Monday, 14 April 2008

Computer Game Review: The Shops

Blizzard Entertainment released the hugely popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft in 2004, and in the years that followed, the game gained over ten million subscribers. Now Blizzard are about to release their long-awaited follow-up, and The Imaginary Review has got its hands on a preview copy. From the outset it’s clear that the company are trying to attract the kind of gamer who is not interested in the Swords and Sorcery fantasy of WoW.

The Shops, as the new MMORPG is called, takes place in a vast, sprawling suburban shopping centre, called ‘The Mall of Trambluxorr’, showing that the game’s designers find it a little difficult to get used to a game in a non-fantasy setting. Players begin by choosing their class of shopper, from harassed mother of three trying to get the week’s groceries, to the sad, lonely bachelor stocking up on microwavable ready meals. You begin the game by talking to the non-controllable in-game characters, who give you quests (or, as they are known in the game, ‘shopping lists’). Your job is to get around the Mall, finding the objects that you are asked to purchase.

Being an MMORPG, the mall is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of other real-life players with whom you may interact if you so choose. At one point I found myself arguing with an Australian nanny about which of us was going to purchase the last box of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda. In the end we came to blows, but her character (a baseball-capped teen) was a higher level than mine, and she kicked my arse. I had to wait several hours before the baking soda was restocked by an artificial intelligence-controlled shop assistant.

The more you play the game and the more quests you complete, the more your character’s level goes up. Various stats govern your character’s abilities, from ‘Shop Layout Knowledge’ to ‘Thrifty Bargain Recognition’. Of course, as in other similar games, money plays a big part too, as it allows you to buy special power-ups as well as the things on your lists. Players controlling the Mother character, for example, can save their money to enable them to put their children in a day-care centre at the mall. While the computer-controlled kids are there they will learn to help their mother with the shopping, making this a highly desirable purchase. One expert player I saw had learned how to become impregnated by a computer-controlled security guard, and had twenty children doing her shopping for her.

The Shops is incredibly realistic, to the point that several beta testers were hospitalised after they confused the game with reality and were convinced that they had bought food for themselves, eventually succumbing to starvation. Well, they’re with God now. When you remember that this is just a game, it’s a fun way to spend two or three hours of an afternoon; but The Shops doesn’t currently have the same addictive nature as World of Warcraft. This could change when Blizzard release their proposed expansion pack, Food Court Hijack, next year.

On a scale of one to ten, with one being Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing and ten being Jet Set Willy, I’d give The Shops a seven.

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