Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Release Date: TBA
With Halo 3's preview party looming at the end of the week, countless other publishers have been quickly arranging events to take advantage of the sudden influx of journalists into San Francisco. Electronic Arts held one such event on Wednesday, built around the deeply in-progress The Simpsons Game as its cause célèbre.
Electronic Arts clearly takes great pride in regaining the Simpsons license from its brief stay at Vivendi-Universal Games, which produced (unfortunately for EA) the game frequently considered the only good Simpsons title, Hit & Run. EA is clearly out to prove they can produce a Simpsons game just as good, and so The Simpsons Game is already becoming a much-hyped major release (even dwarfing the hype behind the latest Harry Potter licensed game). All of this despite the fact the game is only six months into development, with some FMVs so incomplete they don't feature backgrounds yet.
EA perhaps has excellent reasons to be proud of their efforts with The Simpsons Game, even when the game is so early in development. The Simpsons Game uses an original storyline, featuring 8,000 lines of spoken dialogue written by members of the "Simpsons" writing staff. Although the audio track shown at the event was clearly a "temp" track, obviously featuring actors other than Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, and Harry Shearer, EA promises the final track will feature all of the original "Simpsons" voice acting cast.
The graphics are cel-shaded, but in a style meant to mimic the actual animation style of "The Simpsons" as closely as possible. As was carefully pointed out to us journalists, for instance, most Simpsons games turn Lisa's odd hairspikes into a porcupine-like mass of cones. In The Simpsons Game, her hair shape flattens as she turns around, the same way it does in the show's 2D art. Likewise, Bart's hair confirms to its 2D drawing rules, and all of the character's faces and expressions are startlingly authentic. The thick-lined cel-shading style has much of the feel of the cel-shaded 3D models that appeared in Matt Groening's second creation, Futurama, which is an incredible level of quality to capture in an interactive 3D game.
The basic premise is that the members of Simpson family realize they're in a licensed game and decide to use their newfound powers for ... well, whatever the hell they feel like. As they begin testing the boundaries of their new reality, the game's story and the level design is supposed to get progressively outrageous. Each level puts together a certain combination of Simpson family members and challenges them to meet the sort of goal those characters would be interested in. Lisa and Bart's debut level, for instance, is about Lisa trying to save a forest from loggers while Bart goes along for the ride so he can crack heads. Another level featured Homer and Bart together, with Homer striving to win an eating contest while Bart beats up people for him (see a pattern forming here?). Finally, Marge and Maggie showed off an interesting level where they were trying to protest the sale of a hyperviolent new video game, Grand Theft Scratchy.
As you might assume from that little tidbit, EA is promising that The Simpsons Game will attempt to parody video games and their conventions the way "The Simpsons" has always parodied everything under the sun. Some of the references are very clever. Lisa's special power as a character, for instance, is called the "Hand of Buddha." By meditating at certain points in the world, she can begin to manipulate it directly with a giant hand, in sequences that feel rather Okami-like. Homer's power is to turn calories into a power-up that transforms him into an enormous ball of fat, allowing for Katamari Damacy-like gameplay. Bart transforms into his Bartman persona, which can glide in the manner of Caped Mario from Super Mario World. Marge, perhaps most interestingly of all, has the power to nag others into doing her bidding, resulting in Pikmin-like levels. This gameplay mechanic is a brilliant idea, and if properly exploited with sharp level design, could easily make the game.
While there were jokes to be found in the demo levels, promo art scattered throughout the event promised tastes of the irreverent tone EA had in mind. In addition to the hyperviolent cover for Grand Theft Scratchy (featuring Helen Lovejoy being run over by a car while Comic Book Guy has an eye stabbed out with scissors), journalists got to see posters for Medal of Homer, Bartman Begins, and Neverquest (featuring an elven Homer stealing food with the aid of a cheerful-looking hobbit). It's unknown if these parody posters indicate actual game levels, or are simply satirical references that will appear in the game. Certainly, I will be disappointed if it ultimately turns out I cannot have Fat Homer katamari roll his way to victory over Axis, after the delightful prospect of such a thing has been raised.
References aside, the gameplay of the demo levels was straightforward. Most levels were full of fairly typical 3D platformer puzzles, in addition to the challenges that demanded a family member use their special powers. Since each level combined two family members, casual co-op gameplay was guaranteed. Enemies patrolled most levels that could be taken out by brawling or using special powers. The usual progression of gameplay was, well, typical: you might move from brawling enemies to enemies with projectiles, start collecting hidden tchotkes, or having to proceed through a variety of mission-style goals. The quality of the game's controls couldn't be evaluated, since the demo was strictly hands-off, but the explanations of the controls made them sound simple and intuitive. They had much in common with the typical pattern of controls in 360 action games, down to camera controls and which buttons controlled attacks.
While six months of development is obviously too soon to judge a title, this straightforward gameplay does seem to be the title's potential Achilles heel. Everything about it is painfully similar to previous EA licensed efforts, or obviously influenced by innovations in other major games. The demo levels were full of tremendously clichéd exercises in Nintendo Logic, which will hopefully get ironed out during testing and before launch. For instance, in Lisa's anti-logging level, the loggers eventually begin shooting red hot rivets (or perhaps glowing bullets) at her. The developer explaining the level claimed that this was better than most video games and in keeping with the spirit of the Simpsons license, because it "made sense." Loggers firing projectiles at a conservationist little girl never has, and never will, make sense outside of a video game.
The software demonstration used Xbox 360 hardware, and did a remarkable job of sticking to the look and shape of the various demented areas of Springfield. The Simpsons Game shows the highest fidelity to the appearance of the series yet seen in a video game. Despite this, there is still something about The Simpsons Game that is troubling at this phase of its development. While EA was quick to cite the involvement of the Simpsons writing staff, the original artwork on display at the event wasn't signed by Matt Groening and in some respects grossly off-model. Specific names long associated with the franchise, like James L. Brooks, Mike Reiss, or Al Jean, weren't mentioned. Names of specific "classic" Simpsons writers like John Schwartzwelder or Ken Keeler weren't mentioned. This stands in sharp contrast to the rampant name-dropping involved in the way Vivendi-Universal Games and Radical Entertainment promoted Simpsons Hit & Run.
There is much about The Simpsons Game with the potential to excite a fan, from the pitch-perfect visual presentation to the faithful inclusion of virtually every major denizen of Springfield. Still, something about the game's press debut leaves one with a feeling of unease, despite the stellar premise, sharp graphics, and good gameplay concepts involved. Perhaps it was simply because the build was so early, and perhaps the truly funny and daring parts of the game weren't completed yet. Certainly, for The Simpsons Game to live up to EA's stated premise for the title, it must be funny and daring in every respect, and cannot allow itself to rely on comfortable gameplay formulas.
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