and the wardrobe selection -- all of which feature a "topless" option. The game includes a structured campaign that follows Hefner's real-life rise to international celebrity through a series of individual scenarios that focus on building the fame, circulation, and clout it took to develop the Playboy brand into what it is today. Players design their own challenges in the "Empire" mode, where they can set their own goals and victory conditions.
Cyberlore's The Sims-meets-tycoon-game, Playboy: The Mansion, is far better than most of the quick-hit licensed oneoffs that clog store shelves. Playboy: The Mansion isn't really about digitized breasts (although they're certainly in there). Instead, the game combines two different gameplay types into a digital simulation of how Hef runs the Playboy empire. The first half of the game is very reminiscent of The Sims in which you build your Playboy Mansion, putting down floors and walls and buying and placing all sort of hideously expensive furniture and knickknacks ranging from mahogany dining tables to neon bunny art. You then manipulate your little Sim-Hef around his sybaritic Wonderland, talking, schmoozing (and possibly having intimate relations with) his staff members, girlfriends, Playmates, Bunnies, and guests.
Unfortunately, it's this half of the game that feels the most incomplete. The interactions between Hef and the other Mansion residents are remarkably shallow. People's desire meters are pretty easy to keep filled and nobody ever seems to be able to resist Hef's charms. Everyone, whether it's Jose Canseco or a feminist lawyer, seems equally manipulable with a series of repetitive interactions. Nobody ever seems to get angry or hold long-term grudges, or even reject one of the Hefster's business proposals. Forget comparing Playboy: The Mansion with the complex personalities on display in The Sims 2 -- the people in the Mansion don't have the depth of the original Sims.
The ability to build out the Mansion doesn't really stand on its own, either. While the section is technically competent, all of the furniture and props available in the game are derived from the kinds of things you'd find in the real Playboy Mansion. As a result, no matter what you choose to build, it still comes out looking like what can generously be described as 1950's lounge lizard meets an obscene amount of money. A player's own taste never really enters into the equation, so it never manages to feel like "your" Playboy Mansion.
Fortunately, that's not all there is to the game. The second half is a simplified management simulation in which you -- as Hef -- have to put together the magazine each month and get it on the newsstands. This entails hiring a staff of photographers and journalists, shooting centerfolds, tailoring the magazine to current demographic trends to maximize sales, and garnering content for the magazine. This is the best portion of the game, as you get content by expanding your circle of contacts via interacting with them at parties you throw in the Mansion. If sports are currently the hottest trend, start inviting sports celebs to your parties, introduce them to a few Playmates to get them nice and happy, and then hit 'em up for an essay or an interview.
The game's also constantly throwing challenges at you. Your staff may tell you that two of your girlfriends are mad at each other, causing a lot of tension in the Mansion that's keeping everyone from getting their work done. You'll have to work your staff members to find out why they're fighting, then interact with the two of them to patch up the quarrel. Perhaps a feminist group is protesting the magazine, in which case you may want to throw a formal party and invite the leader of the group to win her over. The ultimate example of this is the game's terrific series of missions in campaign mode. These missions loosely follow the real history of the magazine, from its founding to the modern day, and simulate many of the challenges that Hefner faced on his way to the top. The first time through the campaign, facing down problems and opening up new toys (like the infamous Grotto) is a lot of fun.
It's the interaction between the two parts of the game that mark its best idea. A happy staff produces better content, and a nicer Mansion attracts a better caliber of celebrities, so much of the game revolves around incremental improvement of both the Mansion's physical grounds and your staff member's skills. One of your writers can spend time using the bookshelf to improve their mental skills, which naturally translates to more compelling content. Adding a hot tub to the pool can help your Playmates get more comfortable with the photographers, which results in better photo shoots. At least that's the way it was supposed to work -- the actual implementation is a bit more problematic.
It doesn't take a lot of play time to realize that the actual interaction between the Sims-style portion of the game and the management section is minimal, at best. After a number of experiments, I simply couldn't find much relationship between how happy or skilled somebody was and the quality of work they produced. Everything seemed to be tied directly to their "Star Rating" -- or how famous they were. It seems to be impossible to do something like nurture a young writer into a superstar in this game (something that would have made the experience far more compelling). Instead, you'll find yourself jettisoning staff members and just hiring new people with more stars after their name in order to improve the quality of the magazine.
Players also shoot the centerfolds and cover shots themselves, and the game allows you to clothe the Playmates in a variety of outfits. For all that, though, there's no relationship between how good your shoot is and the quality you produce. You can put a shot of a Playmate's elbow on the cover and still have your staff tell you it's the best thing you've ever done. In the end, shooting the centerfolds becomes a repetitive annoyance.
Indeed, despite the fact that different items contribute to the beauty of particular rooms in the Mansion, none of that actually seems to impact your staff or guests. When I first invited superstar DJ Felix da Housecat to the Mansion, I imagined being forced to buy the top-flight DJ booth available in the game in order to make him happy enough to agree to an interview. Nope. Felix seemed just fine with music pumped from a run-of-the-mill stereo. You'll never hear a Playmate complain about where you want to have the shoot or one of your writers bitch about needing a better desk or a comfy couch in the bullpen. All the interactions that could have tied the game together and made it a truly great game just aren't there.
Graphically, the game is good, at least where the inanimate objects are concerned. It's very interesting to check out the kinds of artwork from artists as diverse as Michelangelo and Andy Warhol that can be found in the Mansion. The character models are a different story -- reasonably attractive, but in a bland and generic way. Every character in the game seems to have the same Barbie-and-Ken style plastic face and physique. Once you get over the novelty of shooting your first few topless models, it become boring when you realize that you're taking pictures of the same two or three faces with different colored hair.
How ridiculous this was became apparent when one jiggly, busty model with white hair in short-shorts and a halter was identified as a "Member of Congress." Now, while I'm a great admirer of Condoleezza Rice, I suspect that I won't be seeing her as a centerfold any time soon. The sameness of the models also makes the game tougher to play because it becomes ridiculously hard to identify the people you want to talk to by sight.
The level of shallowness even extends to the game's view of sex and sexuality. Given that the "Playboy Lifestyle" is supposed to be about sexual openness, it's extremely odd that none of the characters in the game ever get fully nude. There are digitized breasts o'plenty, to be sure, but apparently nobody at the Playboy Mansion ever takes their underwear off -- either during a photo shoot or, apparently, during sex. Now look, I understand the need to get an "M" rating because of retail concerns, but why couldn't they have gone the Sims route and just blurred out the naughty bits? The way it stands, it just looks weird and seems to indicate that Hugh Hefner probably has a severe problem with chafing.
Playboy: The Mansion was a great idea, and there's definitely some fun to be found here. The game's mission structure and random challenges manage to give it a feeling of structure and "game-ness" that a more open title like The Sims 2 doesn't have. "Bonus Points" let players buy fascinating extras like reproductions of famous covers, pictures of famous centerfolds, images from Hef's life, and some of Playboy's best interviews with luminaries such as Bill Gates and Michael Jordan that are almost worth the price of admission. In the end, though, what starts off so promising at first glance ends up being a pretty shallow experience. It seems everyone's heart was in the right place -- if only the game could have followed them there.
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