Monday, May 14, 2007

Real E$tate Empire Review

Real E$tate Empire, developed and published by Rusty Axe.
The Good: Some interesting strategic decisions to make, simple controls, different occupations provide varied bonuses
The Not So Good: Initially difficult to turn a consistent profit, repetitive gameplay with no unpredictability, starting conditions are always the same, AI competitors are too good and no difficulty settings are provided, no multiplayer, only one city
What say you? A very challenging and tedious house flipping game: 5/8

It seems that the new trend in real estate (as opposed to fake estate, I imagine) is to buy crappy houses, fix them up, and sell them at an inflated price. The popularity of the shows Flip That House, Flip This House, and The Flip Wilson Show indicates that there is a market for this sort of thing. It was just a matter of time, then, before a computer game was made to simulate hot real estate action, and that game is Real E$tate Empire.

Real E$tate Empire takes place on a 2-D isometric map of a town, and the graphics look decent for a 2-D isometric map of a town. Although there isn’t a great variety in the style of the houses in the game, it is pretty easy to tell good neighborhoods from bad ones. There are some nice effects in the game when a house is sold, and the interface is easy to use with large buttons and clear indications of the various economic aspects of the simulation. In a game such as this, you don’t necessarily need cutting-edge 3-D graphics to render the city; in fact, they might make the game more cumbersome to manage, so an isometric perspective is just fine with me. The sound in the game also does a good job in relaying information to the player. Real E$tate Empire also has pleasant background music to listen to as you go bankrupt. Overall, the graphics and sound of Real E$tate Empire are just fine: they don’t amaze, but they aren’t terrible either.

In Real E$tate Empire, you are a plucky young investor trying to make a profit in purchasing ugly houses, repairing them, and then selling them for a profit. I’ve never understood how $300 in repairs can increase the value of a house by $1,000 (are the buyers stupid or something?), but this phenomenon is in full force here. You’ll start the game by playing the short tutorial that teaches you the basics in about two minutes. You’ll need to choose an occupation to start with, each with its advantages: contractors can buy materials for less, realtors save money when selling, interior decorators are useful for more expensive houses, and MBAs get better loans. Real E$tate Empire is only a single player game where you’ll test your mettle against the AI; adding a multiplayer aspect of the game would be welcome. You’ll start your money making venture by purchasing houses: the market value and asking price are indicated, and the areas of the house that need repair are also presented. Like real life, houses are more expensive during the spring and good economies, so selling houses during these times and buying them later will result in more profits. The game progresses in real time, but you can accelerate to the end of the month if you’re not doing much. After you have acquired a new house, you’ll spend some money upgrading it. This is where the game becomes less clear, as the condition of every aspect of the house is summed to an overall value, which in turn determines the value of the property. The game doesn’t make it clear how many repairs are needed to advance to the next level, so you can spend a lot of money repairing and replacing things and not go up in value at all. This doesn’t make any sense (at least to me): how can I spend $40 repairing the trashed carpet and have the value increase by $1,000, and then spend $3,000 replacing the poor roof and plumbing and not have it increase at all? There seems to be thresholds to each level of overall quality (this control the price), but Real E$tate Empire doesn’t say where there thresholds lie. Of course, this is the crux of the gameplay, so giving too much information to the player might result in a completely uninteresting title, but having a number line would be of great assistance. The AI always seems to make the correct decisions and they will quickly outpace you in profits.

There are some interesting decisions to make during the game, however. Choosing which houses to purchase, when to purchase them, and what things to repair or replace is appealing and the possibilities are numerous. Once you are ready to sell your house, you can choose to do it through a realtor (useful for exposure or poor market conditions), a for sale by owner service, or through the newspaper. Eventually, the offers will start rolling in and the game will indicate how much money you stand to lose (or maybe even earn) in each possible transaction. The longer you hold a property, the more money you’ll have to spend in mortgage payments, so quick turn-around is recommended. Once you’re done with your career, you can compare your prowess against other humans through the online high score table. Once you learn the basic mechanics of the game, there really isn’t that much to Real E$tate Empire. You’ll eventually be able to purchase more expensive houses, but it’s really about purchasing trashed houses at a low price, fixing them up, and selling them when the market is good. There are no random events (like a repair effort gone horribly, horribly wrong like I see on TV) to keep the game interesting past the first ten minutes of play. The start of the game is always the same with the same city and the same low-income houses you can purchase: there is no way of altering the starting conditions in the game. The developers could have made an interesting by adding some variety to the game, but instead Real E$tate Empire just becomes monotonous after a while.

Real E$tate Empire is well-designed, but it lacks the replay value and longevity required to maintain interest in the game. It is certainly easy to get into the game: the controls are very straightforward, and everyone can understand the economics of buy low and sell high. Finding the right balance between spending money on repairs and how much profit you’ll gain is challenging and fun, at least for the first ten minutes of the game. There should be more directions given to beginning players on when to sell and how much to repair; as it stands it’s just trial and error until you find the right balance. Real E$tate Empire is also terribly repetitive, as each new game is the same and there are absolutely no random events to spice up the action. Where are the surprise termites? Where are the Indian burial grounds? There is the basis for a solid and entertaining game, but Real E$tate Empire becomes too tiresome too quickly.