Stupid question: Why has it taken somebody a quarter century to make a half decent Ghostbusters video game? With the possible exception of Sega's Genesis version, most Ghostbusters games have been total trash. After Activision unceremoniously killed this brand new ghost-infested action game, I started to get concerned. After all, Activision knows what they're doing, and if they aren't confident in a Ghostbusters reboot, then why should I be confident that this game will buck tradition. Thankfully Atari swooped in and saved the day, because this brand new sequel is everything I've wanted in a Ghostbusters game ... and more.
Set in 1991, Ghostbusters: The Video Game reteams all four of our proton pack wearing heroes for another ghoul-filled adventure. You play the fifth Ghostbusters, a nameless, mute recruit who is about to have the worst first day on the job ever. After learning not to shoot random things in the headquarters, you (and everybody except for Winston) are rushed off to same hotel the Busters visited in the first movie. Before long the team is caught up in a massive adventure that has them solving a series of supernatural phenomenon that all seems to be tied to a brand new female character (played by Alyssa Milano).
As vague as all that sounds, that's basically the story in a nutshell. While there is a thread that ties everything together, it's not as interesting as previous Ghostbusters movies. The truth is, the game's flimsy plotline is nothing more than an excuse for you to travel to some of your favorite locations from the first movie (the library, hotel, etc.) as well as tear apart brand new areas (a graveyard, a completely different dimension and even a lost island ... no, not "Lost" island). It also gives us an excuse to listen to the witty one-liners from the cast and, obviously, bust some ghost butt. There's more than enough throwbacks to the first two films to keep fans of the series excited about who or what will show up next. I literally applauded when Walter Peck (the weasely EPA head that shuts down the containment unit in the first film) shows up to cause more trouble. At its core, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is a love letter to all of the fans that have stuck with these heroes all this time.
Thankfully it's more than just a Ghostbusters fan's wet dream, it's also a solid playing action game. In a lot of ways the game resembles a significantly less violent Gears of War. The game is played almost entirely in the third-person, however, the game requires you to put on your night vision goggles, pull out your PKE meter and search for clues in the first-person, as well. You can run and jump, though your running is limited by the small areas you fight in and the jumping is hindered by the fact that you have a one hundred pound backpack on you at all times. The rest is basically run around and use your proton pack to zap enemies and save the day.
If the actual ghost busting didn't work, then that would have been the end of the game. Thankfully the developers got it right. Beyond looking and sounding spot-on, the proton beams feel like you would imagine they would from watching the movie. That is to say, they are almost uncontrollable and seem to fly all over the place. While this would be a negative for most games, the wacky aiming works in this game. Their unpredictable nature fits right in with what we saw in the two movies and gives off the sensation that you are holding the most powerful light gun ever conceived. And isn't that exactly what you want?
On top of using the standard proton pack beam, you also get three other weapons to play around with. The first one you get is a blue beam that slows ghosts down, almost like a freeze ray (but it's not using cold technology, as Egon points out). The next weapon is a slime gun, which not only allows you to shoot out slime (which evaporates certain kinds of ectoplasm), but also allows you to connect objects together like a rope, ultimately allowing you to move otherwise unmovable objects. The final weapon is the dark matter gun, which shoots out extremely powerful blasts of energy. Seeing as this weapon comes late in the game, I found it to be the least useful of all the weapons. In fact, I really only used it once or twice, usually while dealing with bosses.
Unfortunately not all of the weapons are used to their fullest potential. In fact, I would go as far as to say that some of the weapons feel like missed opportunities for puzzles. They are also conveniently given at just the right moments, something that definitely takes away from the illusion. Still, it would have been nice to see more of a reason to offer something like the dark matter gun. At the end of the day there just wasn't much use for it, which is a real bummer given its potential.
Each of the weapons has two completely different attacks. For example, your standard proton pack features both the traditional beam and something called the bozon dart, which is basically a super powered bazooka-like shot that does massive damage to anything it hits. You can also upgrade each of the weapons in multiple ways, allowing for better shots and whatnot.
Even better, the environments are completely destructible. Not quite to the extent of Red Faction: Guerrilla (you can't knock down walls or anything), but you can drop chandeliers, blow up tables and wreak havoc in all sorts of satisfying ways. But don't get too crazy, because destroying property will cost you. Not only does the game give you money for busting ghosts, but it takes it away when you blow up the wrong things. Still, it's awfully cool to shoot at the wall with your proton pack beam and see the markings stick around.
The conceit to the game is that since you're brand new, you are the official guinea pig of the Ghostbusters team. That means that Egon will give you the experimental equipment with the expectations that you'll be down in the thick of things trying it out. This gives the game a great excuse to shove you right into the action while the more seasoned Busters hang back and cover you. Would this sort of thing work in a movie? Of course not, but it's the perfect solution for a video game.
Earlier I mentioned that the game resembles Gears of War. I don't bring this up because of the game's third-person point of view, but rather because of the way it plays. Since you are usually playing in a team, you will be have to contend with your allies being, well, busted. In order to revive them, you have to run up and push the green "A" button. Obviously this means that you are susceptible to being incapacitated, which will force one of the other Ghostbusters to rush to your aid. For the most part this works well, it makes you keep track of your team and work together.
