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Review: Ghostbusters: The Video Game (PS3)

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We all know the drill with movie games: they tend to stink. The general trend is that the game product is heavily rushed to coincide with, or come shortly after, the film’s launch; what generally results is a bodged job which happens to use a few of the film’s particular visual assets, typically not that well.

Atari and Terminal Reality were out to buck the movie-game losing streak with Ghostbusters, based on the fan-revered movies of that franchise. Given that the very first film hails from two and a half decades ago, the rush-deadline obviously isn’t an issue; the developer had plenty of time to craft this product to its source material. Yeah, right – you know all this. The real question is, how did they do?

The answer is, pleasantly, not that bad. Ghostbusters: The Video Game is a well-crafted homage to its celluloid antecedents, written and directed by several of the original contributors, including the 4 main actors themselves. Like most games, it’s far from flawless – and some of its errors and omissions are particularly bizarre – but there’s a decent product underneath.

GB:TVG is effectively a third film in the franchise, though replete with video-game memes. Perhaps the most overt is the player’s character, a silent-protagonist type known variously as Rookie, Rook, or Recruit. Given that his appearance and gender aren’t customizable, it’s a little surprising that Atari didn’t just give the new guy an actual name, and maybe a few lines. The facial animation is fairly good on this avatar (and on all game characters), so fleshing out his personality wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, being a mostly-quiet observer does allow the main characters to strut their voice-acting chops, which they most definitely do. For the record, while most of the dialog from those original 4 is fantastic and just as you remember, some of it is surprisingly below par. Rarely do Aykroyd, Ramis, or Hudson hit a pop fly, but Bill Murray seems to have phoned in most of his lines for about the first two levels of the game. He does get his rhythm back later, and the excellent voice work of the others tends to make up for the lack. Aykroyd and Hudson especially sound almost as though they’ve somehow stepped fresh out of a time-warp from 1984, giving the characters the exact style and personality you’ll recall. There’s not much that can compare with hearing Ray Stantz spout off an outlandish pseudo-sci-fi explanation for a new Ghostbusting toy or dangerous spook. This vocal and dialog writing quality really helps the player feel that they’re involved in the Ghostbusters universe.

So the game looks and sounds like a movie; how does it feel and play? GB:TVG is a third person… sort-of shooter, presented in a very linear fashion. Not that it’s not an enjoyable ride, but be prepared for rails – there’s no real exploration or open-world here. In a way that’s a good thing, as maintaining the movie feel would have been harder if the player could intentionally de-rail the story or swap frequently between subplots. Keeping things focused does definitely add to the feel Atari and Terminal Reality were going for. Graphically, the game doesn’t start out terribly impressive; it’s competent, surely, but nothing to write home about. Part of this is how prosaic the early environments and enemies are – more on this momentarily.

One nice thing you’ll notice immediately is that there’s no HUD – or more correctly, the backside of the player’s Proton Pack IS the HUD, and for the most part it’s beautifully done. This kind of no-gauge display was popularized by Dead Space, and it’s really a great idea, mostly well-used here. The only minor handicap is that the health indicator is somewhat small and hard to see; however, when in danger you’ll see the by-now-standard misty red haze around the screen borders, which is pretty much all the danger indicator you need. Like most modern post-Halo shooters, GB characters heal up over time rather than needing health packs. The other main part of the pack is the weapon heat indicator. When using one of your pack’s four (that’s right, four) weapon systems, you’ll accumulate heat which will cause the pack to shut down briefly if it gets too intense (there’s a great animation for this involving what look like cooling rods poking out of the pack and venting steam for several seconds). If instead you tap the manual heat-venting command while fighting, you’ll be able to fire again much more quickly. It’s a rather ingenious way to work a reload-like mechanic into the game, without lumbering the player with an actual ammo count or gauge. There’s an audible warning if the pack is getting too hot as well, so you don’t have to look down at it when it’s inconvenient.

