When it comes to converting the ubiquitous property trading board game Monopoly from the living room table to digital platforms, things have not always gone well. Despite being released for every console, computer, and mobile device known to man, it’s probably safe to say that there hasn’t been a genuinely good and well thought-out videogame version of Monopoly so far, even if you go all the way back to the 8-bit versions that we used to play back in the late 1980s. Pretty much every major publisher has had a crack at it but generally, the problems have always been the same. With limited computing power, the the AI opposition was never challenging and always made nonsensical decisions. As we moved further down the timeline toward the current day, we realise that the problem was never really addressed, and that as more power was available, it was used to turn what is already a naturally long game into an absolute chore with needless showiness.
We're glad to say that neither of these issues are present with Ubisoft’s new take on the franchise, Monopoly Plus. Launched as part of the Monopoly Party Fun Pack alongside My Monopoly and Monopoly Deal (but available standalone, hence this review), the game manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that have caused other attempts to fail.
All of the iconic Monopoly stylings are in place in Monopoly Plus, from the fancy Mr. Monopoly himself, through to the original designs for the Chance and Community Chest cards. Depending on which language you select at startup, you get the properties relevant to that country’s version of the game. So the British version gives you Mayfair and Park Lane, whereas the US language selection switches them to Boardwalk and Park Place, for example. The property prices are identical to the original boxed version of the game, so the most expensive location (Mayfair/Boardwalk) is £400 - as it should be - rather than being converted into the millions and billions that some current Monopoly sets have gone with. There’s an undeniable attention to detail and reverence to the source material going on here, and the developer should be applauded for that. The sharp-eyed will notice that the currency used in-game is “Monopoly Money” rather than Dollars or Pounds Sterling, though. That’s no big deal, though for the remainder of this review, we'll use the good old Pound symbol - mainly because there's no Monopoly Money currency symbol on a keyboard. Though there should be, dammit.
Two boards are on offer, here. The “classic” Monopoly board does away with any extra frippery and just lets you play the game as was originally intended, with the board and tokens all being rendered in 3D and viewed by a camera that swings around to show the most relevant section of the action. The “living” version packs the middle area of the board with rollercoasters, trees, and other buildings, with properties being redeveloped right before your eyes as you acquire them and add houses and hotels. For our money, the living board is great to look at, but it does slow the game down somewhat and the reason is simply that some animations are unskippable. Usually, this is a problem if you're playing against AI opponents, as they’ll let the entire development animation for each property play out every time they buy or make a change to it.
Back on the classic board though, things zip along at a relatively quick pace. Well, a relatively quick pace for Monopoly, anyway. The way everything is laid out makes a good deal of sense, and there are very few moments where you’re left wondering how you get something done. At times, it isn't instantly clear if a property is mortgaged or not, and we’d have liked the “money” portion of the trading screen to allow us to increase and decrease values quicker, as making a big cash offer to someone for something takes longer than it should but again, these aren't major big deals.
But there are a handful of big deals to…well…deal with, though. The first would be a massive bug (or at least an awful design decision) in the game’s online multiplayer mode. If the player that started the game goes bankrupt and they understandably decide to quit instead of watching the rest of the game play out, the game ends and nobody wins. There’s no host migration in place here. That means that online multiplayer is all but useless, as nobody other than the host ever realistically has a chance of winning, unless the host agrees that they won't quit and then sticks to their word. Second up, is how out of whack the trading system is with the AI difficulty level. Against “normal” level AI, you get a good challenge until you realise that they’ll accept any trade that’s even close to the card price of a property. Want all of the railway stations? You'll be able to buy them from your opponents for less than the £800 total it would cost to buy them from the bank. Fancy picking up Mayfair to go with your Park Lane? Offer the opponent Old Kent Road (£60) and £320 for the £400 property and you’re away. You can see how poor they are at making trading decisions when they start to offer you £100 for a £180 property, even though you’re sitting on £1,700 and in the dominant position. They'll even counter-offer to ask you for less than the card price in a lot of cases. You offer £280 for the £350 Park Lane, and they'll predictably decline, but ask you for £300 instead. There are only some very, very rare occassions in which that would happen in real life - such as if the seller was in dire straits and without options. On higher difficulty levels, we're thankful to say that this isn’t an issue, although some may find the general challenge of the higher difficulty levels to be a bit outside their limits. As experienced Monopoly players - seriously, we all sit around wearing monocles and top hats at pX Towers - we’re happy playing amongst the rarefied air of the top setting, but your mileage may vary.
The other major issue with Monopoly Plus, is the lack of truly customisable rules. The official rules are on offer and a modified version is available which uses those official rules but adds a “Speed Die” to the mix in order to speed up the game – which it does with varying success. Aside from that, there are six “House Rules” versions, which allow you to play with only one rule being modified, and no speed die. If you usually play the game where all taxes and penalties are put into the middle of the board and collected by a player if they land on Free Parking, you can do that. If you usually play the game where a player gets double their salary if they land on the GO space, then you can do that. What you can’t do, is use a mixture of those rules. Recently, we’ve played an offline round or two of the physical board game where the house rules stated that we couldn't collect rent when “in Jail” – as that modification makes being in jail less attractive during the endgame. You wouldn’t be able to replicate that in Monopoly Plus, without also making it so that every single property can only be purchased via an auction, as those two rules are inexplicably bound together in a single House Rules version of play. There's no real reason that the developer couldn't have provided a series of switches or toggles for different rules so that you could play the way you want to, or are used to.
You'll also need to turn controller vibration off, as the controller vibrates more strongly than any other game than we've played on Xbox One when it's your turn to roll the dice. Seriously, you'd think it was trying to warn you that a bomb is about to go off. Also, the Kinect functionality is limited to taking photos of players at key points in the game and then showing them after the game is over, so is therefore utterly pointless. Fortunately, you're prompted as to whether you want to use Kinect before each game begins. But aside from those noted issues, Monopoly Plus is probably the most playable version of digital Monopoly that has been released so far. Enjoyable and without too much in the way of unnecessary delays in play, the game offers a stiff challenge if you fancy playing against five top-level AI opponents offline, and also offers the ability for up to six users to play “pass the controller” in flawless offline local multiplayer, as well as allowing for control via several mobile devices through SmartGlass - which is handy if everybody wants their own controller and you don't happen to have six to hand. There’s room for a few extra touches here and there. Maybe some detailed game stats or a reason to keep playing beyond the initial draw of having a game of Monopoly would be nice, but all in all, the development team have done a relatively decent job.
It’s just a shame that the online mode is so horribly broken.
The broken online mode loses Monopoly Plus a fair few points, as it kills the longevity of the product when you consider that there's no real single player challenge other than just playing game after game. Quite why the development team didn’t think that a losing host would probably rather start a new game rather than sit and watch five other people play Monopoly for an hour is beyond us.
However, Monopoly Plus is a very, very solid attempt at bringing the Parker Brothers’ classic board game to the Xbox One. It’ll be right up any Monopoly fan’s street and is certainly one of the first iterations of digital Monopoly that you could sit down and play with the family without the game being needlessly prolonged by complex inputs or overly-flashy gameplay.