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After nearly fifteen years of sub-standard, poor quality video games based on the popular characters of The Simpsons, there is finally a game not only worth playing, but worth enjoying. Vivendi Universal, FOX Interactive, Gracie Studios, and Radical Design teamed up in 2003 to produce The Simpsons: Hit and Run for the Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft XBox, and the PC. Set in a 3D platformer/driving environment based on the popular Grand Theft Auto series, Hit and Run's storyline comes straight from the writers of the timeless animated series and features original voice material recorded exclusively for use in this game. The game is also loaded with enough references to the series to make even the hardest-to-please fan squeal with joy. The story begins as mysterious giant wasps equipped with video cameras descend upon Springfield from an unknown source, strange lights are seen in the sky, and Krusty the Klown begins pitching for the new and improved Buzz Cola. Homer Simpson takes it upon himself to figure out just what's going on with the camera wasps and ends up getting his family involved in a series of events that lead to Bart's brain being erased. Somewhere in the middle of all the madness are aliens Kang and Kodos, zombies from the Treehouse of Horror, and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon's sale on Buzz Cola at the Kwik-E-Mart.

Hit and Run contains five playable character and three playable sections of Springfield that are stretched out to seven levels. Homer is your man in levels one and seven, Bart takes over in levels two and six, Lisa takes care of level three, Marge is on patrol in level four, and Apu takes to the streets in level five. Each character has the same moves while on foot: kick, jump, run, and stomp. Springfield is so large that it would take too long to get anywhere on foot, so the game includes plenty of vehicles taken from the series that our heroes can use to race from one end of town to the next, and characters can exit their cars whenever they like. Some of the vehicles, such as the family sedan or the Canyonero, are easily recognized, while others such as the Malibu Stacy car and the Planet Hype cadillac, are a little more obscure. Aside from the seven basic vehicles that the game provides (one new vehicle per level) there are plenty of hidden vehicles that can be earned, bought, or stolen (watch for appearances from the car built for Homer and the Honor Roller soapbox racer). Switching between vehicles is as simple as finding one of the many phonebooths in town and making a call. While driving around town you're encouraged to smash into small trees, trash cans, mailboxes, and other small items in order to earn coins, but running over pedestrians might trigger a high speed chase from the police. Smashing into too many large, immovable objects will heavily damage your vehicle, and as it takes more damage it becomes harder to control until eventually it explodes in a shower of flames and lost coins. Vehicles can be repaired by picking up stray wrenches on the road or by paying ten coins at a phone booth.

So what do our characters and their cars do in this large environment we call Springfield? Primarily they must complete missions. Most are time-based objectives that require them to race back and forth from one place to the next before time elapses. One example: Grampa Simpson lent his blood to Jasper, so Bart has to find new blood for him. Bart has fifteen seconds to drive from Grampa to the blood bank, then thirty seconds to drive to Moe's Tavern across town, then twenty seconds to drive to the Krusty Burger further away, and then fifty seconds to drive back to Grampa. If time elapses at any point in this sequence, you'll have to start the entire mission over again from the beginning. This can become very frustrating in later levels as the time limits become less forgiving of mistakes and oncoming traffic has a bad habit of slamming into your vehicle, bringing you to a dead stop and losing precious seconds. Other time-based missions include the need to follow another vehicle as it speeds through town, mysterious vans that need to be rammed until they explode, and so on. Other missions are more exploratory based, providing you all the time you need to find an item or person. Another example: the Simpson house is out of that ice cream with the miniature pies in it. Homer has to go to the Kwik-E-Mart, buy more, and come home. You can take as much time as you want with this mission with no penalty. Missions are undertaken after talking to specific people and the game tells you which person you need to speak to next in order to advance the plot. Green arrows light up on the road to alert you as to which way you need to go next. Of course you are free to ignore the missions and just cruise around town exploring, if that's what you want to do. In fact, this kind of cruising is required to complete the entire game, as there's a series of roaming wasp cameras that need to be destroyed by a well-placed kick plus forty-nine collectable cards to pick up that each outline a memorable object from the series hidden around (cards include the Smarch calendar and Lisa's perpetual motion machine). For an additional challenge there are three street races in every level, ranging from time trials to circuit challenges and there are different costumes for each character should you have the need to dress Homer in his Stonecutter outfit or Lisa in her "Floreda" costume.

What makes this game so much fun and so clearly Simpsonesque is that the world the characters inhabit is, without a doubt, Springfield. Earlier games based on the series failed in this aspect, creating cookie-cutter levels that could have come from any other video game. Hit and Run's Springfield is a work of art. Buildings are layed out just as they are on the series: Moe's Tavern is next door to King Toot's Music Store, the secret Stonecutter tunnel is a shortcut to the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, and there's a large house across the street from 742 Evergreen Terrace where a certain former president used to live. Beyond all of this are the many references from the series, many of which are easy to miss if you're not paying attention. The city is divided into 636 and 939 area codes, with the 939 portion being the ritzy side of town. Chester J. Lampwick's solid gold house is one of the large mansions on the 939 side, and you can even drive his rocket car. The Springfield Squidport is down by the waterfront, complete with trendy stores such as Malaria Zone. Billboards for Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie are on key streetcorners, as is the moving billboard that proclaims "cops never sleep". Even Kamp Krusty and the dam that Cecil Terwilliger tried to blow up are included for you to explore. Simply put, you must see Springfield to believe all of the detail. It is wonderous how everything fits together so well. Everything is rendered in 3D, giving the characters and environments the 3D look from the time Homer entered the third dimension. The game's music is a series of variations on The Simpsons theme song, with saxophones making up Lisa's music and drums for Homer. Add to all of this the various gags and speeches recorded by the show's cast, and the sounds are a delight.

There are only three weak points in the game that I took issue with. Firstly, there are too many time-based missions for my taste. Many of them are simply arbitrary and only exist to provide extra stress. I have no problem with time-based challenges if they serve the story, but there's no reason for a timer on missions that involve picking up Principal Skinner's dry cleaning. Next, the game's camera has a tendency to get hung up on objects from time to time, making this a major annoyance when that timer is ticking down and you can't see your character because the side of a building is in the way. Finally, it seems to me like the writers couldn't figure out how to bring their story to a close, so Level 7 relies on the old trick of bring out zombies and other elements from the Treehouse of Horror episodes. With the rest of the game being grounded somewhat in reality, to make such a leap at the end of the game strikes me as poor planning on the part of the writing team. Overall, The Simpsons: Hit and Run is required playing for every fan of The Simpsons. At long last we have a Simpsons game that washes the poor taste of The Simpsons: Road Rage and Simpsons Wrestling out of our mouths. To paraphrase Homer, you'll be a lean, mean, speed thingee.

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