The Simpsons Game Preview

By Chris Remo, May 10, 2007 10:00pm PDT After acquiring the license back in 2005, Electronic Arts has finally demonstrated a bit of what it plans to do with the video game rights to celebrated cartoon series The Simpsons. During its Summer Preview event held yesterday in San Francisco, the publisher showed some gameplay from three levels of the EA Redwood Shores-developed The Simpsons Game on Xbox 360 (the game is also heading to PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Nintendo DS, and PSP), and I was there to check it out.

"We're really doing a reboot of The Simpsons as a gaming franchise," explained creative director Jonathan Knight. "It's an awesome opportunity to tackle gaming as a subject matter in a way that takes aim at games, at EA, and at various cliches in the gaming space."

The setup to the tentatively named The Simpsons Game is that the members of the Simpson family realize quite early on that they have been enlisted to star in yet another licensed video games--and have consequently gained abilities suited to a video game world. This theme of self-awareness serves as the underpinning for numerous jokes on games, game publishers and developers, and gamers. Parody is central to the game's original story, which is being entirely conceived and written by the show's current writing team. "We have nothing to do with the movie," executive producer Scott Amos reassured the assembled crowd of journalists.

Cooperative play is a primary gameplay focus, with all 16 levels--dubbed "episodes" here--designed to require two characters. When only one character is being controlled by a player, the AI will take over the other, but another player can drop in or out at any time. The game supports same-screen co-op only; no online implementation is planned.

Visually, The Simpsons Game is extremely impressive even in its early state. Whereas many cartoon-to-game translations attempt to translate the original 2D characters to a 3D form, The Simpsons Game uses a very well-tuned cel-shading technique that genuinely creates the effect that characters and environments are flat 2D regardless of the viewing angle. For example, Lisa's hair, which in most 3D interpretations would look like a spiked sphere, retains its flat starburst outline from all directions. "Lisa's hair was a big challenge," recalled Knight, "to not get it to look like a big pine cone." That effort has paid off in spades--the game world recreates the distinctive cartoon style of The Simpsons admirably.

I was able to check out three episodes from the game, the first of which is set in a logging camp and features Bart and Lisa. Bart's video game powers transform him into the superhero Bartman, who is equipped with a zipline and whose cape allows him glide gently from high distances as well as catch updrafts and float into the air. That ability, combined with his high jumping ability, gives him access to certain areas Lisa cannot reach; in one application of cooperative puzzle solving, Bart reaches a high ledge and pushes a trampoline off, letting Lisa jump up join him. The pair is then required to disable a dangerous wood chipper obstacle by pressing two buttons simultaneously.

Lisa's power evokes the godly hand from Lionhead's deity sim Black & White (PC). At certain activation points, she can summon the Hand of Buddha, a large controllable hand able to pick up and throw objects with apparent impunity. It seems particularly useful for crushing groups of enemies with large boulders.

Next up was an episode entitled Around the World in 80 Bites, which sees Homer competing in a full-contact eating contest. To facilitate speedy consumption, he can transform into the Homerball, a Katamari Damacy-like spherical form that allows him to crush furniture and other objects while absorbing any food with which he comes into contact. Consuming a Guatemalan Insanity Pepper (which series fans will remember from the Season 8 episode "The Mysterious Voyage of Homer") temporarily upgrades Homer to Hot Homer, a more powerful lava-encrusted super-hot version of the Homerball.

Finally, I was given a brief demonstration of a Marge-themed level, in which the Simpsons matriarch takes the citizens of Springfield on a crusade to stop distribution of the controversial violent video game Grand Theft Scratchy: Blood Island. Using a megaphone, she is able to exhort her angry mob to tear down game advertisements and march on the local SequelStop retail store that is carrying the title. Along the way she and her posse must subdue crazed kids who have been pushed to violence by the game. "The irony, of course, is that their methods in stopping the kids are quite violent themselves," Knight pointed out.

Over the course of the game, characters will gain many more abilities, though Knight declined to detail them at this time. He was also unable to comment on the features of the Wii and Nintendo DS versions of the game, though he stated that the DS version "uses the stylus in a very specific and humorous way."

Though the episodes themselves are ordered in a strictly linear fashion, The Simpsons Game features a Springfield hub environment players can visit in between episodes to explore, chat with Springfield residents, and find hidden collectibles. This area was not shown at EA's recent event. In addition to gameplay, there are some 60 minutes of full-screen cutscenes rendered in the game's cel-shading engine, one of which was shown during the presentation. The animation was not as convincing during close-up shots as during zoomed-out gameplay, but we were told that these scenes are still early in production. Voice acting is being performed by the cast from the show.

With only a fairly brief demonstration, it is hard to get a clear sense of how The Simpsons Game plays, especially in cooperative mode, but what was shown during this week's event was promising. In particular, the game's visual aesthetic is by far the most successful 3D rendering of The Simpsons, and amazingly well executed in its own right.

Electronic Arts plans to ship EA Redwood Shores' The Simpsons Game (working title) for PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, Nintendo DS, and PSP this holiday season. Its release is expected to coincide roughly with the retail release of The Simpsons Movie on DVD.

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