Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ghostbusters: The Video Game Review

Ghostbusters: The Video Game, developed by Terminal Reality and published by Atari.
The Good: Nice visuals and sound, purchasable upgrades, numerous ghost types
The Not So Good: Short, no multiplayer but online DRM, linear level design with significant disorienting backtracking, repetitive and arbitrarily drawn-out combat, checkpoint-only saved games, constant cut-scenes interrupt game flow, does not install correctly in a custom location, does not utilize multi-core processors
What say you? PC users get slimed in this stripped-down homage to an 80's classic: 4/8

One of the largest influences on my childhood was the movie Ghostbusters, the foundation for many outside adventures involving invisible ghosts, purchased and manually constructed scientific equipment (I had an officially licensed Ghost Trap but made a Proton Pack out of a cardboard box), and tons of imagination. In my old(er) age, I need the computer to do my thinking for me, so it's a good thing that Ghostbusters: The Video Game is here. Featuring a script penned by the authors of the original movies and voice acting by most of the original actors, the expectations are high for fulfilling my childhood fantasies. If you've been following the development and release of this game at all, you already know that multiplayer has been unceremoniously removed from the PC version because console games are more important. The developers get a big “screw you” (and an even lower rating) from me for that omission, but does the single player experience compensate for neglecting the best gaming platform?

The best part about Ghostbusters: The Video Game is the graphics and the sound, as they are both excellently executed. There isn't an aspect of the visual presentation that I can point to as lacking. The character models are excellent and mirror their real-life counterparts. All of the Ghostbusting equipment is replicated (and even looks better) than in the movies. The ghosts have some imaginative designs, and the game's levels are quite detailed, though obviously linear. You can lay waste to most of the game's destructible environments, although there is the occasional curious items that can't be set on fire or exploded with impunity. I have experienced really inconsistent frame rates during play, although I might attribute this to my mid-range machine rather than the game itself. Still, it should be consistently slow instead of stuttering at the most inopportune times. I found out, by looking at the back of the box, that Ghostbusters: The Video Game does not support multiple core processors, which are used on, oh, I don't know, every computer now. I guess that explains my occasional slowdowns. Cut scenes are also a constant nuisance, abruptly interrupting the flow of the game; it would have been just as effective to maintain the third person perspective at all times. The sound design is also well done. As you might expect, the voice acting is professionally done and the game thankfully uses the sound effects and music from the movie: proton packs never sounded so good. Overall, Ghostbusters: The Video Game satisfies my cravings for an accurate reproduction of the cinematic presentation.

1991. You are the fifth Ghostbuster, hired so that you can hear all of the witty quips of the team. The first thing you'll notice about the game is the online key authentication. I have no problem with that, but the ironic twist is that the PC version of Ghostbusters has absolutely no online components whatsoever. That's right: the platform that invented online gaming has been left in the cold, so what we have left is the six-hour campaign and that's it. The console-related problems do not end there, however. If you choose to put the game in a location other than C drive (like me, who has a Windows 7 partition), the game does not install correctly. You have to manually copy some files from the default install directory over to your custom location. How ridiculous is that? I realize that multiple hard drives is a relatively recent feature on PCs...oh ,wait, it's not 1981? Never mind. Another console artifact is the checkpoint-only saved game system (gotta save space!), and reloading the last checkpoint reloads the entire level, a process that takes a good minute. The long load times do load the entire level, so there is no intra-level loading screens, but you're still staring at the Ghostbusters logo for an inordinate amount of time.

