The highly nostalgic upcoming Ghostbusters: The Video Game is probably going to be a console purchase for most gamers. Reportedly, Sierra's lead platform for this version of the game is the PS3, with Xbox 360 and PC versions essentially being ports. The hands-off demo session was even conducted with the Sierra representative using an X360 controller. Still, Sierra showed off the PC version of the title as a show of support for Microsoft's Games for Windows initiative at their recent event in San Francisco. Ghostbusters was one of the most coveted demos, and even a frustratingly hands-off experience showed the signs of an amazing game in the making. The build displayed at the show appeared to be in late beta stage of development, with the correct vocal tracks by the original "Ghostbusters" film actors and all physics in place. The textures weren't finalized and voice acting had yet to be fully approved, but even in this state, the title was enormously impressive.
The story of Ghostbusters: The Video Game is fairly well-known, but worth going over. Written by franchise creator Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the plot is a sort of mash-up of great moments from the previous films and an original plotline. Aykroyd has described it as essentially a third movie, although it doesn't use the entirety of the well-publicized "Ghostbusters in Hell" plot that was in development for quite some time as "Ghostbusters III." Specifically, the plot of the game calls for the team to be training a new Ghostbuster, who is the player character. As of this demo, the neophyte Ghostbuster was a fairly bland, almost generic-looking white guy. When the Sierra reps on hand were asked if players would be allowed customize their Ghostbuster's appearance or gender, they offered only a "no comment" after consulting with a third rep for a few minutes. Take that however you like, readers.
The demo level showed veteran Ghostbusters Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz and Winston Zeddemore showing the new guy the ropes in the New York Public Library, allowing for scenes that directly reference the first movie's famous opening sequence. The events take place two years after "Ghostbusters II," so the in-game appearance of all the canonical characters is modeled on how the actors appeared nearly 20 years ago and startlingly accurate. In the demo level, you get to track down the "ghost librarian" and interact with what appears to be a fairly accurate re-creation of the building's interior, complete with tons of books to toss around as physics objects. You can destroy many objects with the proton pack's beam, resulting in property damage tallies that count up the cost of everything you've broken. This acts not as a penalizing mechanic, as you might expect, but instead as a high score mechanic. The more stuff you break, the more you annoy your nemesis EPA agent Walter Peck, and he doesn't seem able to do anything about how much you're annoying him.
While Bill Murray as Peter Venkman is confirmed for the game, he did not appear in the demo session. It is possible that this could mean his character wasn't going to be as active in the field as the others, or that he could simply sit out the library stage. Your AI squad of ghostbusting allies is helpful, generally giving advice and tossing around the traps you need to capture a ghost after snagging it in your proton pack's beam. Essentially, your character handles the more action-oriented aspects of gameplay while the other Ghostbusters either assist or comment as necessary. It wasn't clear from the demo if there was any particular penalty for crossing streams with one of your allies, or if it was simply something the in-game animations wouldn't allow to happen. The demo hinted at the latter, but it's very difficult to tell at this phase of development.
Before you can fight a ghost, you have to track it with the PKE meter, and this isn't a task the NPCs seem willing to do for you regularly. Using your own PKE meter to track ghosts also seems to make it easier to find "minor" ghosts who aren't part of the mission story but do need busting, and who might be missed otherwise. The PKE meter as it appears in-game is remarkably accurate to the appearance of the original prop used in the film, apparently the result of Terminal Reality's developers getting access to virtually all of the original movie concept art and props. In addition to the cool PKE meter, you also get an absolutely mind-blowingly accurate proton pack. Terminal Reality has cleverly used the proton pack to serve the function that would usually be filled by a screen-obscuring HUD display, which gives the action a more cinematic look. The lights and gauges on your pack change according to how much energy you have. Using too much at once causes the pack to overheat and become unusable for a brief period of time. The proton pack also appears to have three different modes, each of which transforms it into a slightly different configuration. Exactly what each mode does isn't clear from the demo, as only the default movie-like beam was fired.
The ghosts you battle in Ghostbusters have all of their abilities from the movies and then some. Slimer-like ghosts can emerge from walls and seem to like abruptly ambushing you. More powerful ghosts, like the librarian, can disappear through walls and require some pursuit before you're given a chance of battling her. Along the way, she and other invisible spirits can animate objects from the library and use them to try and damage your character. Some bosses are actually such animated creatures instead of proper ghosts. In the demo, you have to fight a golem made out of pages from books, and this can only be done by setting all of the pages on fire with shots from your proton pack. You don't really get hurt by ghosts in Ghostbusters, but can be knocked unconscious if you let a ghost attack you too frequently. Once knocked out, a teammate can run over to help you, which wakes you up and gets you quickly back on your feet. You can also bail out your NPC teammates if they get knocked out. If every member of the team on a mission is knocked out, then it's game over. Much like Peter, Ray and Egon in the original film's first scene, you'll presumably fail your mission and have to start over if you want another crack at the ghost.
This preview has already touched on the topic, but the visual spectacle of Ghostbusters: The Video Game can't be praised highly enough. Every little detail of the game's atmosphere is spot-on in the demo level, perfectly evoking the dirty and tired New York of the films. The characters all look and move correctly, to a certain degree, only showing typical video game character stiffness when standing still. Most of the time, your allies are very animated, particularly Aykroyd's Ray Stantz (who is apparently a favorite of the developers). They're constantly emoting with body language and running about, and dialogue from the actors peppers moments that aren't supposed to be tense or frightening. Conveying comedy in a video game is very hard, but having so much witty banter from your NPCs does an amazingly good job of conveying the fast-talking tone of the "Ghostbusters" film. When the ghosts show up and it's time for a fight, then the jokes them out, and your NPCs provide good action dialogue. During tense chase and discovery sequences, the NPCs fall wisely silent. It's frankly wonderful that your player character is no more than a silent cipher, doing nothing to take you out of the game's world or disrupt the feeling that you're exploring the world as a novice Ghostbuster. That is the exact experience fans have wanted from a Ghostbusters game for years, and that no prior effort (regardless of other virtues) has been able to deliver.
Our demo ended when the Sierra rep got his team wiped out by blundering into an ambush. This was actually comforting, for all that the rep apologized, because it proved a very important thing about Ghostbusters' gameplay: Losing is going to be possible. It would be very easy to make a game like this overly easy to make sure everyone sees all of the levels and hears all of the dialogue, but a too-easy experience would completely devalue the game's ability to convey the experience of being a Ghostbuster. Licensed games have a terrible reputation among gamers, and this writer is usually happy to pick on them, but the demo shown of Ghostbusters: The Video Game avoided every single license game pitfall. Instead, this really feels like a labor of love on the part of both the developer and the talented Ghostbusters creators who've worked directly on the game. Who knows, maybe a game like this could turn out to be something more exciting and personal than any potential new Ghostbusters film.
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