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Premature Evaluation: Another Brick In The Mall

A perishable good

Every Monday we fire Brendan and force him to take work in a vast early access shopping centre. This week, the tendrils of mass consumption take hold in Another Brick In The Mall [official site].

Welcome to Dead ‘n’ Fried, the premier fast food restaurant of our modern age. Open from 9am-7pm. The only cook, a 56-year-old alcoholic called Teresa, seems to have the place under control at a comfortable 94 dollar loss every day. Worried about food poisoning? Don’t be. There’s a pharmacy next door. Pills 4 Ur Broken Body is run by a head cashier with a strong stomach. It says so in his character traits.

This is Another Brick In The Mall, a very traditional management sim which sees you building a shopping complex wall by wall and filling it with as many junk food, jewellery and expensive kitchen appliances as you can. Then it's all about watching your profits go up as you sit and wonder what else there is to do. It’s not bad, but like Teresa’s burgers, it still feels a little undercooked.

On the up side, everything ticks over in a frighteningly efficient way (or as efficient as your haphazard room-building allows). Starting out with a big wad of cash, you lay down foundations in a practical boxy fashion, then fill each room with the items it needs. Your first shop, for example, needs shelves and cash registers, as well as a store room. The parking lot needs a loading bay, where stock can get delivered close to the shop. And you need employees, wee big-headed peeps with different characteristics including speed, patience and sociability, as well as differing levels of skills.

The little customers, meanwhile, buzz around, picking up crisps and bringing them to the counter, and becoming red-faced and angry when the queue is too long, eventually storming out in a fury if they don’t get served. At the game’s faster speeds it is hypnotic to watch all the people zip around, buying frozen fish and throwing wobblers. Keep this up, building new types of shop as your research tree quickly unlocks with passing time – clothes shop, jewellers, pharmacy, fast food restaurant, bowling alley, cinema… er, oh, I guess that’s it.

While it lasts, it fills a hole. My clothes shop ‘#Brands!’ was a roaring success when I built it. I was on my last $60,000 out of $300,000 and like any good capitalist pigdog, I was starting to worry. Building foundations is costly and it isn’t always easy to tell how big a shop needs to be to fit everything you want. You get bonus cash for reaching certain goals, however, and this is what helped saved my hellish Consumption Zone from bankruptcy. For instance, achieving 5000 total sales, or having 10,000 dollars of sales in a single day will get you another $10,000 in reward money each.

The idea is that this encourages you to develop in certain ways. If the car park is full and the supermarket queues are always overflowing, but there’s no room for a new cashier’s desk and you’re starting to feel the pinch, then aim for the bonus where you get $10,000 for selling 50 different types of product. Basically: start selling video games and underpants.

At least, that’s the idea. In practice, these objectives quickly become background noise, more or less completing themselves as you explore the research tree and toy with the working hours of your employees. Eventually, you can have a 24-hour fortress of capitalism, the likes of which even Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross would be proud. The objectives will pop up as complete and you will barely notice them apart from a welcome $10,000 cash injection.

My own ambition was stoked in the first couple of hours. All the electronic items, games, films, music and appliances, I figured, could definitely fit into a single electronics and household megastore. This would require an expansion. Luckily, #Brands! is exceeding all expectation, with a 94% profit margin. Not so much a cash cow as a cash herd. This funded my expansion and would eventually see the centre making an average $20,000 profit every day.

The good times rolled, the money flowed, and the tiny customers whizzed around, periodically indulging in the new movie theatre, Eyeballs Cinema, which through a quirk of architecture accidentally projects half of the film into the adjacent bowling alley, a pleasant wood-floored arena called Dark Bowls. The customers at the More Market, our 24-hour grocery shop, continued to throw fits at the understaffed checkouts. All was well.

Yet, after all this, the machine-like nature of the game starts to become too clear to ignore. As yet there are no panics, disasters, or events, emergent or otherwise. And despite the little factoids about your customers and staff – that they are lazy, or movie buffs, or alcoholics – none of that seems to have any noticeable effect on the mall. In terms of the simulation, maybe customers marked ‘Carnivores’ buy more meat, but that doesn’t really tell an interesting story or interact with any other system in an unexpected or bewildering way. At its core, Another Brick In The Mall is currently a numbers game. You play to increase profits or to fiddle with the cogs of the machine.

The research tree runs out pretty quickly too (it took me 4-5 hours to unlock all the shops and objects) meaning once you’ve built everything and seen it all the only challenge is to construct your mall in a shape and way that increases efficiency to its ultimate level. Effectively, build more and more of the same thing. That kind of micromanagement will be enough for some people. There are hordes of folk, I know, who adore messing with placements and settings to make The Ultimate Prison or The Ultimate City (and this game includes all the necessary graphs and charts you need to account for customer satisfaction, gross profit, net profit, etc).

But for anyone after more depth, more silliness and character, this feels too ‘bare bones’ right now. I’ve never had a clerk quit because they got stressed out, nobody has ever been sick in the bowling alley, or pissed themselves because there’s only one set of toilets in the complex – toilets which went unused for the majority of my game because there were no urinals and people simply could not understand this. There are no robberies, no chip-pan fires, no rats in the store room. I imagine a lot of these things are planned for future updates, but as of now there’s no drama – just a very neat, easy to grasp machine. Teresa can go on flipping burgers, but I’m quitting.

Another Brick In The Mall is available on Steam for £9.99/$12.99. These impressions are based on build 1455108

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