Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Big$hot Review

Big$hot, developed and published by Rusty Axe Games.
The Good: Straightforward interface, variety of properties to purchase, very capable AI opponents
The Not So Good: Boring slow pace and sluggish growth due to expensive properties, repetitive and monotonous gameplay with limited strategic options, insufficient tutorial makes the game difficult for beginners, questionable AI trades, fixed starting economy options, lacks multiplayer, limited visuals
What say you? There may be a decent business strategy game in here somewhere, but it’s obscured by too many basic design problems and a less-than-helpful tutorial: 4/8

With the fantastic shape the U.S. economy is in, it’s difficult to make any money in real estate these days. Of course, we can always resort to the wonderful world of computer gaming for escapism during these troubled times. Instead of shooting aliens in the face, you could resort to trying your hand at developing commercial property. The developer behind the house-flipping game Real E$tate Empire is back with another “$” title: Big$hot. Instead of improving houses, now you are snatching up businesses and turning them around to reap large profits. Well, hopefully.

Big$hot features typical casual game graphics: simple. The city landscape you are operating in remains the same collection of 2-D buildings for each game in all the same locations. The city exhibits an average level of detail, but there are few animations: just the “for sale” signs and some weird reflection effect that appears every once in a while. There are a number of character portraits to choose from, but this isn’t a terribly important feature to be honest. The game is also fixed at a windowed resolution of 800 by 600 pixels, squandering desktop space that could have been used to provide more information on the main screen. As it stands, a lot of pertinent information is always a couple of mouse clicks away. While the sound effects of Big$hot are underwhelming (just some notifications), I do like the music. Overall, Big$hot is not a very exciting gaming experience in terms of graphics or sound design.

The object of Big$hot is to make tons of money buy purchasing, improving, and selling businesses. You start out by choosing a character portrait, a purely aesthetic decision that doesn’t affect gameplay, but there is a wide variety to select from. The game can be played on five difficulty settings, from “hard” to “utterly impossible.” Game length can also be chosen; a twelve-month game can take minutes, while an eight-year game will last a considerable length of time. The game does not scale to the length, so expensive properties will only be accessible during longer matches and a twelve month game will behave similarly to the first twelve months of other game types. You also get to select from a number of starting properties that are always the game. It’s usually a very simple decision, as there is one property that already has improvements and is poised to make money right from the start. The game advertises replay value, but I see the same starting properties with the same values and the same auctions at the same time each and every game. Ho hum. There isn’t the ability to have the game randomly choose one for you (other than simply holding down the selection arrow and not looking at the game screen), so starting strategies will not be that varied. This shortcoming is augmented by the lack of customization features: you will always have the same initial cash, maximum loan amount, lending rate, and starting economy. It’s odd that Big$hot simply does not give you the ability to choose starting values that would result in a different approach to the game. Big$hot is fundamentally different from most property-purchasing games, so it’s quite a limitation that the tutorial is so poor. Just the basics are covered, and the lack of strategic advice beyond the first two or three months leads to a lot of problems for new players dealing with the mechanics. The lack of a game manual makes this an even bigger issue. Also, for a game that screams “competitive multiplayer,” it’s surprising that Big$hot doesn’t offer any gameplay against other humans, either on the Internet or simply on the same computer. I dislike being told how to play a game through fixed initial settings, and the lack of adequate features makes Big$hot less enticing.

You’ll always start out with one property in each game of Big$hot, and there are three things you can do with it: improve the efficiency (decreasing bills), develop the quality (increasing income), or advertise to increase the traffic. Because of these limited options, you’ll be doing the same repetitive actions with every property you own. Properties come in several levels, from starter business with low costs and low incomes on up. Some properties also grant bonuses, like reduced advertising costs for owning a newspaper or the removal of seller’s fees for owning a real estate office. You will also earn more money by acquiring businesses of the same level (making a chain), although the AI will rarely part with their companies to allow you to do this. Each turn (a month), you must pay the bills; if you cannot afford the bills for three months, your business will foreclose and you’ll lose it (oops!). The AI will occasionally approach you with deals that will almost always favor their side of the trade; making an equitable trade is difficult, due to the gap in cash levels and property values. Most of your new property will be won during an auction, where prices are below market value (this also occurs during a recession); it is very, very important to win auctions.

