Houses and hotels. Boardwalk, Park Place and Baltic Avenue. Getting sent to jail, and directly to jail, without passing Go, and without collecting $200. These are things all instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played Monopoly.
And after over 70 years of existence as one of the world's most popular and timeless board game designs, that should include just about everyone -- it's rare to find someone who has never, at least once, rolled the dice to send their racecar hopping toward the Waterworks. So EA's latest video game version of the venerable race for real estate enjoys instant recognition right off the bat.
The question is if it capitalizes on it -- the answer is that it does. With an impressively polished presentation, a perfectly accurate re-creation of the board game's rules and style of play and the addition of new, faster-to-complete "Richest" modes built specifically for this video game edition, the latest home console take on Rich Uncle Pennybags' favorite pastime is an excellent addition to the each system's 2008 holiday season lineup. (And especially so for party game fans.)
Traditional Monopoly is where most players will get started, as up to four players can come together to compete in a round of the classic game -- first selecting their playing pieces, then taking turns rolling the dice to advance around the board. The goal of traditional Monopoly is the same as it's always been, in that you want to shrewdly purchase real estate around the board, develop that real estate by investing in houses and hotels to place on the property, and then watch the cash roll in to your account as your opponents are unfortunate enough to land on your spaces and are forced to pay you rent.
The minutiae of exchanging cash between players and the bank, moving your tokens and collecting Community Chest and Chance cards is all handled automatically, making playing this normal version of Monopoly a straightforward and simple affair -- the only thing that ever breaks the flow of the game is when a player decides to check his or her accounts, to mortgage properties or propose trades. That brings the action to a standstill for a while, as the active player takes sole command of selecting menu options on the screen and things don't get going again until he or she is finished.
Of course, even without pausing to enter into account checking and across-the-table negotiations like that, playing through normal games of Monopoly can take a long time. Many traditional sessions of the board game have been known to go on for hours, or even days -- meaning that this mode, while accurate to the board game experience, is ultimately not too well-suited to quick periods of multiplayer gaming time. Luckily, there's Richest mode.
In it, the classic conventions of Monopoly are mostly thrown out the window in favor of a much more quickly paced remix that can be played through from start to finish in about a half an hour. Each round of Richest begins with a roll of four dice and a mini-game competition -- these mini-games, like the simple fare found in Nintendo's Mario Party
series, take only about a minute to play and are each based around some basic controller commands like bending the analog sticks to the proper angle, or moving a cursor around the screen and pressing a face button simultaneously. The winner of the mini-game then gets first pick of the four rolled dice, and earns the same number of tokens to place on the board as the number of dots displayed on the chosen die.
Early on, it's wise to pick the largest number available -- because every token you get on the board earns a new property for your portfolio. But as the game progresses, you have to count the cost more carefully -- if you send out a lot of tokens, you could stand to gain more real estate, but you could also end up landing on several of your opponents' spaces. If that happens, you have to give up some of your own properties to them as rent. No money changes hands, only properties.
This party-remix mode may seem confusing to begin with, and it can be -- since it throws almost all of the standard Monopoly rules out and just retains the barest foundations of the game. But after a few rounds, its appeal reveals itself and its fun factor kicks in. Its mix of demanding both mini-game skills and strategic thinking about the board itself edges close to the same sense of satisfaction you get from succeeding in Mario Party. But, also like Mario Party, players who find themselves too far ahead likely won't stay there long -- several elements in the design work to correct for leads that are too commanding, and last-place players can quickly find themselves back on top of the pack after just a couple of lucky rolls or beneficial Community Chest cards.
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