"In the later stages, in the interests of raising the difficulty bar, the developers force you to drive from point A to point B in almost perfect form, then probably to point C in even less time, and perhaps even to point D. Sound tedious? It can be. And if you mess up, it's back to point A for a rehash."
Something is rotten in the city of Springfield. It began when a giant insect made a beeline for Homer's nose, and things just got worse from there. Robotic wasps are hovering throughout the city, buzzing. Meanwhile, Krusty the Clown is proud to sponsor a new brand of soda pop that has the people of Springfield excited: Buzz Cola. Are the two events related? Is there a conspiracy? Or is Homer a raving lunatic?
These are the questions, and you'll find the answers only by playing through The Simpsons: Hit & Run, the latest game starring America's favorite four-fingered family. Like others before it, Hit & Run 'borrows' elements from another popular title (Grand Theft Auto, in case you hadn't heard) and applies its own humorous spin. The better news is that even if you didn't like past attempts of a similar nature, you'll find yourself hard-pressed to not enjoy at least a good portion of this one. Filled with flaws but so likeable that few of them matter, The Simpsons: Hit & Run is the kind of game Matt Groening's famed characters have been begging to star in from day one.
The first question on your mind is probably the obvious one: what about the violence? After all, Grand Theft Auto 3 and its successor both made headlines for letting the player kill hookers, shoot cops, and snipe pedestrians. Is that allowed here, in a game that garnered a shiny 'T' rating? Uh, no. The violence here is particularly subdued. You can still run people over in the streets, but they just roll about, dust themselves off, and stand up to give you a verbal bashing. There's not a rocket launcher in sight, either. Instead of driving tanks you'll be driving tractors, sedans, a monster truck, and assorted vehicles of (not so much) destruction. And though you can randomly beat people up on the streets, they always get back up.
As for law enforcement officials, they play a stronger role this time around. Wreak enough havoc, whether it be running over trees and mailboxes or boxing with a pedestrian, and the on-screen meter will fill to the bursting point. At this stage, you'll be made aware that you've committed a 'Hit & Run.' The Springfield police will then track you down and make your life miserable. You can't elude them for all that long, and in the end it's a 50-coin fine when you're caught. Then you go back to whatever you were doing.
Speaking of coins, you can find them throughout the game. You get them for running over the afore-mentioned trees, busting up those giant flying wasps, demolishing anything with Buzz Cola referenced, or by winning races and the like. These coins are the currency that helps you toward unlockables, such as new outfits for each of the five characters you can control, or new vehicles. Some of these are mandatory if you want to reach the game's end, while others are there purely for fun. You can also collect special cards. There are seven in each stage. Collect them all to make bonus tracks available for multi-player racing. Or just collect a few and look at them when you're bored. They come from key episodes of The Simpsons.
This is quite appropriate, especially considering the episodic nature of the game as a whole. Rather than giving you a huge canvas and setting you loose like a merry little paintbrush, the developers set up the system so that there is a level structure. You begin as Homer, and things are quite simple. As the newspaper you see during the load screen (load times in this game are joyously short, by the way) mentions with some irony, 90% of games start out with an easy tutorial stage. And so it is here. An obviously distracted Bart guides you through the simple play mechanics. Tire of his advice (though it's so funny you're unlikely to on a first play through) and you can simply press the 'x' button to shut him up. With or without assistance from Bart, you will soon learn that the game revolves around only a few different activities. One is just running around causing havoc. This is quite fun, and a good way to build up coins. Any stage has a certain number of wasps to destroy, so you'll want to tend to that as one of the easiest ways to fatten your coin wallet.
There are also missions, and these make up the bulk of the game. There are seven objectives per level, with an eighth bonus mission that is optional. To progress from one level to the next, you must complete all the required tasks. Then it's onto the next stage, where you will control a different character in a different part of town, probably at a different time during the day. While some areas overlap, they almost never look the same from a different perspective. The overall effect is that the city of Springfield feels much larger than it actually is. Rest assured that it's still pretty big, no matter how you look at it. There are numerous landmarks you should recognize, with all the required elements (school, Kwik-E-Mart, library, hospital, etc.) in full evidence.
The whole time you're making your way through each area, the game's sound department is assailing you with one-liners, compositions of the theme from The Simpsons, and even music that is specific to and appropriate for the character you are controlling (note the difference in the music you hear while controlling Apu, which is the most unique of all). The amount of audio you'll hear is quite amazing, voiced with complete authenticity by the actual voice actors from the show. Masterful, to say the least.
Visuals also are a delight. Everything is cel-shaded and fully 3D. The level of detail has never been higher, and there are plenty of little goodies to see if you're keeping an eye open. Look out the window of the observatory and watch the janitor climb the cliff out of the water, for example. Or notice the Duff blimp hanging against the distant skyline. There are examples like this at nearly every turn. The whole time, everything is blissfully consistent. If at first you're put off by the odd look of the characters (we're used to seeing them in two dimensions on Fox television, not in three on our favorite video game console), don't be alarmed; you'll grow used to them within the hour.
At this point, you must be wondering about those flaws I mentioned. Well, the single largest flaw is simple enough: there just isn't enough variety. Every single mission seems to require that you drive somewhere. The emphasis on driving goes to the point of being absurd. In the introductory levels, you drive from point A to point B within a set time limit. In the later stages, in the interests of raising the difficulty bar, the developers force you to drive from point A to point B in almost perfect form, then probably to point C in even less time, and perhaps even to point D. Sound tedious? It can be. And if you mess up, it's back to point A for a rehash. Time after time, you'll find some new excuse to go racing around town like a maniac.
The problem here is that some of the vehicles are simply frustrating. You might be forced to take control of Barney's dump truck, for example, and the behemoth steers exactly as you'd imagine. Not bad, except you're expected to race through the streets in a set amount of time. That is bad. And a few stages later, as you're doing pretty much the same thing, you start to wonder why you're bothering. Despite your best intentions, you might find yourself hollering at the television when you run into a short wall you couldn't see and your vehicle comes to a dead halt, then spends five or six seconds spinning its wheels before moving along the road at a more reasonable rate.
Any 'variety' the game implements is just another twist on what you've already seen. In one mission you're driving in a race. In the next, you're racing to demolish your opponent's vehicle before time runs out. Or you're trying to elude someone that's chasing you. Yawn. I just wish the developers had given us more options.
But they didn't, and that's what it comes down to. If you can take the idea of spending about 20 hours driving around and only occasionally hoofing it for some alternate mayhem, The Simpsons: Hit & Run is perfect. It's infused with a great sense of humor, and there are plenty of things to do. Driving just for the heck of it can also be a joy. But if you were looking for a little more variety, similar to something Grand Theft Auto: Vice City offered, then you might want to rent first. Either way, this game comes as an easy recommendation for a weekend of fun, and fans of The Simpsons in general are unlikely to be disappointed. They've rallied to other games starring Bart and friends in the past. So a rental is safe. It's just the purchase that's questionable.
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 29, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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