Perhaps the best compliment one could pay the designers of Wall Street Trader 2000 is to say that they deftly avoided all of the obvious opportunities to screw it up. That's no small feat, since a financial-markets simulation such as Wall Street Trader 2000 always runs the risk of being an atrocious game. The first temptation is to convert the experience of researching companies, buying low, and selling high into a massive spreadsheet that has all of the drama and suspense of balancing a checkbook. A straightforward trading sim also would suffer from a fairly pat victory condition - amassing mo' money, mo' money, mo' money. Beyond that, any accurate and deep model of what affects market behavior could swamp you in an unwieldy interface that forces you to drill into and track countless layers of variables. In other words, Wall Street Trader 2000 could have been entirely unexciting.
Instead, the developers made a very impressive attempt to skirt all of the natural pitfalls and actually make a financial simulator that's worthy of being called a game. Rather than dropping you into the middle of a spreadsheet, the game instead thrusts you into a contemporary economic drama. You play a bright young financial wunderkind hired by the enigmatic and cheeky financier, Lord Fleming. After buying up a failing Asian bank, Fleming expects you to save the company. Things go awry in short order. Other traders at the bank, against whom you competed to win the Lord's favor, take off for the US with embezzled funds. To avoid publicity, Fleming puts you on their trail to wreak revenge the old-fashioned way - by ruining them. You must win back their ill-gotten gains via hostile takeovers and perhaps earn control over the entire Fleming empire in the process.
A series of lighthearted and well-acted full-motion-video cutscenes take you through the game's mission-based structure. After the first mission, which is just a basic test of your moneymaking skills, you not only play the markets but also compete against a pool of rival investors. At first you simply aim to beat them at the bottom line, but ultimately, you will need to deploy spies, engage in insider trading, and master market trends to buy them out.
The game is played in real time (though you can adjust the speed), so you must monitor incoming newsfeeds that concern market behavior and react accordingly. Oil and yen are the only available investments at the start, but new equities come online soon enough. Ultimately, you will be able to lose your shirt in 16 different economic sectors, from foreign stock exchanges to cars and technology. While your in-game employer's holdings are unrealistically vast, Wall Street Trader 2000 nevertheless provides a decent crash course in modern capitalism. Each new investment opportunity gets an initial analysis, including historic price performance and an outline of how certain types of news affects pricing.
Wall Street Trader 2000 excels at keeping all of its layers of information only one click away, which helps immeasurably in keeping the action manageable. A single console screen gives quick access to real-time quotes and graphs, news reports, current portfolio valuation, and business research. Click-and-drag maneuvers let you track half a dozen holdings in real time from the main console, but six holdings won't seem like very many as your portfolio broadens. Dragging a listing into the trading area calls up a buy/sell window in which you execute the transaction; tabs let you view your gains and losses in various ways and keep an eye on the calendar. The scenarios tend to require you to perform your market wizardry within three- to six-month windows.While the gameplay is sane and straightforward in the beginning, broader investment and information options ramp up the action quickly. As you progress through Lord Fleming's missions, more subtle and clandestine market intelligence becomes available through a series of agents, which you can assign to any of the investment sectors. The basic analysts you can hire spit back fairly obvious recommendations for a fee. But several missions into the game you can enlist insiders and spies who supply the kinds of detailed information on markets and rivals that give you a sense of control. You also run the risk of being caught by the SEC, which makes another agent, a lawyer, necessary.
Wall Street Trader 2000 has network and Internet multiplayer modes available, but you shouldn't count on finding much competition online. The in-game Net access is actually very smooth: Just a single press of a button searches for available games. But even an entire month after the game's release, no online competition ever showed up. On the other hand, the game's low hardware requirements are well-suited for low-end PC owners and laptop users.
The game's story-driven mission-based structure is great for the gameplay, since it makes the game's objectives immediate and tense. On the other hand, it's disappointing that you really can't take advantage of long-term or blended portfolio strategies. Success depends on your day-trading skills and on watching the newsfeeds like a hawk. You must be ready to respond immediately to an oil-rig disaster by selling those barrels or to rising interest rates by shifting money from stocks to T-Bills.
Wall Street Trader 2000 would be truly outstanding because of its excellent dramatic devices, good gameplay, and wonderful interface, if it weren't quite so frustrating to play, especially in the early stages. For all of the available information sources, the behavior of the underlying markets remains inscrutable. Sure, a lawsuit against a major oil supplier will depress the stock price, but otherwise oil-barrel prices fluctuate wildly and for reasons that never surface. In too many cases, you'll fail to see the expected effect of a news story on market pricing.
When confronted on the subject of the unpredictable market behavior, the designers reassured us that while some natural capriciousness is built into the game's market fluctuations, most of the price movements are directly responding to the news stories. But even on the easiest difficulty setting, where the correlation is supposed to be strongest, it's still difficult getting oriented to the virtual market. Even when stocks respond to world events, there can still be strong fluctuations in many market segments that would seriously affect your portfolio but go unexplained by the game. The manual does a good job of explaining the interface, but has nothing to outline the underlying logic of the game's virtual market, and it even lacks any advice on initial strategies for the novice.
Success in Wall Street Trader 2000 demands extreme day-trader tactics. In addition to watching the news, you must sit on the real-time graph of price movement and wait for an equity to crest or bottom out to make quick buy-and-sell moves. While doing so is unnecessarily frustrating and certainly needs a better explanation, it speaks to the designers' attention to gameplay. Wall Street Trader 2000 is less a Wall Street simulator than it is a financial fantasy. Winners in the game's fantasy world don't play like Louis Rukeyser, they play like Gordon Gekko. Greed is Good.