It is not often that one runs across two great tastes that go great together, if I may be allowed to steal a tag line from that prince of candies, the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Vivendi Universal and Radical Entertainment managed this feat with the recently released game, The Simpsons: Hit & Run. By teaming up with Gracie Studios and Fox, VU had access to all the voice acting talent from the show, as well as the rights to use all the trademark bits that make Springfield, Springfield. Radical Entertainment then, perhaps a bit blatantly, took design cues from Rock Star Games and their Grand Theft Auto 3 game, toning it down to fit the family-friendly tones of The Simpsons. Put in a decent storyline and the chance to play many characters from the TV show, and you've got a pretty tasty combination.
The storyline is compelling enough to lead one through missions, and starts off with you, as Homer, finding weird mechanical bees sporting cameras. This is just the beginning of a story featuring surveillance bees, surveillance vans and a cola that is controlling the town folk's minds. You end up picking up missions from different characters that start out as simple errands but develop into story-driving adventures. As part of the adventure, your character can pick up coins, which us old folks will remember as a staple of any good video game, which can later be spent on new vehicles (essential for missions) and changes of clothes for your character. The missions are entertaining, and there's plenty of them (something like 56 missions over the 7 levels of the game). Besides the main story missions there are, a la GTA3, many side missions per level which allows you to take part in races, time-trials and other fun asides as handed out by characters you'll know from the show (assuming you're a Simpsons fan...which if you're not, SHAME ON YOU! Whooops, editorializing. Now I'm gonna get a beating from the editor.). The multitude of these side-missions, plus the sheer size of Springfield means that there is definite replayability built into the game.
While I compare the game play to that of GTA, one thing to mention is that just because the style of play is similar, not all the elements are the same. While there is violence in the Simpsons' world, it is cartoonish in nature. The only things that can be destroyed are mechanical or environmental hazards. People can be kicked and run over, but there is no blood nor is anyone truly hurt. All cars can be carjacked but your character actually sits in the passenger's seat (although the player controls the vehicle). Just because there's no gore doesn't mean there are no consequences for outrageous behavior: do enough damage or run over enough people, and the cops will come for you. When you get caught, you lose coins, but can continue on with what you were doing.
As a Simpsons aficionado, I found the plethora of inside jokes and sight/audio gags in the game to be just as much fun as the actual missions. The more you look around, the more there is to discover, so the game contains replay value as well. Those not Simpsons fans will probably miss some of the more obscure gags.
The graphics look pretty dang good on my PC, considering the PC version is a port from the Xbox. The developers did an amazing job of capturing the many unique features of Springfield within the large game world (think tire fire, Krusty Burger, Springfield Elementary, the Kwik E Mart, etc.), making them look awfully good in the process. Game models are excellent recreations of the TV show characters and, combined with voice acting from the actual TV show talent, you will find yourself easily immersed into the world of Springfield.
Helping with that immersion is the solid world development touched on above. The streets and town are well laid out with plenty of smashable obstacles for players to kick or drive through. Navigation is done via a round compass/map in the corner of the screen which will direct your towards your goal. Arrows also appear on the street in order to further direct you through the town.
The game's graphics, while pretty, aren't necessarily all that advanced nor all that demanding of a system's resources. I played at 1024X768 resolution and above with no problems on my (still slightly) higher-end PC, but I imagine that the game will be playable far down on the PC scale.
The primary sound joys of the game come from the excellent voice acting. Using the talents of the actual cast, the character's in the game truly come to life. The only gripe I had was with the somewhat repetitive nature of the character quotes. While I love listening to Homer singing I am evil Homer, I must admit that the 50th time gets kinda old.
Unfortunately, the developers dropped the ball when porting the controls to the PC. Worth particular mention is the camera, which never quite follows your character properly. While it is possible to move the camera, it is limited by the terrain which can lead to situations where you need to make a critical jump forward but can only see the wall behind your character. Add that nearly uncontrollable camera into the standard controls and you'll find yourself hopping and kicking all over the place because you can't quite get yourself into a position where you can see, let alone hit, the target. The abysmal camera/movement controls aren't nearly as noticeable when driving.
Other than that, the controls are pretty simplistic, and are remappable. You'll perform most of your actions with the mouse buttons, with one controlling Action (getting into cars, talking to characters, pushing buttons, etc.) and the other controlling Attacks. I've read some message board postings that suggest using an analog gamepad with the PC version tends to alleviate some of my grievances posted above, but I haven't tested this theory.
The Simpsons Hit and Run is a fun game that takes the basic concepts of the GTA video game and turns them into a family-friendly experience. The developers did an excellent job of creating a virtual Springfield and the addition of the voice talent truly raises this game above what would otherwise be a dumbed-down GTA clone. Considering the past failures of Simpsons-branded video games, this effort is truly an achievement.
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