Thursday, June 21, 2007

Shady O'Grady's Rising Star Review

Shady O'Grady's Rising Star, developed and published by Gilligames.
The Good: Realistic and fun band development with loads to do, real-world instruments, varied genres of music represented
The Not So Good: Mini-games get repetitive, needs more explicit band member feedback, outdated graphics
What say you? A well thought-out and entertaining band simulation with enough features to keep you busy: 7/8

The Sims has spawned a whole slew of simulations covering a lot of different fields of expertise: doctor simulations, pet simulations, garbage man simulations. Of course, the more intriguing titles are ones about skills you could never possess, such as being a rock star. I’ve reviewed one of these games recently (Rock Legend) and another one has come down the pike: Shady O'Grady's Rising Star. I don’t really know who Shady O'Grady is and why his star happens to be rising, but this type of game has the potential to be quite interesting, fusing role-playing elements, financial management, and personal relationships. Does Shady O'Grady's Rising Star provide compelling gameplay or flame out like a one-hit wonder?

There are two ways you can approach the graphics. The first is to compare it against big-budget titles like The Sims 2 and say that the graphics are clearly outdated. The other is to compare it against text-based management simulations (which you could classify this game as) and say that the inclusion of 3-D graphics at all is something to be noted. The game does look at lot like the original Sims that came out seven years ago, although Shady O'Grady's Rising Star is rendered in 3-D. Nothing in the game is too spectacular, but really the title looks O.K., which is the best you can really ask for in an independent title. The towns are in 3-D with some variation to the buildings and the characters in the game can look different with all the outfits available. Seeing your band’s name on the marquee in front of a major venue is a nice touch. The game lacks any “wow” factor with the graphics, but they are functional and the system requirements are low. The sound is fine enough with a good soundtrack including songs by up-and-coming artists that puts you in an appropriate mood. While some people will exclaim that the graphics are behind the times, I didn’t mind them that much.

In Shady O'Grady's Rising Star, you guide a band from its humble beginnings playing in small clubs to national tours and platinum records. The first thing you’ll do is create your character by choosing a name and the band name, along with your gender, skin tone, instrument, and music genre. While your band mates and other bands are given random names, you have to name your character yourself (along with song and CD names); I just went to the Internet and used some random generators to offset my creative shortcomings. There are nine instruments to choose from: lead vocals, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, turntable, saxophone, trombone, and, yes, even harmonica. There is an equal assortment of music genres (ska, punk, rock, country, rap, blues, pop, et cetera); although they don’t have a real impact on the game (although you do get bonuses on notable days in the genre), it’s a nice addition. You will also choose your home city, which is actually more than a cosmetic choice: larger cities will offer more venues and more bands to play with, while small towns will be harder to get a start in with reduced resources. There is a tutorial that can be turned on that will give hints for beginners; it’s good in the very beginning but doesn’t get you completely started. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star has some RPG elements infused into the gameplay: as you practice and play gigs, each character will gain experience points. Once you level up, you can increase your skills in playing, songwriting, stage presence, production, repair, and business. The game clearly indicates when you level up and earn ten more points to distribute. This is becoming fairly standard these days (it seems almost every game involves some sort of experience model), but it’s still a nice inclusion. Each character also has several attributes that will affect their performance: inspiration, health (they can randomly get sick), happiness, and ego. You will even get a cash present on your birthday! Additional clothing can be purchased (although it doesn’t affect the game) in the stores found in each city to alter your appearance.

