Ghosthunter E3 2004 Preshow Hands-On Impressions

We check out Namco's spooky, but welcome, surprise release of Sony of Europe's impressive action game.

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Ghosthunter is a third-person action game developed by Sony Computer Entertainment's Cambridge-based development studio. The game was released earlier this year by SCEE in the European market to critical acclaim and solid sales. However, despite the positive reception, it appeared that the game would never make it to the US. Fortunately, as we discovered at Namco's recent press event, there's some good news on the horizon for gamers aching to capture ghosts. Namco revealed that it will be publishing the game in the US this August. We tried out a work-in-progress version of the game that was on hand at the event to get a feel for the unique action title.

For those unfamiliar with Ghosthunter, the game puts you in the role of rookie Detroit police officer Lazarus Jones, whose job description is amended pretty heavily during the course of a seemingly standard investigation. While exploring a derelict high school with his partner Anna Steele, Jones and Steele inadvertently disturb the paranormal research center of Professor Peter Richmond. As luck would have it, the pair's disturbance is a bit more severe than rustling through some files and winds up freeing a gaggle of poltergeists. Unfortunately these aren't the fun, easily-sucked-up-into-a-vacuum Luigi's Mansion/Ghostbusters variety of poltergeists. No, the freed ghosts are a fairly surly lot whose numbers include one especially dangerous spirit who kidnaps Anna. The one dubiously reassuring development during the ghost exodus is that one of the spirits winds up fusing itself with Lazarus during its escape, which imbues the overwhelmed officer with several special powers. Among Lazarus' new arsenal of abilities is the power to see into the realm of the dead and take on the powers of certain types of ghosts he encounters. While the ability to see dead people is certainly handy, as is the power to use some of the ghost's abilities in your mission, it can be a little disorienting. As a result, the game eases you into its cool, new world and its logic slowly. In addition to the game's pace, you'll have the good doctor's supercomputer on hand to offer help, and more than a little derision, as you progress. Mr. Sour Circuits is apparently irked at Lazarus because his release of the ghosts may bring about the end of the world.

We had the chance to see a good selection of Ghosthunter's gameplay at the press event, which revealed the game to be an engaging third-person action adventure game that blends action, stealth, strategy, and puzzle-solving into one package. You'll control Lazarus with an accessible third-person control scheme that is easy to pick up. Lazarus' paranormal abilities are definitely handy for spotting and tracking spirits around you, but they aren't very useful when confronting the undead. As luck would have it, Laz finds a nice selection of weapons in the research center that are designed to capture spirits. The basic flow of capturing a spirit finds you spotting it and attacking it. Your weapons and attacks are aimed to weaken your prey enough to allow you to catch it in a trap and send the unpleasant spirit back to the research center. The trap will be central to your ghost-hunting tools, but your array of firearms and assorted gadgets will be vital as well. The gameplay manages to keep the experience balanced, despite your arsenal, by making the various spirits you try to capture a crafty lot. Some will be impervious to certain types of weapons, others will be vulnerable to attack only at certain times, and others may require you to solve puzzles in order to reach them.

The graphics in the game offer an impressive and polished look that is composed of richly detailed character models, large environments, bizarre design, and a good assortment of special effects. Cambridge's last PlayStation 2 effort, Primal, proved that the UK-based developer knew its business on the PlayStation 2, and Ghosthunter doesn't appear to contradict that in any way. Lazarus is modeled with a solid amount of detail that's higher than the detail for the game's humanoid non-player characters, who are still quite nice to look at. The environments are an eclectic mix of unique styles, thanks to your movement between the real world and the spirit realm. The art in the game runs an impressive gamut from typically spooky locales, such as the derelict high school, to the more twisted environs of the spirit realm that border on surreal. Another highlight to the game's look is the ghost design, which covers a broad range from the expected "ghostly sheet" look that is de rigueur for at least some of the undead, to some unsettling creations that prove the boys at Cambridge "ain't quite right." Our demo showed off a pretty fresh spin on a teddy bear that was both disturbing and amusing.

One special flourish in the game that should be of note to a pretty small percentage of the gaming population (and kudos to you if you follow the next sentence) is an homage to an old-school Gerry Anderson science fiction series from the UK circa 1976. Once Lazarus is able to use the abilities from certain ghosts, the ensuing animation and sound effects for the transformation are a tip of the hat to Space: 1999's metamorph character Maya. While the homage is pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, we still offer big ups to Cambridge for keeping it real.

While Ghosthunter is essentially done--the bulk of the work to bring the game over is simply converting it from PAL to NTSC--Namco representatives at the event mentioned that they are working with Cambridge to tweak the game a bit in response to user feedback from the European release. Ghosthunter is currently slated to ship this August for the PlayStation 2. Look for more on the game from the E3 show floor next week.

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