Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review: The Simpsons Game


Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2, NDS, PSP

A real, honest-to-God Simpsons game has been a long time coming. Fans of the yellow-skinned family have suffered through more than twenty versions of licensed games, including the lamentable Virtual Bart, bizarre Krusty’s Funhouse, and GTA-clone The Simpsons Hit & Run. With the possible exception of Bart Vs the Space Mutants (an awkward platformer made better only with the benefit of nostalgic hindsight), there simply hasn’t been a game that has matched the high points of the animated series. Until now, possibly.

The graphics, at least in the PS3 and 360 versions, are pretty much spot on. Wii gamers might notice a few more jaggies and slightly less graphical flair, but that’s pretty much par for the SD/ED course. If you happen to have blown your course-related costs on an HD television, you’ll enjoy this game – the cut-scenes are basically prettified HD versions of the animated series.

The in-game version of Springfield is suitably cartoony, but when you compare the in-game characters to the animated cut-scene versions, you’ll notice the difference. Luckily, it doesn’t jar too much, and it’s really noticeable for the first few minutes at the start of each level. There’s not much else that could have been done to remedy this, to be honest – perhaps a thicker black line around the in-game characters, or relying less on in-game cut-scenes to help the story along. The pay-off’s in the end-of-level animations, after all.

Featuring the talents of several writers for the animated show, The Simpsons Game attempts to bring the spotlight back onto the story, and for the most part, it succeeds. The basic plot is something like this: the Simpson family discover that they are really characters in a video game, and while trying to fend off the latest alien attack on Springfield, they must also fight off the perils of becoming obsolete as next-next-gen versions of themselves come along, meeting (and defeating) luminaries such as Matt Groening, God and Will Wright along the way. All are faced in escalating order of importance, of course.

We’re graced with appearances by so many minor and major characters from the series that it’s hard to keep up, although the cameos are skewed towards more recent seasons. Interestingly, more recent minor characters like Mr Shine have entire levels dedicated to them, and some characters are simply skipped. While Radioactive Man would have made for a decent cameo or themed sub-level, the NES sidescroller Bartman Meets Radioactive Man probably exhausted all the possibilities of the source material.

Videogame parodies abound in The Simpsons Game – there are levels based on Medal of Honour, Pokemon, Everquest and Legend of Zelda, among others, and too many cameos and references to other videogames to count. In fact, one of the best points about this game is the fact that it tirelessly parodies and satirises everything it can – other videogames, other Simpsons games, the entire animated series – there’s no stone left unturned.

While the story is great, actually playing through it can be a little tedious. Switching between characters in single-player mode is a seemingly small flaw in the game that turns into a bigger problem than it should have been. Pressing the Xbox 360’s (criminally under-responsive) d-pad to switch characters means that you have to take your thumb off the left analogue stick, sacrificing a little movement away from whatever palette-switched monster is trying to kill you, only to find that you didn’t press the d-pad hard enough to overcome its built-in wobble. Suddenly you’re dead; Nelson Munz is laughing at you; and you’re back at the start of the level. Granted, the wonky d-pad scenario will only affect 360 gamers, but the trouble doesn’t stop there.

When you change characters, the camera automatically swings around to the viewpoint of the new character. It makes sense, in a literal-world kind of way, but if we’re playing in a world where Homer can transform into a giant jelly blob, or Bart can change into Bartman with an explosive flourish of purple bats, surely it’s not a big ask that you can switch between two characters on the fly without having the camera shift? Call it magic, teleportation, blame it on radioactive waste if it has to conform to whatever canon may exist, I don’t care – as a player I’m reduced to making sense of the world that other people have created. I can deal with a gameplay gimmick that doesn’t make literal sense, as long as it doesn’t actively impede the game’s flow.

As annoying as they get, though, the game’s negatives still don’t manage to outweigh the joys of playing through what is effectively an interactive, extended episode of The Simpsons. Hopefully EA has eyes for a sequel (who am I kidding? It’s EA!), and try to keep the writing staff and voice actors – it’s the story that makes the game, and a few niggling control difficulties and repetitive gameplay can’t ruin that.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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