The long awaited Ghostbusters III is here... and it's a game.
We might be a bit biased - after all we here at gameplayer are all children of the decade - but we reckon few would disagree that the 1980s was a pretty good era for movie trilogies. Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Mad Max, The Karate Kid - all of these are absolute classics (well, except for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and basically all of The Karate Kid).
However, Ghostbusters is the classic '80s film trilogy that never was. By the time the excessive eighties gave way to the nondescript nineties, the franchise had only enjoyed two feature films (and a cartoon television series, The Real Ghostbusters). It was simply too late for a third movie to be made. Sigourney Weaver shaved her head and made Alien 3. Dan Ackroyd made Coneheads, and then subsequently made us throw-up with My Girl and My Girl 2. Rick Moranis shrunk some kids and then became a real estate agent, probably (or died, we're not sure). Harold Ramis focused more on writing and directing. And Bill Murray... well, Bill Murray continued to be one of the coolest guys on the planet (we love you, Bill!).
Now, through the wondrous medium that is videogames, the Ghostbusters are finally set to return. Ghostbusters: The Game is aiming to be a fully-fledged sequel to Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, written by series creators Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis and featuring the return of many of the most popular characters, from Slimer and that creepy librarian lady to the giant marshmallow Stay Puft man and the grumpy Vigo, a living painting from the second movie.
While George Lucas turned Star Wars into a soullessly synthetic saga with his prequel trilogy, and Indiana Jones could well turn into a farce with the upcoming (and ridiculously named) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (featuring a girdle-strapped sixty-five-year-old Harrison Ford), Ghostbusters: The Game allows Ackroyd and Ramis to set the story in the same era as the two films and feature digital actors that haven't aged, in an authentic New York City circa 1991. This is all thanks to the talent of the artists at developer Terminal Reality.
"I've wanted to do a Ghostbusters game for a long time, and once the current generation of hardware came out we really felt like we were at a point that we could do the series justice," explains John O'Keefe, Studio Director at Terminal Reality. "It was a perfect situation; Dan and Harold had been kicking around the idea of resurrecting the franchise, and Terminal Reality had been working on technology for another original game and it just kind of clicked. So we built a prototype and showed it to Dan and Harold, and it really got them excited about continuing the Ghostbusters series in the videogame medium."
It was around this time (early 2007) that a video of another Ghostbusters game emerged on YouTube, igniting Internet forums with debate and questions over its authenticity. It was later confirmed that the footage was indeed taken from a legitimate prototype created by developer ZootFly, for an unsuccessful pitch at the Ghostbusters license, but at the time it came as a huge surprise to gamers, and indeed the team at Terminal Reality.
"We had about ten minutes of panic because we weren't sure what was going on [when the ZootFly video hit the web]," says Mark Randel, President and Chief Technologist of Terminal Reality. "But it actually did us a huge favour by bringing Ghostbusters back into the minds of gamers, and reminding them how awesome an idea Ghostbusters is for a videogame."
Doe... Ray... Egon... You?
In Ghostbusters: The Game you won't be stepping into the shoes of Ray, Venkman or Egon (or Winston or Louis, even), you'll play the role of a new recruit into the Ghostbusters team. After the successes of the spectral snaring squad in the events of the first two films, the Ghostbusters are riding a wave of popularity amongst New Yorkers in 1991 - who can't seem to get enough of anything and everything paranormal - and have started to expand their business in order to keep up with demand.
"New York has become fascinated and enamoured with everything Gozerian, including Stay Puft," explains Randel. "Stay Puft has his own cartoon show, he's on lunchboxes and the Stay Puft brand is at an all time high, and they're going to open a Gozerian exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in two days time from when we start the game. In fact Vigo's in the museum - he can't come out of the painting but he'll take a verbal shot at you as you walk past."
As the new guy in the team you must initially serve your apprenticeship as somewhat of a caddie, acting as the guinea pig for Egon's latest (and otherwise untested) gadget creations. The Proton beam weapon has been heavily modified to allow for a variety of attacks. Naturally you can still use the basic beam to blast ghosts (we attempted to 'cross the streams' during our playtest but thankfully managed to avoid 'total protonic reversal'), but you can also unleash proton torpedos, a freeze ray, a short range shotgun-style blast and a 'proton pulse' melee attack.
Easily the coolest gadget we sampled during our short hands-on with the game was the 'tether gun'. Using the ectoplasm slime taken from the ghosts themselves, the tether gun allows you to fire one end of a slimy tether to latch onto an object or enemy, and then fire the other end at a wall or ceiling to bind them to the spot. It's all physics-based, so if you want to tether a heavier object such as a car or piano you'll need to fire multiple slime lengths at the object in order to support the weight. You can even tether ghosts to walls or ghosts to other ghosts, leaving them to twirl wildly around the place as a result of the clashing of their own independent trajectories.
After you've softened the ghosts up with your initial attacks, you can throw down a trap and switch to your catch beam. Wrangling a ghost is a bit like reeling in a supernatural sea bass, only you can flick the right stick in different directions in order to violently slam the roped-up ghost into walls and other objects, before eventually steering them into the beam of light emitted by the trap in order to snare them. All up Terminal Reality is promising eight different weapons in the game, with two upgrades a piece.
