The franchise game has come a long way since the Atari 2600 version of E.T. nearly wiped the console market off the map, but to this day it remains largely the domain of half-hearted attempts and shameless cash-ins.
Don't tell that to Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, though. After kicking around ideas for a third Ghostbusters film since the 1990s, Aykroyd and Ramis, along with developer Terminal Reality, have gone the gaming route with Ghostbusters: The Video Game, a high-profile, high-stakes attempt to blend two forms which too often merely pass each other in the night.
Aykroyd is on record calling the game "essentially the third movie," effectively raising the bar for pre-release buzz in an industry that regularly promises its consumers dominion over heaven, Earth, and a half-dozen vixens in chain-mail bikinis.
But while guys like Peter Molyneux peddle their magic beans barely one step ahead of a mob of perpetually dissatisfied customers, a script by Aykroyd and Ramis (and an original cast one Moranis short of a full deck) makes the hype surrounding Ghostbusters: The Video Game downright plausible.
So is G:TVG the pioneer in gaming as a storytelling medium that its buzz would have us believe? The answer (at least for the Xbox 360 version reviewed here) is a resounding "kinda." More game than game-changer, Ghostbusters falls short of truly pushing the envelope, but it does manage to give it a nice, enjoyable nudge.
G:TVG picks up where Ghostbusters II left off. It's the 1991 holiday season, and the Ghostbusters are seeing the obligatory spike in paranormal activity which inevitably opens these things. So much so, in fact, that the team finally decides to bring on an official fifth member, an "experimental weapons technician" hired in theory to test new ghostbusting devices and in practice to ensure that nobody important dies when those technologies become fatally unstable.
Assuming the role of the aforementioned neophyte, players follow the Ghostbusters in a Gears of War-style AI-assisted run-and-gun that begins in environs familiar to fans of the series (the Sedgewick Hotel, Staypuft by rooftop) and expands to spirit-ridden locales only hinted at in the past.
Basic ghostbusting is accomplished via the Proton Pack, which now has settings to both burn away the psychokinetic energies of active ghosts and wrangle (violently, if necessary) weakened ghosts into the path of a well-placed trap. This being a game targeted to the masses, G:TVG upgrades the franchise's weapons load-out with more ways to whip and puree the spirit world than a high-end ectoplasmic blender hawked by the ghost of Billy Mays. (Too soon?)
Rapid-fire beams, spread beams, stasis beams, heat-seeking beams, and various modes of slime are all initially tested by the player before passing to the AI teammates, who are fortunately intelligent enough to use the optimal weapon for any given situation. Regardless of its form, ghostbusting maintains a critical balance between looking right on screen and feeling right in the player's hands. Upgrades to the Proton Pack look like they were there the whole time, and they're implemented in ways which are in context perfectly believable.
The storyline itself is a near-flawless fit to the universe in which it lands. The banter is on par with the dialogue from the films, the plot is a spider web connecting a thousand minor components from the film universe and tying them together into a cohesive unit. And every detail—from firehouse interior to level design to the flavor text describing practically every spirit, pickup, and proton pack accessory in the game—practically sings to the afterlife of your choice in a perfect-pitch match of the series' voice.
Unfortunately, there is a flaw, and that single flaw lands at the new guy's feet. G:TVG's player character—an entity devoid of personality, emotion, and backstory—stands out as harshly as a giant marshmallow man walking down the streets of Manhattan when dropped into a setting as rich as the Ghostbusters universe.
The dissonance here comes from the difference between gamewriting, which is by necessity about you, and screenwriting, which is by definition about them. When combining the two, either you and them become a single us and the flow is seamless, or you and them remain you and them and the flow is interrupted. The blank slate approach is a venerable formula in gaming-protagonist creation, but here the contrast it creates backfires. G:TVG treats the PC as though Louis Tully never took off the fifth jumpsuit, which would have been great if players were behind the wheel of Rick Moranis. Instead, they're controlling a half-programmed pod person,.
But curmudgeonly idealists like me do themselves a disservice by faulting Ghostbusters: The Video Game too much for tilting at windmills and not coming out unscathed. It doesn't single-handedly move the medium into the realm of proper storytelling, but as a genuinely fun experience crafted skillfully with mind to both gameplay and source material, it certainly does come highly recommended as a proper game.