Reviewed: October 13, 2003
Released: September 16, 2003
In the GTA III-inspired The Simpsons: Hit and Run from Vivendi Universal Games, players take control of Homer, Lisa, Bart, Marge and Apu in turn as they jump, race and blow things up all over Springfield in order to solve the bizarre mysteries plaguing its inhabitants. All of the characters from one of America's most beloved cartoons make appearances, from Willy the janitor to Krusty the clown.
The Simpsons: Hit and Run features large, open-ended one-player environments with a multitude of secrets and sub-goals to discover in each area, plus a bonus race mode, courses that can be unlocked during regular play. Naturally, the twisted charm of the Simpsons television show should be considered a main feature, as well.
First and foremost, there must be an inevitable comparison to the next-gen Grand Theft Auto titles, GTA III and Vice City, by virtue of the same game engine being used when discussing the basic gameplay of Hit and Run. Both games feature open-ended city environments with an emphasis on destination driving. Both afford players huge amounts of freedom to wander as they please, balanced by a main storyline driven mostly through NPC interaction. And yes, just as in Rockstar's innovative games, the characters in Hit and Run have rather fearsome destructive capabilities within their virtual hometown. Even the camera action is virtually identical between the two titles.
However, before you start imagining Marge drag-racing gang members or Apu beating a hooker to death, let it also be said that there is as much that is different between GTA and Hit and Run as there is that is similar.
Perhaps the most important difference is that, while wanton destruction is still often the order of the day, nobody in this game can die. That includes the people inside vehicles that get blown up and people who get dragged along underneath a school bus for half a mile. Vivendi and Fox was smart in realizing that The Simpsons: Hit and Run is much more about comedy than crime. To be a hit with fans (and to be funny to a general audience) the game has to feel like a cartoon - and in general, it's pretty difficult to die in a cartoon. In fact, one of the game's strongest points in this category is that it recalls the show at every turn, with loads of fan service and a surrealistic feel not often seen in modern games.
Don't think for a moment, though, that this means the core of Hit and Run isn't solid, as well. As in any open-ended type of game, there's really only one mode. Hit and Run does have some unlockable bonus races that can be played by up to four people simultaneously, though. These races are fun but nothing worth writing pages about. The main mode alone is plenty to make a good game in this case, though. The storyline is mission-based; with each character you control being required to complete a series of goals before you're allowed to play as the next character in the next level. The ideas for these missions are zany and often brilliant in a disturbing kind of way.
There are a decent number of different things you'll be required to do, but most follow the same basic structure: race from point A to point B within a specified time, then race somewhere else while collecting or destroying things, also under a time limit. Unfortunately, after a dozen or so of these tasks, they begin to feel very repetitive. This is partly because, in lieu of death's shadow hanging over your character, the developers have set most of the missions to harsh time limits in order to create difficulty and tension. Even with the large number of thematic variations, by level five it simply feels as though you've done it all before. Characterizations and a decently captivating storyline are ultimately what keep it from becoming dull, and they do a fine job of it.
Physics in Hit and Run behave properly at all times and are fair, if not forgiving. Don't want to roll the school bus you're driving? You'd better be really, really careful going around turns. If a car or character is somehow incapacitated, the game automatically resets it for you. Unfortunately, if you’re on a timed mission and you get stuck while attempting to take a shortcut, the game sets you back on the main road, wasting valuable seconds. This could have been rectified with minimal difficulty, but it's a very minor problem.
Lastly, without a life meter, why should one worry about the consequences of destroying everything with a monster truck? In The Simpsons: Hit and Run, players collect coins scattered across the environments, often in out of the way or hard to reach places. There are a finite number of coins pre-placed in a course; after they're used up, destroying other cars is your only way to get cash, which you will sometimes need to continue. Enter the Hit and Run meter, which fills each time you do something naughty.