The gameplay consists of the following: upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Wait for your profits to grow for about a year. Get lucky and win an auction. Buy something and hope you can afford to make it profitable in a couple of months before you go broke. Your options are too limited in dealing with your properties, and moving properties to an AI player usually doesn’t involve some mutual benefit. The core problem with Big$hot is the poorly balanced pace: it takes too long to accrue the funds required to purchase a new property. Let’s do a math problem: how long would it take you to earn enough money with a fully upgraded business that earns $20,000 a month to afford a $400,000 business (one of the cheaper ones in the game)? The answer is about twenty turns too long. I will admit that your maximum loan value is approximately four times your cash amount and this reduces the wait time, but there is still way too much sitting around in Big$hot hitting the turn button with nothing to do, waiting to accumulate enough funds to afford another business. You really need a lot of money, since the first few months, the new business will always lose money as you spend the first three to four months upgrading it to break even. If you run out of money while upgrading it, then you lose the game: plain and simple. This “lather, rinse, repeat” cycle of gameplay is not very entertaining and quite dull. I tried following the moves the AI makes, and there is no point of buying properties that are not being auctioned (they are offered for much more than they are worth, especially since they will lose money for the first number of turns), so it’s a matter of luck regarding when properties get auctioned and if you can afford it. The player who gets lucky and wins the first auction usually wins the game. In fact, the AI players usually just sit there with the same starting property, fully upgraded, since they have to wait twenty turns to accumulate enough cash to afford a new business. The shortest games last twelve and twenty-four turns, so not much will happen there. What you really need to do is sell existing properties to earn enough cash to purchase the next level of businesses; this is the only way to afford the first few months of large deficits. Unfortunately for just about everyone, the game never explicitly says to do this in either the tutorial or the non-existent manual, so I suspect that most people will just hold on to all of their properties for the duration of the game, just as I did. There’s a difference between having a difficult game and not fully explaining your game mechanics; Big$hot commits the second sin and does not repent.

Big$hot is too hard, too slow, and too repetitive. There would probably be a decent game here if overall strategy was explained to the player: you have to sell in order to buy, otherwise you’ll never have enough cash to advance to the next level of buildings. It took me a conversation with the developer to realize this, and not everyone is going to have that option to get the game personally explained to them. The tutorial and manual should make the gameplay crystal clear, but Big$hot lapses in this key area. Once you “get it” and realize that you have to sell in order to buy, Big$hot almost becomes enjoyable, though it’s still far from what I would call a great game. Big$hot lacks other key features in addition to the tutorial, such as multiplayer and the inability to change the starting game conditions. You aren’t given many options in improving your properties, and the only real strategic decision you have to make regarding upgrades is when to start advertising (usually when you have three stars for efficiency and quality). You need an insane amount of money to invest in additional property: why would I purchase a $500,000 company that will lose over $100,000 each month on top of the money I need to spend on upgrades (another $100,000 a month) until it starts to turn a profit in 3 months? That means you need about $1,300,000 to successfully buy a $500,000 business. So you sit there with the same one or two fully-upgraded properties, earning about $50,000 a turn, hitting “next turn” for ten, fifteen, twenty turns in a row (twenty-six, using my calculations). Not fun. What the developer wants you to do is sell your existing property and use your entire credit line to get that new business, but you still have to be really careful not to outpace your cash with your newly found debt. The tutorial completely ignores explaining this important game mechanic, so a lot of players will hold on to properties Monopoly-style, just as I did, and get easily beat by the AI. Once you make one bad move, the game is over, and this fine line between success and failure will probably turn off a lot of people: if you invest in a property without enough cash to upgrade it enough to turn a profit, you are screwed. I wonder why there aren’t properties that start out with at least some upgrades to decrease the exorbitant amount of money you lose when acquiring a new business. Big$hot is one of the most bipolar games I have covered in a while: there is some nice strategy involved in timing your purchases and auction acquisitions, but then you make one wrong purchase, run out of money, and quit the game in frustration. Big$hot needs a number of improvements, from a better tutorial that actually explains game strategy to a less precarious economy that is more forgiving to new players by reducing the initial costs associated with running a new business, in order to make it a complete title. For me, no sale.