Unfortunately the teamwork aspect only goes so far. For one thing, your nameless character will fall down unconscious after only a few direct hits. Usually you can get out of the way and regain your health, but there are too many small and enclosed areas in the game that don't have any hiding spots. This is especially annoying in the later levels, as you're fighting multiple ghosts at the same time. Gears of War resolved this problem by always giving you something to duck behind, however that is not the case in Ghostbuster: The Video Game.
Oddly enough, your biggest enemy isn't the ghosts and ghouls; instead it's the everyday objects that they throw at you. Half of the time you can't see where the projectiles are coming from, so you will have to deal with multiple unfair hits. There are a couple of battles in particular that cross over from being hard to being outright frustrating. Things are made even worse when you have to reload from a checkpoint and find that you have to start the battle from the get-go. Giving your character a little more life or the option of armor would have gone a long way to improve the frustration of a few key battles.
Still, I can't help but have a good time with the way the levels play themselves out. I love the fact that you aren't just going in as a five man team. There is some of that, but much of the game has you splitting up into a couple of smaller teams. There are even a few parts of the game where you're off on your own. However, even when you're by yourself, it always feels like you're in a team, thanks to the constant communications from the rest of your squad. My only real complaint with the team work is that you can't suggest things for the other team members to do. Obviously it would seem odd to have the new guy giving orders, but there were plenty of times when I wanted my allies to do one thing as they did another.
Where the game excels is in the variety. While it would have been easy to simply make a game where you did the same thing (bust ghosts) level in and level out, Terminal Reality has managed to add a good deal of variety throughout each level. Early on you might be taking out ghosts in the good, old-fashioned way you saw in the movie. However, a few levels later you'll have to force ghosts out of possessed citizens (and even the Ghostbusters themselves) using your slime gun. In another level you will have to freeze enemies before destroying them. And in one of the more memorable sequences of the game, you will hang off the side of a building shooting your proton pack at the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as he climbs up the skyscraper to get to you.
What makes all of this even more interesting is the variety in the ghosts. It's not just the little ghosts, either. I found myself constantly impressed with the different bosses, even if most of them aren't as gigantic as, say, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. But while the bosses are certainly impressive looking, most of them are push-overs. The chances of all of the Busters dying at once are rare, so you'll always have a shot at killing them. I actually found some of the more traditional battles to be a lot more difficult. There was one battle in particular that I had to restart a good half dozen times, yet I don't remember dying even once in a boss fight.
Certainly part of the charm of the game comes from the four main characters and their comic timing. While there have been a number of Ghostbusters games in the last quarter century, this is the first to actually get the humor right. A big reason for this is because of the script, which is written by the same team that gave us the first film (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis). Not only that, but the two other actors (Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson) reprise their roles. It's great to hear these four actors play these iconic roles once again, even if Bill Murray sounds like he's just phoning the performance in. The script certainly isn't at the same level as the first Ghostbusters, but I definitely found myself laughing more than I did during the dreadful second installment.
The movie's memorable soundtrack is also front and center in this video game sequel. Fans of the movie will no doubt recognize just about every tune found in this game, including Elmer Bernstein's entire score. The problem is, this music was always intended to be the incidental music for a 90 minute long comedy, not a seven hour action game. By the end of the game I was sick and tired of almost every song in the game, even though if it made the game feel even more authentic.
On a more positive note, the game's graphics are outstanding. Because the levels are so linear, the developers have been able to add an incredible amount of detail to every inch of the game. Better yet, the game gives you a number of great set-pieces to fight in. Some of the backgrounds just get the job done, but there are a few that are truly remarkable. I want to highlight the Civil War battle you have to wage during the museum level, it manages to combine the intensity of a Ghostbusters fight with the old world technology of the 1800s. Not only is this a great looking sequence full of displays and statues getting blown to smithereens, but it also sets up the guys to make a lot of really funny jokes.
On the other hand, the game's cinemas are not as consistent. The cut-scenes seem to come in two types: Amazing looking and really ugly. When the game goes into the pre-rendered visuals, it looks exactly like a computer-generated Ghostbusters movie should look. But you'll also be subjected to the in-game cinemas, which look like trash in comparison. A big reason I'm down on the in-game cinemas is because of the crummy direction. Whoever directed these scenes doesn't have the eye for what makes a movie visually interesting, and you will immediately see the difference between the game and the movies.
Beyond the game's seven hour adventure, you will also find a surprisingly robust set of Xbox Live multiplayer modes. While you can't play through the single-player game with friends (bummer), you are able to play a bunch of cooperative online games. Some of them have you fighting as many ghosts as you can before time runs out (or you die). Another has you defending PKE disruptors. And in one mode you will even be able to destroy as many relics as you possibly can. All six modes (called "jobs") are a lot of fun and will keep you entertained for weeks, especially if you have friends who own the game. Because the gameplay is so good, you'll find that the online works a lot better than the usual throwaway multiplayer modes that come with licensed action games.
There's no question that Ghostbusters: The Video Game has some problems, the battles can be a little frustrating and the story never gels as much as the other movies. But those gripes are easy to overlook when the product is this much fun. With a new movie in pre-production as we speak, it feels like the Ghostbusters are finally back. If this doesn't spur a couple of even better sequels, then there's no justice in this world. If you're a fan of the original movie, then this is the Ghostbusters game you've been waiting a quarter century to play.