A few months ago I reviewed Futurama: The Game, and I was disappointed. Where Futrama the series was funny and entertaining, the game was repetitive, frustrating and boring, with none of the wit that made Futurama so damn good. It had the look, but it just didn’t have the feel.
Now I’ve got The Simpsons: Hit and Run in my PS2, and I’m pleased to say that this Matt Groening game succeeds where its scif-fi cousin failed.
In Hit and Run you control one of five playable characters — Homer, Marge, Bart, Marge and Apu (why Apu? Well, why not?) — as you drive crazily through Springfield on a variety of missions. Each character is given their own portion of the game — Homer kicks things off, ditching work so he can investigate mysterious black vans that have shown up all over town. Then it’s Bart’s turn, as he attempts to get a copy of a highly-coveted (and thus banned) video game. He goes missing at the end of his story arc, and then it’s Lisa’s turn, with her quest revolving around finding her brother. And so forth and so on.
The actual missions vary. Some involve racing other characters from the Simpsons’ universe, while others involve collecting tokens of one kind or another (Bart spends one mission catching escaped monkeys). Each section of the game also has its own in-jokes and secret missions for players to find, though they need not be discovered in order to advance to the next section. Heck if you really get stumped, you can even choose to skip the current mission.
The game’s heavily inspired by the Grand Theft Auto games, to the point that some of the landscapes of GTA3’s Liberty City have been recreated within Springfield (for example, Liberty City’s “Hoboken-like” section had streets filled with car-swallowing potholes; those show up in this game. GTA’s third map had lots of hills as well as a hydroelectric dam and those maps show up here as well). And then there’s the “Hit and Run” component — like GTA, Hit and Run has a meter indicating just how “wanted” you are. Damage enough of the landscape, smash into another cars, or cause too many pedestrians to dodge out of the way, and you’ll trigger a “Hit and Run”, in which Springfield’s finest chase and then arrest you.
Smashing Good Fun
Futrama suffered two problems. First, the characters were constantly thrown into situations that didn’t make sense for them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — after all, the Simpsons don’t spend every episode running races against each other — but it is if those tasks aren’t any fun, which was Futurama’s second problem.
Hit and Run, on the other hand, is constantly amusing, and occasionally damn funny. For example, Homer’s got a lot of good one liners, but when he’s in a devil custom shouting out “I am evil Homer! I am evil Homer”, you’ve just got to laugh. In fact, unlike Futurama, Hit and Run never misses an opportunity for a joke, even a one liner, even one that’s just a small chuckle hidden among the scenery. For example, one of the billboard’s has a doctor type saying “Don’t Eat Beef” and then changes to say “Eat Deer!”. Down at the wharf, there’s a shop that’s “Just Rainsticks”.
The game’s got plenty of replay value — you can choose to complete each section’s main missions as quickly as possible or explore each level thoroughly, trying to unlock its secrets. The ability to control the pacing is a nice touch and yet another sign of GTA influence — that game’s hallmark is open-ended exploration and complete-at-your-own-pace quests.
Some folks may balk at playing a game influenced by Grand Theft Auto, but that would be their loss. While the game does share much with the GTA, everything that was gritty and realistic has been re-done as slapstick and comedic in the Simpsons. In GTA, one mission had you chasing a van filled with porn magazines — keep knocking it, and the porn would fall out. The goal was to collect all of the magazines and bankrupt the business publishing it. In the Simpsons, there’s a similar mission, but in this case Apu wants you to run down the yokel, whose truck is filled with road kill he intends to sell to Krusty Burger (thus allowing Krusty to undersell Apu’s own Quicky Mart hotdogs). Same idea, very different execution.
Coins are awarded for destruction, as money is in GTA, but it’s all done in the name of cartoon fun, with the characters offering a running commentary on their misdeeds (“Great!” Lisa says after taking out a light pole, “more liberal guilt!”) The Simpsons have always had huge amounts of physical humor, and this is more of the same. Hit and Run never gets anywhere near as rough as GTA — no one ever dies, and not even Bart can go on a vehicle-destroying rampage.
That said, parents of younger children should consider whether they want their kids playing a game in which the breaking things is rewarded and missions often involve trying to destroy other cars. As for older people, The Simpsons: Hit and Run is a good opportunity to experience a game like Grand Theft Auto without having to actually play GTA. And they might begin to understand why GTA’s popularity really isn’t entirely about its over-the-top violence.
Hit and Run draws heavily on The Simpsons‘ history, pulling in all the major characters and a good number of the minor ones. The landscape may not correspond directly what we see on TV every Sunday, but given how Simpsons geography changes based on the whims of the writers, that’s hardly surprising. What’s important is that the landmarks are all there — the Simpsons still live next to Flanders, the Nuclear Power Plant still looms on the horizon, and Krusty Burgers dot the landscape. The artwork is utterly faithful to the series, though obviously its much more three-dimensional.
The primary graphical drawback I encountered while playing the game was one of perspective — the camera view can be tweaked somewhat, but for the most part its locked. Unlike other third person perspective games, you can’t switch to first person to look around, and you can’t change the angle from the default about 50 degrees above the character you’re controlling (i.e. to shift it to ground level, or just over the over the character’s shoulders). This lack of control is annoying when exploring the game world or flying around the streets in a race. Further, I found that the way that the camera follows the action to be occasionally nauseating, particularly when flying around a corner during a chase. It didn’t bother me continuously, but after 30-45 minutes or so I found myself turning off the machine not because I was board, but because I nauseous. This is something I’ve experienced in other popular games where the vehicle goes one way, and the background goes the other (the best example of this is Twisted Metal Black) and I doubt it’ll affect most people as much as it does me.
As far as game play goes, the game’s only real flaw is its name sake “Hit and Run” mechanic. In theory, you’re penalized when you drive too recklessly (forcing pedestrians to dive out of the way, taking out mail boxes, etc.) With each hit, your “Hit and Run” meter fills up a bit more — fill it all the way and the cops will chase you down. Evading the cops is almost impossible and unless you’re in the middle of a particularly important mission, its pointless to even try. The only draw back to getting busted is that you lose some of the coins you’ve acquired, but coins are so plentiful and easy to secure that this is little more than a slap on the wrist, albeit one that can ruin a mission attempt. It’s annoying that the game’s namesake is so damn annoying, but ultimately it’s a distraction.
I didn’t expect to enjoy this game nearly as much as I did. It’s true to the spirit of the Simpsons and offers good mix of challenging game play and humorous comedy. Diehard Simpson fans should buy it and more casual fans should at least rent it.
- The Simpsons: Hit and Run
- PlayStation 2
- Vivendi Universal
- MSRP: $49.99
- Buy it from Amazon