Hitting a person fills the bar up more than hitting a bench but much, much less than destroying other cars. Once the meter is full (it depletes slowly), your character is in a basically hopeless conflict with the law, and when they catch him/her, you lose 50 coins. Considering how long collecting that many coins sometimes can take, the incentive is there to keep most players on the defensive. Really, though, the system is very forgiving, encouraging lawlessness fun without letting it go too far.
True to its TV show form, The Simpsons: Hit and Run looks weirdly like its cartoon forefather. Groening characters in 3D are unnaturally bizarre looking at times, but the overall effect is charming. From Apu to Chief Wiggum, the character models successfully retain their distinct 2D flair quite well. Regular characters should be instantly recognizable to any fan.
The city of Springfield itself is an admirable achievement considering all of the maps fit onto one gigadisc. They're quite expansive and all the buildings and fixtures (though not terribly detailed) manage to convey the look of the cartoon world. The vehicle models strike the right balance between "cartoon" and "whoa, cool!" and particle effects looked smooth. The game’s world looks very solid overall. That being said, there were a lot more "jaggies" than I'm used to seeing in most NGC titles, which is too bad.
The Simpsons: Hit and Run also has a very unfortunate problem with its camera angles. The view is free-floating and can be rotated, which is good, and when in a vehicle I experienced no trouble whatsoever with the camerawork. However, when on foot the fact that your virtual camera is solid means that it can and will quite often get stuck at awkward angles. Note to Radical: Solid camera plus real-time 3D graphics equals BAD IDEA! This could have been solved easily enough by letting the camera slide through objects, allowing players to free it from between things.
This problem is never dangerous since it's impossible to really "lose" this game, but it can get extremely frustrating at times. There are also a handful of missions to be completed on foot, during which the camera can prove to be an impediment.
The Simpsons: Hit and Run features the voice acting talents of the actual Simpsons cast! Need I say more? Voice acting in this game is not just top notch, it's phenomenal. Since these voices are exactly the same ones heard in the cartoon, the acting quality and level of fan service are both very high. There's an amazing range of comments as well, for main characters and NPC’s alike. All the dialogue in the story cutscenes is reminiscent of the show. The voices, for once in a game, were so clear I didn't even give a thought to the fact that there are no subtitles.
The soundtrack features some music from the show as well as original songs. All the tracks are instrumental. The music in The Simpsons: Hit and Run is pretty average overall - there aren't any bad songs, but only a couple will stick in your head. Sound effects fall into the "standard" range, too. They're effective and well placed, but not particularly noteworthy.
The whole sonic aspect of Hit and Run is really pulled together by an extensive and useful equalizer with four separate content controls. Poor sound controls are one of my long-running complaints with video games in general, but this game delivers the goods.
I've been trying to figure out a way to explain the type of game Hit and Run is without constantly having to refer to GTA III. To this end, I have coined a term: Hit and Run, like GTA, is an "immersive" game. Like any immersive game, its replayability is nigh-endless. Even after you've found every bonus mission, killed every wasp camera and collected every hidden card, you'll still reach for this one on a regular basis, just to let off some steam after a long hard day, Simpsons style.
The fast-paced storyline of the game and relatively low difficulty level mean that most gamers should have no difficulty beating the basic game within a day or two of solid play. Even with all the extras thrown in, there's not as much to do in Springfield as there was in Liberty City. For NGC owners like me, though, this is a great fix. Simpsons fans will adore it. People who have rarely or never seen the show before (also like me, until I did this review) should probably rent first but will most likely find themselves becoming fans of the show and going out to buy the game anyway. Even lucky multi-platform owners who already have GTA games in their library should take a look, since The Simpsons: Hit and Run's powerful funny factor makes it one of the most innovative and immersive games this year.
No fan of The Simpsons should be without The Simpsons: Hit and Run, and after playing it, most people will find themselves becoming fans even if they weren't before. The bizarre humor of the show pervades every aspect of this game.
What really sets it apart from other Simpsons games is that behind all of the quick wit and polished voice acting lies a very, very good game. Anyone trying to pass a boring weekend should get a kick out of renting Hit and Run, and more than a few who rent it will end up buying it. It's not perfect, but it's a damn good ride.