Spin that wheel, cut that pack, and roll those loaded dice.
Surreal Software is weaving a web of Virtual Videogame Vegas. A “Sim Sin City”, if you like. There’s something both compelling and a little spooky about the whole notion of Midway’s forthcoming This is Vegas, a sandbox action game set in a living, breathing parody (albeit a very recognizable, damn-near landmark-for-landmark parody) of the world’s favorite place to drain a bank account, watch aging B-listers slowly circle the drain at $75 per ticket, run afoul of all Seven Deadly Sins (just look at these urinals), and possibly enter into hasty, dubious wedlock in a single night.
Maybe the ‘spooky’ comes from the fact that the game is being developed by the same folks who did the horror game The Suffering: Ties that Bind, or maybe it’s the seemingly-unlikely combination of that particular developer and the scriptwriting contribution of Jay Pinkerton (of Cracked). More likely still is the automatic, low-level disorientation that comes from playing in an exaggerated videogame environment based on an otherwise real place you’ve been to many, many times (if Las Vegas qualifies as a “real place”).
The real-world locale is exaggerated, but it is thoroughly, painstakingly exaggerated—even down to screamingly-obvious parodies of famous hotels and casinos, and their relative placement in relation to each other (check out this handy map from the game’s “Vegas Tourism Bureau” --and be sure to note the map-icon distinction between massage parlors and “massage” parlors).
All the major real-life casino and hotels are parodied: the sleek black Egyptian-themed Luxor pyramid becomes the stair-stepped “Mayan”, the knights-in-prefab-armor Excalibur transforms into the just-as-dubious “Avalon". The open-world gameplay offers the smorgasbord of activities you would expect in any decent Vegas-themed sandbox title. There are free-roaming driving challenges, nightclubs populated by A.I. denizens, sketchy ‘underground boxing’ rings, Poker, and Blackjack (complete with high-tech sunglasses that allow cheating, at least until casino security catches you).
You start the game as a nobody-in-particular who rolls into Sin City with $50 in his pocket and the dream to live the crazy, music-video fantasy Vegas life: Rolling down the Strip in the flashiest cars, hitting all the hot nightspots, partying hard, busting the occasional hotel-patron or casino-security skull, and with any luck, taking the House for all it’s worth.
Considering the portrayal of Vegas and the effectively real-life properties therein—accurate or not—it’s a little surprising that there weren’t more legal publishing hoops to jump through than (Midway swears up and down) there actually were. Must be nice to have a major publisher’s ready funds for a legal rapid-response army. You can bet your ass that if I started indie-developing a game so closely parodying, say, the ships of the world’s major cruise lines, I would be getting a nice registered-mail, cease-and-desist talking-to before you could say “defamation”.
The core story concept is admittedly amusing... and also kind of messed up if you start thinking about it. The influential corporate forces of a fast-food mogul are moving in on a not-terribly-post-Ratpack Vegas, trying to de-sleaze the whole Strip into a tourist destination of the broadest, family-friendly appeal. Your job is to beat those forces back, making the game-world ‘safe’ for old-school, adults-only debauchery.
Initially, the influence of this invading mega-corporation (whose signature-style logo is dissingly close to that of the Walt Disney Corporation) takes the form of the crazy, neon-lit Strip being slowly drained of its visible and figurative energy. Should you begin to succeed in beating back the ‘bad guys’, you will witness the hotel and casino environs around them gradually coming back to their former visual glitz and glory.
Now, everyone has already seen successful sandbox fighting and driving and even gambling. Last time I looked at this game, however, the one real hanging X-factor was “clubbing”. How in the hell, I wondered, does ‘partying’ Vegas-Style translate into any kind of meaningful gameplay? Well, at Midway’s recent editor’s day, they finally ran us out to the still-under-development-but-nevertheless-impressive Red Rock resort (waaaay outside the Strip—maybe there is still some legal tension with the iconic, high-profile establishments after all) for some first-hand exposure to the This is Vegas ‘partying’ elements.
It turns out the game’s "clubbing" is just as sandboxy and do-as-thou-wilt as the rest of the game seems to be. The hero walks into a fairly dead techno-thumping nightclub, where our NPC friend, the DJ, implored us to literally ‘get the party started’… and, if we could kindly find the time, eject some of the ‘undesirable elements’ from the club.
What followed was like some kind of unholy post-roofie fugue of Space Channel 5, Tapper, The Bouncer, Grand Theft Auto and the Michael Jackson Thriller video. The hero dashes about the club busting moves on the dance floor to work up the crowd, getting behind the bar to simultaneously sling drinks and light cigarettes for clamoring patrons, confronting under-dressed and over-drunk homies and frat-boys, beating those who give any lip into submission, and finally choreographing entire synchronized lines of club-kittens on the dance floor in a flashy, hokey routine that finally brings the club to hands-in-the-air life. That would have given Busby Berkeley the liquid, dribbling shiznits.
After making the NPC club DJ happy, new missions given by the game’s four rival card-suit-themed factions open up: the power-monied Diamonds, the flashy entertainer Hearts, the literal Club partying set, and the sketchy, thugged-up Spades - probably a North Vegas thing, I don’t know... By that late hour of the demo-night, the drinking had shifted from the onscreen and virtual to the all-too-real, and I sort of lost track of Duke for the evening. I distinctly remember Game Revolution alumnus Joe Dodson taking a spectacular yet surprisingly graceful ass-plant on a bowling lane at around 2:15 AM, and then everything got blurry for a few hours.
Access to the driving-based missions was restricted, but supposedly in addition to straight-up point-to-point races in the vein of GTA, there will be auto-based ‘spectacles’. The goal? Causing as much of a showy to-do on the Vegas Strip as possible in the flashiest, most pimped-out cars available. Shame that wasn’t shown; I would have loved to take some lame, neon-undercarriaged, rim-spinning, needlessly-spoilered, import-culture wankermobile straight into a pretentious, dancing-fountained, pseudo-Roman alabaster statue at 130 miles per hour. Oh well...
This is Vegas is a single-player game, but the door isn’t fully closed on the questions of additional downloadable content, or even on future expansions into multiplayer. It is slated to ship this winter (currently for October), when players can take their own long-odds crack at living large, Vegas-style. GR will be styling and profiling with a full review of how well the open-world gameplay delivers and how cartoon-faithfully Surreal’s virtual “den of Sim” compares to the real deal.