Since I mentioned the 4 weapon types; you’ll start with just the basic Proton Stream, a wavery red fire-hose type attack which blasts down a ghost’s resistance. Shortly along, Egon will inform you that he’s modified your pack to allow the firing of Boson Darts – an energy rocket launcher, more or less, only (in a nice touch) you can use the proton stream to guide its flight. Fairly quickly you’ll be introduced to the next weapon modules, each of which has a primary and secondary firing mode. First off, there’s the Dark Matter projector, essentially a shotgun in primary mode and a freeze ray in secondary. Then you’ll get the Slime Blower, heavily upgraded from its prior incarnation; it shoots a stream of positively-charged slime in primary mode (great for blasting a possessing spirit out of an innocent victim… or good ol’ Ray) and fires elastic slime tethers in secondary. This latter mode is one of the neatest tricks Terminal Reality thought up and allows for some fun gameplay sequences. Last, there’s the Meson Collider, which is basically a machine-gun type attack that homes in on enemies once you designate them with its primary fire. Sadly, other than the Slime Blower, there’s no real reason to use the alternate weapons, as the trusty Proton Stream/Boson Dart combo is wonderfully effective against all the enemies you’ll fight. You’ll be using it the most for other reasons as well; once a ghost is weak enough, the Proton Stream goes into Capture mode, allowing you to “wrangle” the ghost as though the beam were a lasso (think of Slimer’s capture in the original film). Initially you’ll just be struggling to keep the ghost from fleeing in whatever direction it’s trying to travel, but successfully doing so fills up your Slam gauge, letting you stuff the offending ectoplasmic entity into a handy floor, ceiling or wall. Once the ghost is dazed enough, you can wrestle it into proximity with the classic ghost-trap deployed in the very first film, which will eventually suck the beastie down into safe captivity if you can keep it over the trap aperture for long enough. All 4 weapons and the traps themselves can be upgraded, though not all the upgrades are necessary. One of the most fun upgrades (and a useful skill to develop for multiplayer) is slam-dunking ghosts into a trap; though hardly indispensable, it’s guaranteed to make you grin like a maniac the first few times you do it. Other than that, your upgrades are mostly improved damage and reduced heat, both of which are useful but not needed. The main reason to use the alternate weapons winds up being that they’re fun and neat to see, which, fortunately, is all the excuse you should need. One nice touch for the PS3 version is that ghost-wrangling can be done with the Sixaxis pad’s motion sensitivity, faintly recalling the boss fight sequences of Folklore. If there’s one thing that’s a little off-stride about the weapons and their introduction, it’s that all these new abilities (and upgrades, once you have the funds) are simply available in the field. Effectively they’ve been there all along, and Egon just introduces you to them when the script demands it. There are times when you’ll look back on a prior sequence and wonder why you couldn’t use the Slime Blower there, for example. Tying the new weapon abilities and upgrades to mission completion or more direct plot events might have worked better. It’s nothing major, just a minor nitpick.

You’ll be using these weapons of ectoplasmic destruction in a nicely wide variety of locales, though you do have to dig a bit to get to the good stuff. The game’s first level is rather unimpressive, dropping the Ghostbusters back into good old Hotel Sedgewick in what feels somewhat like a replay of Slimer’s debut in the first film. One thing leads to another, and before you know it you’re battling Mr. Stay Puft while hanging from the side of a skyscraper. (Oh, don’t look at me in that tone of voice – you knew he would be in there, this is hardly a spoiler.) It should be solid Ghostbusting fun, and it sort of is, but it’s also a little passe. The PS3 version’s graphical engine isn’t bad, but it’s also not cutting edge when compared to other recent titles, so there’s not enough in the prosaic level design to really get you excited. Once you get further along, things open up nicely, with the Ghostbusters traveling to alternate dimensions and pocket micro-realities. These levels are well designed and in a couple of cases quite awe-inspiring, despite the visual limitations of the engine. You’ll feel you’re getting your ticket price when you see and fight the game’s second and third bosses – they could have come right out of a movie (more modern than the originals, I should point out) and definitely fit right in with the theme of the game.

Boss fights are definitely the high of the game, but you’ll be fighting plenty of incidental spirits in the spacious levels as well. Some of these are as silly and non-threatening as ghostly fish (which you encounter in a cuisine kitchen, naturally), but some of the enemies are decent fights in and of themselves. Giant robot-things made out of books, lamps and knicknacks being one example – you have to wear them down by shooting them, then wrangle the “focal point” out of the hominid’s head, causing the entire thing to shatter quite spectacularly. Some ghosts can simply be blasted (back) into oblivion, while others require trapping using the previously described mechanic. All in all there’s a reasonable variety of enemies, and most of them are pretty neat to look at. Stantz and Spengler are rarely short a one-liner to cap off the occasion, and most of them are worth at least a chuckle.

