Playing the M-for-Mature rated "Playboy: The Mansion" video game is like perusing the magazine for the articles.
The premise sounds promising enough. Take control of Hugh Hefner, the twin-dating septuagenarian, and publish a gentleman's magazine while living the "Playboy" life.
This is less fun than it sounds. Buying shag rugs and raising herds of peacocks may mean the ultimate in retro-coolness in L.A., but in a game they are as "sexy" as Tom Arnold, who I am sorry to report, also makes an appearance in this game.
Appearances by C-grade celebrities aside, "Playboy: The Mansion" boasts a level of game play sophistication above the recent flood of sex-related titles. That's not saying much given the competition -- I'm talking to you, "The Guy Game" -- but in between a moderately successful business simulation and gobs of second-rate "Sims 2"-style socializing are moments that prove to be as memorable as they are disturbing.
Credit the makers for dedicating the more interesting part of the game to the second most common lie in the skin trade after the "I'm stripping for college tuition" line: "I subscribe to Playboy for the articles."
Players assign writers to pen articles, essays and interviews on a variety of topics from politics to the arts. An accessible screen projects how well an upcoming issue can meet potential readers in certain demographics based on its content.
The challenge lies in maximizing content relevancy and profit. Players can tweak the cover price and ad ratio, dabble with issues devoted to a specific theme -- "The Sports Issue!" -- and track down elusive celebrities for an interview.
Done a couple times, the interactive editor function can be engaging, but as a game driving engine it's about as exciting as a luke warm hot tub.
Speaking of hot tubs ...
Whether playing in mission mode or in the more open-ended free-form play, digital Hef will be required to outfit his mansion with the de rigueur pool-side trampoline as well as the famous "grotto," scene of James Caan's last sighting in 1979.
The acquired items all play a role in the second, and by far the least interesting, goal in "Playboy: The Mansion": throwing parties.
Hef's hip factor depends on inviting the right VIPs. The better the party, the higher Hef's cool status and the better access he will have to future story ideas, cover girls and possible deals.
Anyone familiar with the party function of "The Sims" will recognize how this works. The player uses his character to make deals, mend disagreements and generally make as many friends as possible. All this is accomplished via a conversation interface where the player picks a type of interaction -- casual talk, romantic talk, business talk -- and then monitors how well the conversation proceeds.
Like "The Sims 2," "Playboy's" characters boast their own psychological dispositions. Unlike the characters in "Sims 2" however, the "Playboy" sims have all the depth of their real-life L.A. counterparts. Every single female character falls madly in love with Hugh Hefner -- it must have been in his contract. Conversations are cumbersome and impossible to end. Visiting guests will wave at you and then "harrumph" when Hef doesn't respond in time.
With little drama and poorly defined characters, there's little joy in this portion of the game. Unfortunately, the party segments make up most of the game.
"Playboy: The Mansion" still manages to provide one of the strangest moments in video games so far in 2005.
When shooting playmates, the game perspective switches from third person to first-person. After choosing the setting and the correct dangly earrings and stilettos, the model runs through the poses, all rather chaste considering the subject matter.
Did she just wink at me?
This reviewer has laid waste to aliens, Nazis, mobsters and the occasional innocent pedestrian in "Grand Theft Auto" without so much as showing a wit of concern for any adult in the room who may be watching.
But having a digital bunny wink at me as I made like a photographer causes a level of sheepishness on par with that of a 12 year-old boy whose Playboy collection has been outed.
Credit the game for eliciting that type of reaction at least.