Ghostbusters is a disappointingly linear experience. The game takes place in famous New York and movie locations like the Sedgewick Hotel, the Library, Times Square, the Hudson River, Central Park, and a Museum. I was really looking for an open-world campaign with randomly-generated missions you could undertake in any order, akin to ArmA II. Instead, you get completely linear and highly scripted missions that involve a lot of backtracking. This makes the relatively small levels seem quite large as you pass the same set of elevator doors for the fifth time. I hate backtracking more than I hate obviously linear levels, at it makes playing the same so disorienting and confusing as heck. While the linearity is not on the same level as Legendary (another linear supernatural game that Ghostbusters unfortunately shares a lot of similarities to), it's still quite obvious with many blocked paths with conveniently placed debris. Another problem arises with the destructible levels: since you cannot jump over objects, your path can be blocked with things you destroyed, making you think a hallway is blocked when it actually is not. This can lead to lots of wasted time navigating through each level.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game is played from a third person perspective so that you can see all of the work the developers did making a “realistic” proton pack. The pack itself shows your health and ammo level, since you have to reload every once in a while (a nonsensical and tired gimmick that introduces no tactical element). You are given four variations on the proton pack, and each weapon has primary and secondary fire modes. The weapons are surprisingly conventional: the proton stream is your rifle with grenade attachment, the slime blower is the bio-rifle from Unreal Tournament and the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, the shock blast is a shotgun and freeze gun, and the meson collider is a sniper rifle and guided missile launcher. Of course, all of these weapons have been morphed into the Ghostbusters canon, but the lack of true originality is notable. There can be some strategy when you unlock everything, alternating between weapons, but it's not enough to be considered a deep experience, mainly because most ghosts can only be affected by a specific weapon, so it's a matter of simply memorizing the correct counters. You can purchase two upgrades for each firing mode, about the only strategic choice regarding weapons in the game.

Capturing ghosts involves a four-step process. The first step is admitting the problem. No, wait, the first step is to use your PKE meter to detect the specific locations where ghosts are or have been; these places are quite scripted and the game won't advance until you properly use the meter, even if you know where the ghost is. The second step is using your weapon of choice to decrease the health of the ghost. This simply involves holding down the fire button and following the ghosts with your mouse until their health turns “red” as indicated by the targeting reticule. Thirdly, you switch to your capture stream by holding shift (this is also done automatically) and slam the ghost around by pressing the right mouse button. Finally, guide the ghost over to a trap and suck it down. The controls are not as precise as I would have wanted, though I suspect this is partly by design to introduce some element of challenge to the game. Being a PC gamer, I obviously turned off any help, as auto-targeting is for people who are playing on an inferior gaming system. For whatever reason (either my system or the game engine itself), aiming is made more difficult because the game has inconsistent frame rates as you pan around each room. In any event, combat in Ghostbusters is devoid of sense of tactics: more advanced weapons are intended for specific ghosts, and enemies have too much health, requiring you to hold down the mouse button for two minutes while following them around like you are doing a maze. There is also no defense against enemy attacks and your character moves so incredibly slowly that you are bound to get injured. A lot. Thankfully, teammates can revive you (and vice versa) if you are ever knocked down. And, boy, are they knocked down a lot: the allied AI leaves a lot to be desired for being supposedly professional Ghostbusters. This becomes a problem when you are up against a large number of ghosts, as your partners are hardly capable of capturing a ghost by themselves and require your intervention. In fact, I failed a mission when one of my fellow Ghostbusters got stuck on an invisible object adjacent to my location and could not revive me and subsequently died in the process. Awesome. This is where cooperative multiplayer would have solved this shortcoming, but, again, the PC is a third-class citizen. There are a lot of enemies to deal with, over forty ghosts with varied attacks, weaknesses, and special abilities, although everything basically behaves the same: simply moving around and occasionally shooting at you. Because of the lack of gameplay depth, monotonous combat, completely linear levels, and numerous console port issues, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is an also-ran action game.

Frankly, I am quite disappointed at how Ghostbusters: The Video Game turned out on the PC. First off, our proud platform doesn't get the potentially interesting cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes that the lesser consoles do. We also get a checkpoint-only save system (gotta save disk space!) and installation issues for those of us with multiple disk partitions. And forget about those fancy quad-core processors: Ghostbusters will only ever use one, which significantly impacts the smoothness of the gameplay. The content we do get to enjoy goes by too quickly, as you can complete the campaign with a solid weekend worth of work. Typical of flashy console games, Ghostbusters does look and sound fantastic, with top-of-the-line visuals and quality effects. The game degrades from there, however. Linear level designs involve annoying backtracking; where's my open world Ghostbusting with a random and/or optional mission sequence? The weapons are veiled conventional in disguise; with no reality to adhere to, the developers couldn't come up with more unique options? The combat is tedious and boring with enemies that have too much health and require you to attack them for too long. You can choose from a robust selection of upgrades and encounter plenty of ghosts, but these are small features when the core gameplay is so dull. Halfway decent multiplayer could have saved this game, but, alas, the PC is last on the developer's list of priorities. The single player experience is not good enough to stand on its own. I ain't 'fraid o' no ghosts, but I am afraid of the mediocrity of this game.