You won't find spectacularly original gameplay here, but in a game where you actually get to drive Homer's dream car, it's hard to complain.
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Subtitle: Hit and Run
Multimedia: The Simpsons
Platforms: PC (also on PS2, GameCube, and Xbox)
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Radical Entertainment
US release date: 2007-07
If Grand Theft Auto is the kind of game Bart Simpson would die for, The Simpsons: Hit and Run is the game Marge would buy him instead. Essentially a PG-rated reimagining of GTA, Hit and Run takes the basic elements of that game -- the open, immersive gameplay, the ability to steal (and race) cars -- and injects them into the Simpsons milieu. In other words, if you've ever felt the sadistic urge to run over Ralph Wiggum with Barney Gumble's Plow King truck... this is your chance.
The seamier aspects of Grand Theft Auto have been toned down for a family audience, so you won't see Homer torching Mr. Burns with a flamethrower or pick up hookers outside of Moe's. The most violence you can inflict in this game is to kick things or run over them (bounce them is more like it -- nobody gets seriously hurt or killed in this game, including the player). But not to worry, there's still plenty of mayhem to be had -- the entire city of Springfield is at your disposal.
The ability to drive around and explore the town is one of the high points of Hit and Run. For a fan of the TV series, it's quite a rush to be placed smack in the middle of Springfield, and to see the town come to life around you. I got a peculiar fanboy-ish thrill out of being able to walk into the Simpsons' house and then drive around in their car, noting all the familiar landmarks -- Springfield Elementary, Moe's, the Android's Dungeon. Much like the series itself, it should get old after a while, but somehow it doesn't.
While I would have preferred cel-shaded graphics in the style of XIII, the 3-D images in the game replicate the characters and world of The Simpsons with vivid fidelity. It doesn't work all the time -- if you recall the infamous 3-D segment of Treehouse of Horror, Simpsons characters simply aren't designed to be fully fleshed out (Lisa's head looks rather like a yellow plastic spiked mace).
I wish the makers of Hit and Run had chosen to emulate GTA: Vice City instead of GTA III -- the latter game's annoying and clumsy navigation when playing indoors is faithfully preserved here, which makes moving around the inside of Moe's Tavern or the elementary school a tedious exercise. And gameplay can become a little repetitive, as missions mostly consist of driving around and chasing people or picking things up. There's an overall storyline involving robotic wasps and black vans that's largely there to offer Super Mario-style coin-collecting puzzles, but you can ignore all of that and still enjoy the game just fine.
Of course, none of this would matter if the game didn't bring across a convincing Simpsons feel, and in that regard Hit and Run hits a home run. Using the voice talents of the actual Simpsons cast, the writers have crafted a game that genuinely replicates the tone and humor of the show. This isn't just GTA with a Simpsons skin; the absurd, self-aware attitude is brought over intact, with jokes making fun of the video game itself (as well as the gamers) and dialogue and sight gags that could have come straight from a real episode.
It's a little buggy and a little clunky, but it's the Simpsons, and, after a series of uninspired duds, it's the Simpsons game fans have been waiting for. You won't find spectacularly original gameplay here, but in a game where you actually get to drive Homer's dream car, it's hard to complain.