"A lot of games introduce weapons early on that turn out to be useless later in the game. We're not taking that approach," says Randel. "Everything that you start with in Ghostbusters is useful throughout the entire game, so it's a matter for us as developers to create ghosts that require you to use combinations of weapons and so on to overcome them as the game progresses. Because we don't want to make the Proton beam become a legacy weapon that you don't want later on."
No 'I' in Ghostbusters
The Ghostbusters work as a team, and even when you're separated from Ray and Egon (they were the only other characters in the early version of the game we played) they still remain in contact with you via your radio - Ray babbling enthusiastically about the readings on his handheld PKE scanner and Egon deadpanning one-liners the whole time (after blasting a ghost at one point during our playtest, Egon quipped, "I bet he regrets the day he died!").
Rather than being a free-roaming open world adventure, the game is instead structured around a series of linear levels based on real life New York City locations (and several paranormal 'netherworlds' too - at one point in the game Central Park transforms into a mist-covered graveyard). We initially felt a little disappointed that the game doesn't allow you to just jump in Ecto-1 and cruise out on a mission whenever receptionist Janine yells "WE GOT ONE!!!", but it seems that the developers have really thought it through and have instead focussed on a more streamlined action experience (happily you can at least slide down the fireman's pole at the Ghostbusters HQ).
"In a game like Scarface it made sense [to make it an open world] because Tony Montana was trying to takeover territory and build his empire back up, but for Ghostbusters Harold and Dan were like, 'So, you catch a ghost and then... you can go in street race in Ecto-1?'" explains O'Keefe. "In an open world we felt that a lot of the missions would be watered down, the textures would be watered down, the ghosts would have to be watered down... Instead we've opted for high res, lots of destructible environments, lots of physics, and a more cinematic experience overall."
And despite the fact that the game still has another year of development to go, we're already impressed at how well the development team has managed to recreate the feel of the movies in terms of the visuals and animations. Spirits reanimate in the form of clusters of inanimate objects (at one point in the library level a pile of books assemble to form a hulking golem), the Ghostbusters characters look spot-on and move superbly - the motion capture actors were deliberately clumsy and bumbling to make the 'average Joe' feel of the characters more convincing - and the particle effects are suitably flashy; from the menacing lightning that snakes around the Proton beam to the liquid-like transparency of the spirits themselves.
Yes, the Ghostbusters are back - and haven't we missed their mischievous, property-destroying shenanigans? The best news of all is that mere minutes before we went to press with this issue we recieved word that Bill Murray has officially signed on to provide his voice and likeness to the game, alongside those of Ramis and Ackroyd. Excellent!
Empty a slot on your speed dial, because come Christmas 2008 there's only one team of spectral slayers you're gonna wanna call. Ghostbusters!
There were other bits and pieces we noticed during our hands-on with Ghostbusters which you may find interesting, detailed on the next page:
HUD down, guns up: we're gonna go full stream!
In keeping with the cinematic feel the developers are trying to nail, the game's HUD is minimal. You get a targeting reticule onscreen, but everything else you need to know about your status is conveyed by the lights on your Proton backpack. You can also see your trap dangling from your character's belt, and damage is conveyed by a Call of Duty-style red glow on the screen.
Ballroom blitz: "he slimed me!?!"
A homage to the original Slimer encounter in the first movie, this ballroom sequence has you furiously trying to snare the little green guy. He darts evasively around the place, causing dinner tables, chairs and furnishings to erupt spectacularly into fragments as you swing your Proton beam wildly around the room. During our playtest we inadvertently shorted out the ceiling chandelier with a wayward blast, throwing the remains of the encounter into darkness and making it all the more scary.
Puft Daddy: so angry, so delicious
Despite his newfound celebrity status, Stay Puft clearly gets his giant marshmallow panties in a twist at one point during the game. Abseiling down the side of a skyscraper, you need to blast back the waves of mini marshmallow meanies to prevent the big blobbish beastie from scaling the skyline, King Kong-style. In a later battle on the streets below, Stay Puft hurls cars at you which compact and buckle as they crunch into the pavement, and leaves sticky smears of white goo on everything he touches.
No opp for co-op?
Knowing that the Ghostbusters are a team, you'd think it would be a given that the game would feature cooperative play through the campaign for at least two players. Terminal Reality hasn't ruled it out yet (they're still "evaluating multiplayer at this point"), but they argue that the game wouldn't feel as cinematic and the humour wouldn't flow as well as it does if you had human players controlling the main characters. Still, we haven't completely given up hope as the Nintendo Wii version, created offsite by developer RedFlag, features four-player splitscreen co-op through the entire game. It's also ugly as hell (that's the trade off, we suppose).
Ghostbusters: The Game is built around Terminal Reality's own Infernal Engine. The powerful engine facilitates hundreds of characters onscreen at once (during a Thanksgiving Day parade sequence in the game there are a staggering 3000 pedestrians lining the streets), and the physics system is particularly impressive, with a high level of destructible objects in the environment that break and shatter realistically whether they're wooden, concrete, glass and so on - depending on the exact points you hit them with your Proton beam.