There’s also a data-gathering mechanic in the form of your PsychoKinetic Energy meter. The PKE is mandatory at frequent points in the solo-player adventure to track find hidden ghosts, but can also be used to scan each supernatural entity you encounter, telling you more about their specific weapon weakness and earning you a little spare cash for weapon upgrades. There are even hidden “cursed” items, each with a little side-story you can read in another menu on the PKE meter (think of it as your pause menu screen, upgrade roster, and ghost bestiary). Switching to PKE scanning mode automatically takes the game from third to first person and adds a nice film-grain effect, lending believability to the kooky-tech aspect. The developers didn’t miss the opportunity to drop in a few gasp-inducing surprises for the player while in this mode. Honestly I felt the PKE scanning was slightly overused, though it definitely has its place and is well done. When you get close to a hidden ghost or cursed object, the meter’s arms extend and it chatters like R2D2 on speed. The game will let you know when you need to equip it to advance a plot event, and you can even see the meter’s gauge blinking on the player character’s belt. Little consistency in details like this goes a long way to earn the game credibility.

The single player mode of GB:TVG should take you a fair few hours and winds up pretty swimmingly overall. Sadly there’s not a huge inducement for multiple playthroughs, unless you just love the story material (which is certainly possible). One very odd omission is the lack of any kind of co-op mode; when the story is so focused on the irrepressible personalities and camaraderie of the Ghostbusters team, it feels odd that a friend can’t embody one of them, locally or online. There is a decent multiplayer mode with several nice features and mission types, some of which feel almost as fleshed out as the solo campaign, but no direct tie-in to the actual main storyline. The multiplayer shouldn’t be overlooked, however – it’s a fine addition to the game’s pedigree and should add quite a bit of longevity. Players can choose from any of the now five-strong team of Ghostbusters, and even choose a weapon specialty. This gives you upgrades over the standard model (or allows you to enhance the weapon over time in sequential multiplayer missions). Pleasingly, the multiplayer modes don’t devolve Ghostbusters into a run-of-the-mill 3PS, with some lame explanation of why you have to use anti-ghost weapons on other humans; all the missions are based around fighting and in some cases capturing mischievous ghosts and spirits, with players teaming up against the computer. Not that there isn’t competition to do the best job, especially in Slime Dunking (remember that solo-player skill? this is where you get to use it), but the teams are always what they ought to be. Ghosts are limited enough that it makes sense not to have players controlling them. Multiplayer offers Survival mode (think GoW2 Horde mode, Ghostbusters style); Containment, basically a timed seek-and-destroy battle; Destruction, which could be compared to old-style Gauntlet (destroy the monster generators); Protection, not too dissimilar to typical “defend the bomb” missions in other shooters; Thief, in which ghosts are trying to steal magical artifacts and attack the players; and Slime Dunk, described above. There’s a ranking system based on cash earned, which gives you different-colored uniforms as you advance in ranks. There are also powerups and ammo reloads (ammo is limited in multiplayer, changing the nature of the game somewhat). Better still, there are unique “most wanted” ghosts with different, interesting (sometimes thoroughly annoying) behaviors which will appear only in multiplayer, and may earn you trophies when you bag them. Overall, the multiplayer is surprisingly well-developed and quite enjoyable. Lag is generally not terrible, and less affecting than it is in more directly competitive games.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game does have a few flaws, mostly forgivable. Worst is, quite simply, the graphics engine. This just doesn’t look or feel like a modern PS3 game – more like a generation or so back in development. Textures are low-resolution (glaringly in some places), there’s visible aliasing, and even some screen tearing and frame drop when things get too busy (thankfully, not that often). I did check out the 360 game to compare the two, and the ugly truth is that the PS3 version just loses out. Second, and common to both systems, is the character animation. While some gestures and movements look nicely fluid, the typical movement and (especially) standing postures of the characters is extremely stiff and unconvincing. It’s not game-breaking, but it does take you out of the movie-like experience somewhat, and could have been addressed. At least have a character who’s standing still turn to look at the player character when they speak! Fortunately, facial animations do compensate somewhat, as they are generally quite good. Most of the game’s animation budget, perhaps understandably, seems to have gone into giving the enemy ghosts some wow-factor, and that at least works out well. Last is the odd lack of storyline campaign multiplayer. What MP modes are available are quite good, but this just should have been there.

Overall, GB:TVG doesn’t quite live up to its promise as the scion of two classic and extremely popular films, but it is a good game. It could have been better, even great, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and nearly an absolute must for series fans. The first couple of levels are passe, but once the game moves away from familiar locales and into its own specific art direction and level design, it gets much more engaging and will mostly keep you hooked. The action is repetitive, but not to the point of losing its general charm. Sadly the 360 version really is better in terms of visual value, but if you’ve only got the PS3, don’t let that stop you from checking this neat title out. GB:TVG will probably make an excellent rental for many players, but for fans of the films who pined for a third, this is almost certainly a buy. While it honestly could have been better from a purely technical perspective, my own love of the antecedent films bids me tell you to give the game its due.

Final Score B

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