Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Release Date: October 30, 2007
The last time I previewed The Simpsons Game, which is due out in just one short week, I wasn't too impressed with it. The title had just been announced, wasn't playable hands-on and I think the complementary donuts didn't sit well with the free beer from the open bar. But even more than that, a lot of the surface polish that's going to define The Simpsons Game as an enjoyable experience hadn't been implemented yet. Backgrounds were sparsely detailed, vocal tracks with the show's performers hadn't been laid down yet and early versions of the game promised stiff cut scenes using the in-engine 3D graphics.
With some appearances at PR events that show off a more complete version of the game, though, and a demo out on XBLA, The Simpsons Game is looking to be a far more respectable product in its release version. The gameplay has some obvious depth to it, the amount of voice-acting is staggering, and there are fully animated 2D cut scenes. Granted, it's not quite the 2D of "The Simpsons" TV show; the game cut scenes appear to be using a slightly cheaper animation style that, while perfectly on-model, use some Flash animation tricks to keep the budget low. Expect to see things like walking and running animations looped, and movement from backgrounds to foregrounds handled with technology instead of an artist's hand.
The result is still enjoyable, if light, fare that offers some chuckle-worthy parodies of a lot of other video games. EA takes its most thorough potshots at other EA franchises (unsurprisingly), but they try to tweak the nose of the competition a few times, too. You wouldn't think the company that more or less defines the gaming establishment could pull this off successfully (I was quite skeptical about this in my original preview), but EA has managed it by relying on the show's writers for much of the game's spirit. You only really see the hand of EA at work in the gameplay, which we'll discuss a bit later. Suffice it to say that when the Simpsons writers, who institutionally make fun of everybody, take on the gaming industry, there are a lot of easy (if dated) targets that may be hit very, very hard. All of the writing in the game was handled by three of the Simpsons staff writers: Tim Long (seasons 10-18), Matt Selman (seasons 9-18) and Matt Warburton (seasons 10-13). All contribute to some aspect of the show currently, and Long and Selman were part of the well-received movie's writing staff.
Right now, the game is slated to consist of 16 levels that contain four "chapters" each. Completing a level is a matter of achieving a certain straightforward goal, although in usual platformer style, there are a variety of unlockables and collectibles for the OCD player to work on snagging. This includes "Krusty Coupons," bottlecaps, "clichés" (as explained by Comic Book Guy whenever you do something especially trite) and a host of other little, easy-to-miss objects. There's also a "target time" for each level. Completing the level in that amount of time or less is quite challenging and indicates mastery of a given part of the game. Much of the game's replay value is going to be contained in going back for collectibles, improving target times and, of course, playing through particularly funny levels in co-op mode with a friend.
Actually, the entire game is likely to be a much more enjoyable experience when in co-op mode than when played in single-player. Every level is designed around the abilities of a particular pair of Simpsons family members, and usually completing a level quickly involves using those abilities skillfully in tandem with each other. Unlike, say, the Lego Star Wars games, your buddy doesn't have AI that allows him to use his special abilities automatically when necessary. Instead, a single-player game is supposed to revolve around swapping between the two characters automatically. All you can trust your AI buddy to do on his own is brawl with minor enemies and follow you.
Playing the game through in single-player mode is a bit frustrating as a result, especially in the level used as the demo, Shadow of the Colossal Donut. Although the title would indicate the level is a specific parody of the acclaimed PS2 title Shadow of the Colossus, it really isn't. The gameplay goals of the level (and many of the other levels) really don't have anything to do with the game supposedly being parodied. Instead, the "Colossus" is a very generic 3D-platformer pattern boss based on the giant donut-toting Lard Lad advertising mascot as he appeared in the famous "Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores" sequence of the fan-favorite "Treehouse of Horror VI" episode. There are three hatches in the back of his body (on his butt, back and head), and it's up to Homer and Bart to use their special B-button attacks to break them open. Then one of them must leap onto the hatch successfully and tap the Y button to tear out a bit of Lard Lad's wiring (in contrast to the episode, where he was powered by evil magic).
Assault Lard Lad's wiring successfully three times, and the level is over. The main complication is that, due to Lard Lad's height, you have to position him carefully near something tall before taking out his second and third hatches. The character best suited for this is Bart, who can transform into Bartman after defeating so many of the "mook" enemies that patrol the level (in this case, Talking Krusty Dolls) and building up power. As Bartman, Bart can easily glide off of the nearby buildings and land safely on the hatches. To get Lard Lad over to one of the buildings, you effectively need to have your second player get Lard Lad's attention and lure him there while you circle around. Homer is perfectly suited to playing the distraction role, since he can transform into his katamari-like "lard ball" form and swiftly evade Lard Lad's terrifying eye-lasers and stomping feet.
This need for teamwork is what makes playing the demo in single-player a bit frustrating: AI Homer won't try to distract Lard Lad, and AI Bart won't try to attack Lard Lad's back. Instead, you lose a lot of time awkwardly switching between the two of them, and what would be a 10-minute level if played by a pair of gamers with even very moderate platform skills can take 20 or 30 minutes to complete. You can also be in trouble if your second player isn't very skillful at doing his job, but that's always the danger of co-op.
As if to compensate for this, The Simpsons Game makes the strange gameplay decision of making your characters functionally invincible. It is literally impossible to fail a level. At worst, you will get stumped or bored with an objective you can't meet and then just turn off the machine. Characters regenerate their life bars infinitely and can survive tons of attacks from minor enemies or even Lard Lad. Even if you're "knocked down," your character is playable again in less than a minute. Granted, "no lose" game mechanics are growing popular in games, such as FPS with their infinite respawns and BioShock with its regeneration chambers, so EA may have just been following that trend. Still, it gives The Simpsons Game the feeling of something that, at its base, was intended to be supremely accessible to people who may never play video games and find "challenge" an annoyance that keeps them from quickly seeing all of the game's funny bits. If so, then while The Simpsons Game may have mainstream appeal, the hardcore may turn on it unless getting the bonus objectives, like collectives and low times, make for some extremely compelling gaming.
Where The Simpsons Game really shines is in looking and feeling exactly like a playable episode of the game itself. The graphics are absolutely perfect at mimicking the Matt Groening style in 3D, and it looks absolutely gorgeous on the Xbox 360. The game's look on other platforms is still somewhat in doubt; EA's promotion of the game indicates the 360 is the lead dev platform, since the title is always running on a 360 at events. Still, fans who want a light Simpsons-themed platformer and don't mind a near-total absence of real challenge are going to find a lot of enjoy with this game just from the animated cut scenes, the funny quips from the characters as they fight and the 3D re-creations of various aspects of Springfield. It'll be especially fun to play with little kids who'll appreciate the abundance of belch and fart jokes, or with roomies and friends who might enjoy the Simpsons.
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