Now that you’ve founded you band, it’s time to find some band members! You can launch a solo career, but this is extremely difficult for beginners. Additional artists are found in each of the game’s music stores, where you can also buy, sell, and repair equipment. Potential band mates will have rated compatibilities (29 dimensions, no doubt) and a favorite genre as well; if you’d like to create a country-rap band, go right ahead! Each member might have a specialty (songwriting, performing, repairing broken equipment) and using or developing their specialties over time can result in an adaptable band. The game doesn’t really give solid feedback as to why band members aren’t getting along or their specific wants; small quotes appear next to each character during the game that gives little hints, but there is no explicit feedback like in Rock Legend. The band may be pissed at you, but they won’t say why they are pissed at you. Mixing rhythmic and melodic instruments in your band will result in the best combination of sound. Equipment in the game wears down after a while, and things like guitar strings, drum sticks, and reeds will need to be replaced very frequently (annoyingly so). Instruments may grant bonuses when you are practicing, songwriting, or performing on stage, so owning more than one guitar and using them at the appropriate time is a good strategy. Once you have your band together and instruments purchased, you can write some songs and practice them at home. Writing songs involves a matching mini-game; this is fine, but it gets annoying after a while because it remains the same no matter what level of band you are. I’d like to see at least some variety in the composition games. One neat addition, though, is the ability to assign a MP3 to a song that will play during performances. Practicing is automated, and it’s just a matter of choosing which songs to practice. When you have enough money, you can purchase new houses in different cities (pretty cool).

You’ll do performances in different venues. At first, nobody will want to hire you, so you’ll spend your first few months watching shows to develop relationships with other bands and venues. Finding the appropriate venues for your style of music is very easy, as the entertainment guide is sorted by genre. Eventually, bands will ask you to open for them, and that’s when you start developing a reputation. Your popularity will eventually expand to neighboring cities and hiring a manager will promote your band’s growth even more. Managers can be told to book local gigs, find recording contracts, book a tour, or find endorsements that will pay bonus money if you use specific equipment (Fender guitars, for example). Occasionally you’ll need to upgrade your manager, and the game will annoy you to death about it: expect three to four calls a week (that you must answer) from agents scattered all over the place. One call would be fine, but continually annoying me while I’m trying to do stuff is, well, annoying. The venues are located in a representation of whatever city you live in, and you get to them by driving around in your van (down by the river). The streets of the town are mysteriously devoid of other traffic, but that’s fine as other cars would just become annoying after a while. Your van can be pimped out at garages and additional money can be earned by mowing grass at parks and running errands for businesses around town. Landscaping is thankfully an instantaneous $200, while the errands usually involve collecting a certain number of items and delivering them to a location. Running into buildings will damage your van (which can be repaired), your instruments, and your band’s health.

Once you have enough songs and a reputation, you can enter the studio to record songs. You can lay down one track per day and the quality is determined by the skill of the producer (you can produce it yourself or hire an outside source). Once you have enough songs recorded, you can put them on a CD and then sell it at shows. When you become nationally renowned, you can track your sales progress against other bands; the inclusion of competitors gives Shady O'Grady's Rising Star a more realistic tilt. Going on tours will also grow your national reputation. The game uses a pretty good algorithm for developing tour routes; playing in adjacent cities lends another real-world element to the game. You will need to stay in a hotel when you are away from home, and you’re even given the ability to trash rooms to release some tension. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star does a good job keeping you interested from the small beginning to a large touring band with national recognition. While the game progresses kind of slowly, it is realistic. There is plenty to do in the game and monotony only really comes around in the song writing and driving mini-games. Although there isn’t a real difference between the different genres of music or cities, it feels different and this illusion goes a long way. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star is a very addictive game: from purchasing new equipment and writing new songs to releasing a new CD and going on tour, there is a lot to keep you interested. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star also comes with a couple of editors to use custom equipment or add new cities to extend the replay value even further.

A comprehensive simulation, Shady O'Grady's Rising Star is a remarkable title that will appeal to anyone interested in forming their own band without the need for musical talent. While Rock Legend focuses more on the personal interactions between band mates, Rising Star concentrates more on overall strategy. There are important financial decisions to be made: do you spend your money on a new CD, new instruments, fixing the van, or going on a tour? The pace of the game is slower that some people may like, but I enjoy the slow maturation of your band throughout the game: it takes time to become the greatest band in the world. The mini-games are really the only tedious part of the game, and adding more game modes would break up this monotony. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star does a great job of putting the game in the real world, featuring actual cities and real instruments. Comparing your progress against other bands is neat and there is enough to do in the game to maintain your interest for quite a while. This is one of those “one more turn” games. The game has high replay value as well, since the composition of your band can vary greatly from game to game. The ability to modify the game sweetens the pot even more. The addictive gameplay of Shady O'Grady's Rising Star will appeal to any management simulation fan and those people who aspire to guide a band to ultimate greatness.