Ahh, Playboy magazine. With its biting articles and broad coverage of topics, is it a magazine for the more sophisticated gentleman that just so happens to have pictures of naked women in, or is it one for the Dirty Macs brigade? The purists would argue that it is too arty to be porn (i.e. not graphic enough), and the more prudish chap would probably be put off by the aforementioned naked ladies interrupting the interviews with the stars and articles full of social commentary. In reality it is a bit of both, but doesn't really fit in either category. Still, why is this relevant? Well, much like the fact that the magazine is hard to pigeon-hole, the game also suffers from a schizophrenic personality. Is it a management, relationship or a party sim? More importantly, is it any good?
Playboy: The Mansion thrusts you into the shoes of Mr Hugh Hefner (literally, as you control an on-screen representation of him), father of the Playboy empire, and charges you with the task of emulating the respected man's success. In fact, if anything, the game is really nothing more than a celebration of Hugh's life, with everything telling you how great Hugh is and what wonders he has achieved - there is a even a little thank you tucked away in the credits that thanks Hefner "for all he has done to better this country". Shameless self-promotion aside, the game isn't all about Hugh, per se, but about the Playboy magazine. Offering a mission-based campaign or a sandbox mode (for when you fancy doing it at your own pace), success in either comes through publishing a successful magazine and earning money. Oh, and helping Hugh to become more famous.
In any mission your main aim is to publish a magazine, but other objectives are thrown in to add some spice to proceedings, such as getting a certain person to appear on the cover, patching up staff relationships, or even paying some guy's bail. To do these things you will generally need to throw parties - lots of parties. Indeed, this is really the core of the game: throwing parties to get people to see how great being Hugh really is. You can select the guests, the setting (additional areas of the mansion open up during the game, such as the pool), whether or not it is a night or day party, and choose the general attire (you want a lingerie party in the mansion's upper floor? Go for it). Once these details are sorted, your guests will start to arrive, at which point your job is to play the perfect host. You can engage in conversation with potential lovers, friends and business partners, instruct them to use the various equipment to help keep them happy, and introduce them to new people for your own wicked purposes. It all seems very Ken and Barbie, what with you manipulating everything to your heart's content (you can even pick the outfits the Playboy Bunnies wear). And yes, you can have sex (with lower underwear kept on, strangely enough).
In order to produce a quality mag you will be responsible for securing quality content from a range of celebrities and important folk who attend your parties (such as sports stars, actors and politicians), perform photo shoots for the both the cover and a centrefold spread, and get the aforementioned important folk to provide interviews and essays for you. It's not hard; in order to get people to provide you with the stuff you want you will need to talk to them to develop relationships, and make sure they are happy whilst at the mansion (which involves decorating and extending Hugh's homestead). Parties and furniture cost money though, money which you earn by selling lots of copies of the mag. And so, the circle is complete. Each element impacts upon each other, and in that respect it all hangs together.
Cutting straight to the chase, though, none of the core gameplay elements on their own are very strong, and even when taken as a whole it just isn't interesting. Take, for example, the need to talk to people to develop relationships. Each person has levels of interest in Hugh on a business and friendship level and, for women, a romantic one too, represented by a bar that goes up and down. When engaging in a conversation you will be offered the option to talk about something that influences one of those areas (such as talking about the stock market, or making a joke). As the bar gets higher, the options increase. Get friendly or romantic enough with somebody and you will soon be able to request an article, an essay, photo shoot or to have digital sex, with a high chance of success.
Whilst that may seem interesting, none of the conversation topics actually do anything, other than project some idiotic alien noise out of your speakers, and play a little animation. It is too easy (albeit very boring) to get everybody to love you, to be your best friend and want to be a business partner just by monotonously clicking on buttons. In short, it is awful; it is poorly implemented, a point that is beautifully illustrated by the fact that you can fool around with a woman who doesn't like you, just by raising her romantic interest and ignoring her friendship level. Another of the game's gimmicks is that you have to perform the photo shoots for the cover of the mag. These too are poorly constructed. Sure, you can pick the outfit, the location around the mansion and the pose (to a degree), but it is all rendered obsolete when you realise that you can take a picture of the wall or the girl's elbow, and suffer no detrimental effect in sales or quality.
The business elements are a little more thought out, though. Ensuring the magazine sells well means matching content to the areas of interest at the time (shown to you through a stats screen). So if movies are popular, getting an interview with a film star for that issue would be a good thing. Carefully selecting the right guest list can pay dividends when throwing yet another party to get the content you want. This is the only real strategy in the game, though, and it gets old fast. Persevere and you'll earn points for completing objectives, which can then be used to buy extras, such as pictures and interviews that appeared in the actual magazine. This at least gives you some incentive to continue, if you wish to read some classic interviews or see pictures of former Playmates.
The last remaining element - mansion decorating - allows you to get creative. Whilst the main reason to decorate is to make rooms that guests will be happy in (various items affect your guests' happiness in some way), the fact that many of the items have an associated 'in-use' animation means you'll want to fit in as many of the gadgets and furniture as possible to see what you can do with it. Want to get somebody drunk, for example? Repeatedly tell them to use the bar and laugh as they drink too much. Want them to have fun in the pool? Tell them to use the diving-board. This doesn't mean that purchases are just superficial eye-candy; you need to think about what to buy and where to place it.
On the subject of eye-candy, anybody familiar with the Sims will either love or hate the graphical style selected, for Playboy: The Mansion borrows heavily on the look. Nothing is remarkable, and it doesn't look too bad, but get up close and things do look very angular (especially during photo shoots). A little more variety in the character models wouldn't have gone amiss, as after a while everybody starts to look the same. I'm sure characters began to repeat, too. That said, it all animates well enough, and there is a fair amount to see if you want to try every action on every bit of furniture. The sound is pretty good, though, with a range of music styles that you can have belting out of the stereo, which - in a nice touch - you command Hugh to use when you want to change it or turn it off. The mumbling noise used to represent conversation is (much like the graphics) very similar to that used by The Sims, and is equally annoying after prolonged exposure to it. There isn't much in the way of ambient noise, either. Why is everybody else so quiet? Isn't it meant to be a party?
Ultimately it is hard to think of many positive things to say about Playboy: The Mansion. I won't comment on the digital boobies on display, nor the 'sex' you can engage in, for the simple reason that the people that are interested in these aspects will probably have already bought the game. And if you are one of these people, you have my sympathy. Nope, the game just doesn't do anything to keep you interested. There are only so many times you can click on 'Flirt' or 'Make A Joke' to yet another soulless party guest before things get boring, and unfortunately for Ubisoft, that happens all too quickly. It's a shame, as in a way it is one of the better uses of a license I've seen in a while, for everything does seem to have a reason for being there. It does look as though the game was built around the license, rather than the license being crammed into a game; on paper the elements integrate nicely. It's a shame then that it plays so poorly.
Without the semi-decent business elements, the game would qualify quite easily as one of the dullest games I've played in many a month (and I've played Altered Beast). Even with them, it's still less than adequate. If you want boobies, buy the magazine. If you want a management simulation, buy any one of the innumerable tycoon games on the market. If you want them both together, buy The Sims 2 and seek out a naked-skins mod that is probably on the net, and let your imagination run wild. Just don't buy this.