Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: Ghostbusters the Game

Ghostbusters came out in Summer 2009 with big expectations, mostly because of the creative team behind it and the often-touted physics engine powering the action. The game allowed you to leave your mark all over the virtual New York with the proton pack in all its glory. That, and somehow, the original actors from the movies were recruited to do the voices of their characters - Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson...even Annie Potts as Janine and William Atherton as Walter Peck are involved. With Aykroyd and Ramis penning the story, the experience is ultimately something like Ghostbusters 3 in game form, and despite how often games based on movie franchises can suck, this one doesn't. In fact, it captures the spirit of the movies remarkably well, and its main shortcomings are in the gameplay, not in the translation from one medium to another.

The plot is pretty simple - you are a new recruit, tasked with "testing" new busting equipment and your character is never named, because as Peter Venkman (Murray) says, they don't want to get too attached. In that way, it's sort of like being an ensign on Star Trek. Anyway, the Natural History Museum is opening a new Gozer exhibit - I know, right? Sweet! - something goes a little wrong, and some demonic energy gets released into the city. It's up to the boys to track down the source and save New York, the world, etc.

As is the custom with a lot of games these days, there is a tutorial masquerading as the first mission to get the player accustomed to the controls and interface. Then the story starts, and it's pretty much non-stop right to the end. Throughout the game (8-10 hours on Casual), you are generally never alone - either the whole group is working together, or the player splits off with each of the other 4 in turn. Only toward the end does the player get any alone time, and it's during these sequences that, because of the very good sound work, things get a little spooky. There's no Venkman one liners or Spangler scientific rambling to put the player at ease. Plus, by that time, the demonic energy is getting pretty riled up, and it lets you know that.

The gameplay consists of a few principal things: zapping and trapping ghosts, hunting down clues, and simple puzzles that put your pack skills to the test. It's linear to a fault - while the level design is pretty, there is really only ever one direction to go. This hand-holding sometimes goes too far; whatever Ghostbuster you are with will pretty much tell you what to do/where to look/how to defeat X enemy without even giving you a few minutes to figure it out yourself. I think there was just one section in which I really wasn't sure what to do, and when the other guys aren't literally telling you how to proceed, if you start to do something right, they will encourage it. In short, it's hard to get stuck for too long.

As the game proceeds, the player starts to do less normal proton stream trapping and uses the other abilities of the pack more. At pre-determined points of the game, new "experimental" parts of the pack are unlocked, though some of the usefulness of each is quite varied. One of the clever touches in the game is that as the player switches between abilities, the proton pack changes its look on the screen to reflect that. In fact, the entire HUD is basically contained within the pack, leaving the vast majority of the screen to the game. This mostly works, though the health indicator is small and quite difficult to pay attention to, resulting in a lot of needless knockdowns. Because of the limited movement of the player - including the almost totally unnecessary ability to hop - many times attacks come from the rear with no means of avoiding them. In general, any enemy that can fly and/or moves with relative speed will hit you at some point.

At least on Casual mode, it takes all the active Busters to go down to fail a mission. If one of them, or you, hits the ground after taking too many hits, one of the others has to revive them, which takes mere seconds. Thus, the inability to not get hit constantly is not game-changing. I think I failed 2 missions total, usually because the number and/or strength of enemies ramps up quickly in some areas and it's hard to manage.

Boss fights look cool, but dissolve quickly into doing the exact same thing - shooting the glowing thing somewhere on the bad guy's body. The patterns are simple and will be easily decipherable to anyone who's played action/platformer games in the past. There are other enemies to contend with during these fights, but the AI of the other Busters is sufficient that you don't have to do everything.

Regarding the technical aspects, the sound effects are excellent throughout the game, and the visuals are high quality. The damage you inflict is permanent, and pretty much everything can be moved or destroyed. There is some very familiar music, which unfortunately gets repetitive, especially as certain areas use the same music to set the mood. There have been numerous reports of bugs and crashes, but I was fortunately spared any of these problems during my playthrough. The writing, as expected, is awesome, with each character looking, acting, and sounding like their 1991 counterparts (the year in which the game is set). The story, as best as it can being a sci-fi, makes sense and maintains cohesion throughout. Playing through the game also grants the player opportunities to add entries to Tobin's Spirit Guide (by scanning ghosts with the PKE meter) - which helps identify their weakness - and collect various cursed artifacts. As far as I could tell, the PC version of the game doesn't give you a great deal of incentive to find and scan everything available, because unlike the 360 and PS3 versions, there are no achievements and so it's really only fun for completionists. However, it's not problematic going back through the sections to find missing artifacts, because one is able to replay any section in every mission as they choose.

One of the biggest gripes I have with the game - and this is relatively minor - is that too many of the stats are irrelevant. As you trap ghosts and finish missions, you gain money which allows the purchase of upgrades (none of which appear to be critical to completing the game), but you also have a running damage total. This number has absolutely no bearing on anything except to see how much damage you've done over time. Again, without the console achievements to shoot for, it's not really useful information.

On sale, this game is absolutely worth playing, and if you are a fan of the Ghostbusters and its lore, you NEED to play it once. There is no multiplayer on PC, and as I mentioned, going back through to finish everything is not terribly important, so one time through the game may be sufficient. That one time, though, was a blast.

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