Over the past 14 years, The Simpsons has grown to become one of the most popular animated TV shows of all time. During the course of that time, video game developers have tried to capture the series' appeal in game form, with mixed results. In fact, since many recent games based on the show haven't turned out all that well, it almost seemed like the best Simpsons game was, and always would be Konami's classic 1991 arcade game. Fortunately, Vivendi Universal's upcoming multiplatform third-person action game, The Simpsons: Hit and Run, is poised to reverse the years of mediocre games in a big way. The promising game, developed by Radical Entertainment, marries the open-ended gameplay of Grand Theft Auto III with a liberal dose of the series' trademark humor. We tried out the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game and are tremendously pleased with how it's shaping up.
At the beginning of the game, we check in with our favorite family as the town of Springfield is invaded by a horde of mysterious mechanical bees. Where the bees came from and what they're doing are mysteries you'll solve over the course of the game. While we don't want to spoil the plot, suffice it to say that the story would make for an amusing "Treehouse of Horror" episode, and it features a pair of otherworldly villains that fans of the series should have no trouble recognizing as they go through the game.
As mentioned, the game's structure borrows liberally from Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III and presents you with a variety of missions to perform all over Springfield, which has been faithfully re-created. You'll be able to play as every member of the Simpson clan as well as a few other familiar faces from the show. Each of the playable characters will have a unique set of missions and will be able to get behind the wheel of a variety of vehicles in the game. Though every character will have his or her own unique vehicle, you'll be able to hop out of your car at any time and "borrow" any car you see in the game. While the feature is a nice touch, the cars you'll be borrowing from Springfield's residents will be mostly generic vehicles, though you will find a few recognizable ones like Barney's Plow King truck. You'll be able to swap back to your character's vehicle by simply visiting one of the many phone booths in the game and selecting from the available cars.
Like in Grand Theft Auto III, you'll undertake missions, but they'll definitely be things you'd expect from an episode of the show. Sometimes you'll be asked to make deliveries, such as taking Lisa's science project to her at school, and other times you'll have to take your character to a specific location, such as getting Homer to the power plant for work. In other missions, you'll need to fetch items for certain characters; for instance, you may have to recover all of Ned Flander's valuables, which Homer has left about town, or you'll have to take Principal Skinner around town to help him run errands for his mother. You'll also race against other characters to specific locations in town--for instance, you'll race nerds to a comic shop--and there are basic destruction missions, where you'll have to destroy objects or other vehicles, such as Waylon Smithers' car so that Homer can get to work first and hide his precious scorpion farm. In addition to engaging in the main missions, you'll find a host of extra things to do around town by interacting with an impressive array of familiar characters, who will offer you side quests that let you earn money or other vehicles. For example, talking to Fat Tony the mobster will let you enter in a race for cash, while talking to Cletus will present you with the task of harvesting tobacco or collecting cardboard tubes for his dream of indoor plumbing. If you manage to complete the tasks, Cletus will gratefully offer to chauffeur you about town in his truck.
Though The Simpsons: Hit and Run provides you with a very linear set of missions to accomplish you'll have quite a bit of freedom with each character. After you complete a mission, you'll be able to get a new mission from specific characters, undertake a side quest, or just explore town. Exploration is almost always rewarded; the game has collectible items and cool locales that you may stumble upon in the course of your travels. The most important collectible item in the game is the gold coins that you'll use to gain new cars or, more importantly, new outfits for your characters. The development team has obviously done its homework and has included a broad array of outfits for the playable characters, ranging from classics such as a muumuu for Homer and ninja gear for Bart, to more obscure threads such as Lisa's skater ensemble from the "summer makeover" episode guest-starring actress Christina Ricci.
You'll find coins in the game in a variety of ways, such as by recovering them after destroying property. But you can't go on one big, long destructive rampage in Springfield, because if you do, someone will call the cops. Much like in GTAIII, an onscreen meter will alert you to your status with the law. If the meter fills all the way to the top, you can expect Springfield's finest to come after you with a vengeance. Secondary collectible items include trading cards that denote key items from classic episodes, such as Homer's homemade bat, as well as wrenches that will repair damage taken by your vehicle. In addition, you'll find interactive elements strewn throughout Springfield that will reward you with gold coins and a gag. For example, interacting with the swing set in the Simpson's backyard will make it collapse into a pile or rubble, while checking out Ned Flander's bomb shelter will reward you with the voices of Rod and Todd happily waiting for Armageddon. Finally, you'll also see the aforementioned mechanical bees around town that are just begging to be flattened.
The game's control scheme manages to keep the action accessible to just about anyone. The game features two basic sets of controls for walking and driving. For walking around, you'll simply direct your character with the analog stick and use the face buttons to run, jump, kick, and interact with items. If you need to move the camera around, you'll be able to use the right analog stick. For driving, you'll use the face buttons for steering, accelerating, and braking.
The graphics in the game are simple but well-done 3D versions of the cartoon's minimalist art style. All the characters in the game are nicely modeled after their 2D counterparts and are instantly recognizable. The town of Springfield features a higher level of detail than the cast, and there are a staggering number of little touches crammed into the game. If you're a fan of the show you'll recognize just about everything you'll see in town, no matter how obscure it might be. Everything is in the game, from the "Don't Eat Beef / Eat Deer" billboards to the sign in the Springfield trailer park that proudly proclaims that it has survived for 14 days without tornados. Radical has obviously had to take a few liberties with the town's physical layout, since the television show gleefully added new areas to Springfield in an MC Escher-esque fashion as the need arose. However, you'll find that just about every familiar location from the show is in the game. From a performance standpoint, the game isn't pushing billions of polygons or asking too much of the consoles it's on, which results in a smooth frame rate. The Xbox version has a bit of an edge over the PlayStation 2 version, but, for the most part, both games run well.
The audio in The Simpsons: Hit and Run is truly one of its highlights; the game seems to make excellent use of music and the talented cast of voice actors from the actual show. You'll hear a host of familiar tunes over the course of the game as well as new variations that stay true to the spirit of the music heard in the series. However, the game's best feature may very well be its voice acting. Since the TV show's actors all reprise their roles in the game, The Simpsons: Hit and Run's massive cast of familiar characters sound like their animated counterparts, which adds a lot to the atmosphere.
The final component of The Simpsons: Hit and Run that bears mentioning is the game's writing. The humor in the game recalls some of the best seasons from the TV series with absurdist and topical humor. Everything from the newspaper headlines on the loading screens to the names of the missions are true to the series' humor. The one-liners that the various playable characters use are great, as are the throwaway lines that pop up. Homer has some of the choicest lines, such as his simple cry of "Ow my ass!" when he bumps into a car while driving or his gasps of "Must...never...run...again!" if you've been running with him for too long. In addition, you'll find wonderfully bizarre moments that come from left field, such as Kent Brockman's introduction of footage of a robot being eaten by an alligator to spice up his newscast during one of the cutscenes in the game.
Based on what we've seen so far, The Simpsons: Hit and Run may well turn out to be one of the best Simpsons games yet. The solid gameplay mechanics, excellent writing and voice acting, and solid graphical presentation make for quite a combination. The game's attention to detail and humor will please fans, while the time-tested gameplay should appeal to most anyone. Fans of the show that looking for a solid action game may want to keep an eye out for this game. The Simpsons: Hit and Run ships later this month for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube.