"Why can't anyone make a decent Simpsons game?" has been the plaintive wail of millions of gamers for over a decade now, tired of being fed licensed pap year upon year. With such a fantastically rich property to draw upon, it's almost criminal that various developers over the years have been able to get away with this systematic trashing of the brand. The depressing thing is every one has sold very well; Simpsons Road Rage has sold over 1.8 million in the last year alone for gawd's sake. What about this year's model?
Despite being under the auspices of a determined and ambitious Vivendi-Universal, the Road Rage developer, Radical Entertainment, has been retained (which also developed the dreadful Dark Angel and the pretty but flawed The Hulk), which dampened our otherwise sunny optimism that things would finally be put right with this GTA-inspired romp around Springfield.
Take away the developer, and all the ingredients are there for a hilarious wheeze through a mission-based driving game that - on paper - deserves be one of the essential games of the year.
Study: 90 per cent of games start with an easy tutorial level
For a start, a truckload of the show's voice and writing talent has been brought on board to authentically recreate the hilarious ambience of Springfield and its many warped characters. Although the various members of the Simpsons clan hog the limelight for most of the missions, the supporting cast is impressively large and every one comes out with some absolute gems that will have even hardened miserablists cackling inanely.
In the addition to the top-quality characters, the storyline's of true Simpsons vintage too, with all manner of typical conspiracy theories contributing to some classy entertainment; Homer desperately paranoid at the appearance of black vans in the neighbourhood, Bart determined to get hold of a copy of the banned Bonestorm Storm 2 videogame, Lisa chasing after the ever-desperate Millhouse's clues as to her brother's whereabouts, and so on. It's all highly amusing stuff, and does a decent job of tempting you through the game.
As you'll know, the structure of Hit & Run is unapologetically GTA; replace Liberty City with Springfield, add a cartoon palette, sprinkle in a host of Matt Groening's finest, and, Voila! But although the basic carjacking/mission-based driving template has been observed, the sandbox freedom of GTA has been replaced with a rigid linearity that forces you to complete the seven missions of each level in order before you can move on.
"We've got to destroy it before it warps them with its bloops and bleeps!"
To kick off, Homer is tasked with a few basic mundane tasks to get players into the swing of things, and then the game quickly settles into a pattern of mission types that basically repeat throughout the game at increasing difficulty. In the main there are just three basic mission types: one-on-one racing, vehicle destruction/vehicle bumping, or object collection (or a bit of both), mostly against the clock. Some overlap, but you'll very quickly realise what an extraordinarily simple game Hit & Run is. The scenarios differ, the characters change, and the parts of Springfield you drive around switch depending on the character, but the tasks almost entirely focus on these three areas. Occasionally there's some basic platforming or general wandering around interiors, but in the main it's firmly focused on the driving element.
After Homer's seven missions (and sub-missions if you choose to seek them out - in another nod to GTA), the game switches to Bart, Lisa, Marge and Apu, with Homer and Bart given another level each later on. Along the way, you're encouraged to explore Springfield in order to pick up the many packages that litter the alleyways and rooftops, which either act as means to unlock video clips or as extra currency with which to buy better, more powerful vehicles. Certain missions require a faster or sturdier vehicle, and any you've already bought can be delivered to you by walking up to any of the many phone boxes littering Springfield. On the other hand, you can just hit triangle and borrow any of the populace's cars, which tends to come in handy when you've smashed yours to bits.
The 'Hit & Run' factor only comes into play when you hit too many pedestrians. After about ten 'kills' the cops finally spring into life and fine you $50 if they manage to catch up with you. As a punishment it's small beer, given that coins emerge from every broken item, from lampposts to trees and basically anything destructible.
"If only kids would play more videogames about sharing"
But unlike GTA, no one ever actually 'dies', even when you've run them over or your vehicle blows up, and there are never any weapons lying around to sully the wholesome reputation of those cuddly Simpsons. As a game so utterly indebted to Rockstar's opus, it feels strangely neutered to remove an element so ingrained in mission-based driving games, although on a practical licensing level you can understand it.
What you're left with, therefore, is a safe cuddly game with a stupendously excellent script hamstrung by some terrifyingly unambitious game design that thinks it's fine to constantly wheel out the same basic ideas, make them harder, and then boasts about there being 56 levels of it.
It's not necessarily that endless chase/destruction/collection driving missions aren't fun. For a while they seem like they might be, especially when accompanied by one hilarious wisecrack after another. Indeed, it's important to emphasise just how brilliant the storyline, script and voiceovers are when compared to your standard videogame. They promote such a feel-good vibe, that's it's almost possible to be fooled into enjoying what otherwise would be - at times - an utterly hateful experience.
But seeing as the game design genius at work here seems to extend to merely making the same basic missions harder, most casual gamers (which this is obviously pitched at) will get too frustrated to bother playing the same insanely hard level over and over again. If you're going to make a game for the lowest common denominator, the alleged 'mass' market, at least make it possible for those people to play it without taking out insurance for their joypads and small animals.
"When will they learn? Videogames don't kill people; they just kill their minds…"
And it's not just the game design that's conspires to limit your enjoyment either. There's a list of technical issues as long as my arm that would bug the hell out of even the most patient gamer. First of all, the actual driving physics are nothing short of atrocious, making the very basis of the game a chore from the off. Cars slide apologetically and unresponsively around the streets, and even after many hours it's a struggle to ever feel like you're in control. To compound the issue, it's all too easy to trip up in among the game engine's limitations, resulting in your vehicle getting caught up in all manner of improbable situations. One time, we made a leap of faith through an obvious short cut, only to nose dive into a bizarre gap that left our hapless vehicle wobbling desperately face down in an attempt to correct itself. This was by no means an isolated incident. Consistently your vehicle falls on its side, only to magically wobble back. What is this? Jelly Baby racing?
The dreaded camera issues persistently disorientate the player, with an unending array of sloppy incidents that make it regularly impossible to see what on earth is going on. Really, this is third generation PS2 gaming - and it's unacceptable that games loaded with these kind of basic technical issues should be allowed to be sold for £40.
As for the visuals, they're reasonably attractive, without ever managing to truly capture the essence of the visual style intended. There's an inherent simplicity about The Simpsons that ought to be fairly straightforward in this day an age to replicate, but somehow the translation to 3D doesn't quite come off, lacking the charm and characterisation and merely populating the world with familiar faces and relying on the fall back of the voiceover to fill in the blanks for us. Admittedly, the disparate elements of the Springfield environment are pleasingly represented, with all manner of amusing billboards, shop signs and so on to keep you chuckling. In this sense the game engine does its job, but you get the feeling so much more could have been achieved with a more talented developer at the helm.
We've seen a few critical appraisals of Hit & Run elsewhere, and can't quite believe how easily pleased they've been. It seems a case of glossing over the glaring flaws and chuckling about the script, which is entirely missing the point. Sure, as we've mentioned a few times, the quality of the writing, the voices and the humour are absolutely spot-on, but rather than disguise the mediocre game within, this excellence merely serves to amplify the crushing disappointment of the one dimensional gameplay, and we're left wanting much, much more than this half arsed effort.
Committed Simpsons obsessives who live for every gag and one liner will have fun for a while, but for £40 you could buy the entire season three DVD box set [which is fantastic, with commentaries and everything! -Tom] and have change for doughnuts, Duff, and enough peanuts to last you all night. It's easily the best Simpsons game ever released, but that's not really saying much - as Lisa says: "Oooh, videogames: what a waste of money".