In this age of technological wizardry, we often find ourselves participating in electronic activities that aren’t necessarily “better” or “easier” than the old-fashioned methods. Take text messaging on cell phones, for example. …two people are holding phones, and rather than take a fraction of the time to actually speak the words, they spend lengthy minutes typing them. In this same respect, we have difficulty understanding how a board game on a video screen is any better than the actual, physical game. We understand there are certain benefits – no setup and clean-up time, and the game progresses at a faster rate, for example – but for the most part, there’s really no great advantage to playing something like Monopoly on a video screen. Even so, we’re obligated to review it, so we may as well do just that. But for the record, let’s just say that if you own the board game, we can’t really see a reason to buy the video game version. We will touch on a few of the advantages, though, so you’ll get a complete look at the production.
The graphics aren’t a central focus, of course, but EA does add some cool animations to what would normally be a fairly bland and uninteresting visual experience. That old dude with the top hat and glasses will accompany you around the board; he’s like the game’s main figure and has been for many decades, so that wasn’t surprising. It would’ve been nice if other human players would’ve been able to create profiles, which would then open the door for stat-tracking. There are millions of “Monopoly” fans out there, and one perk of this game could’ve been a profile/avatar system of sorts. But even though it’s not there, there are few little effects that work quite well, and the new boards you can unlock add a dash of visual variety. The game moves along at a relatively smooth clip – although we did notice some slight hitches between player turns – and the effects that accompany landing in jail or scoring a new hotel are nice, and not too overblown. It’s just a board game so there isn’t much to complain about, and at the very least, the graphics are clean and polished, although not exceptionally detailed. It’s about what we expected, really.
It’s very much the same for the sound, which suffers from the lack of a soundtrack – some light music from time to time would’ve been an appreciated addition – but benefits from the solid voice of Monopoly man and some crisp effects. Just about everything, from the roll of the dice to the shuffling of cash to the movement of pieces on the board, is most pleasant, and we really don’t need to add much more in the way of elaboration. Using new boards will often result in new effects, which is another bonus, and similar to the graphics, the sound is neither overdone nor erratic. It fits the low-key board game atmosphere and if you’re expecting anything more, your expectations are much too high. The bottom line is this: Monopoly the video game sounds very much like “Monopoly” the board game, with the only exception revolving around some small electronic additions and of course, the voice. It will probably appeal more to younger gamers who grew up in this new generation, although veteran players likely won’t have a problem with it.
The gameplay is…well, it’s “Monopoly.” What do you expect? If you really need an explanation of how this game works, you were deprived as a kid. We’ll be brief- players move around a board, buying properties and attempting to form “Monopolies,” which is the entire set of one particular color. In other words, if you have all the Orange properties (St. James, Tennessee, and New York), then you can start to build. You can put up one to four houses on each property, and the next and final step would be constructing a hotel. The more the property is developed, the more opposing players have to pay when they land on that space. The more expensive properties yield more in rent money, and then you factor in special spaces on the board, like Community Chest, Chance, and Luxury Tax. Players roll a pair of dice; if they roll doubles they can move again but if they roll three doubles in a row, they go directly to Jail. The last player standing with money in his pockets wins, so the goal is to bankrupt the opposition. If you’re out of cash, you can always mortgage off properties to help pay the bills.
Now, depending on the rules you like to use, the experience can change. For example, the default set of rules allows Trades, and you always have the option of sending any property you land on to auction. In fact, you have to auction off a piece of property if you can’t afford it (a rule we didn’t like), and you can also set the intelligence of the computer opponents. The only problem with this is that the easier settings don’t really translate to “easy” because while the computer will usually agree to unfair trades with you, it will also agree to stupid trades with the other AI opponents. “Oh, you own Boardwalk, so you want me to give you two Railroads for Park Place. …yeah, sure!” This really gets in the way and makes the game more difficult than it needs to be, and after attempting about a half-dozen playthroughs, we also got the sneaking suspicion that the rolls weren’t entirely random… But perhaps it was just our perception. We did like the ability to alter the House Rules before each game, because this means you have the appropriate amount of control.
If you want to step things up a notch, try the “Riches” mode, which greatly alters the standard Monopoly experience. In “Riches,” you can literally be in two places at once, and a set of six dice are used. It’s far more complex and requires more in the way of strategy and skilled decision making, even though it may not appeal to traditional fans of the game. Regardless of which mode you choose, you can add to your portfolio by buying more properties and establishing more Monopolies. The more you get to add to your little book, the more boards you can unlock. This is really the only reason to keep playing the game against the computer, but at least it makes the basic gameplay that much more involving. The combination of this feature plus Riches certainly takes everything to a new level, and each new board is significantly different: different properties, pieces, and sometimes, even rules. So yes, this is a relatively full board game experience on a video screen, but there’s only so far you can stretch it. The bottom line is that unless you’ve got some friends or family members to play with, and unless you really don’t own the board game, spending the money on the video game seems a little silly.
There are a few drawbacks, like not being able to play against only one other computer player (that was bizarre), and the speed of the game would drag sometimes as that Monopoly dude didn’t always keep up with the action. We also don’t know why the dice seem to be thrown in slow-motion, but these are minor gripes. The only major gripe might center on the menu interaction; it just didn't seem sensitive enough and we often had to press the button a few times to make a selection. This hindered the control quite a bit. But we suppose that if you want to avoid the setting up and cleaning up, and you want the ability to save a game without trying to keep a board intact around the house for a few days, then maybe Monopoly is a good idea for the family. That Riches option adds to the longevity, and they really do a decent job of instituting simple yet effective visual and sound effects. It’s just…well, it’s a board game. There’s only so much to talk about, and in the end, it does have to compete with other titles on store shelves. Granted, it may appeal to a different, more casual audience, but even so, Monopoly is Monopoly. Can’t make it much plainer than that.
1/15/2009 Ben Dutka