Ghostbusters: The Video Game belongs to a rare strain of movie tie-in video games. Rather than serving as an expensive marketing bauble for a new theatrical release, this game--alongside titles like The Godfather: The Game and Scarface: The World Is Yours--is designed to mine the longstanding affection for a long-dormant film franchise. As mercenary as that might sound, the involvement of the original writers and the good majority of the original cast made it sound like this might actually offer an authentic Ghostbusters experience, and for the most part, it does. The game is absolutely bursting at the seams with details that only a line-quoting Ghostbusters fan would notice and appreciate, and the story itself goes to great lengths to incorporate major aspects of the Ghostbusters fiction. That heavy emphasis on nostalgia can't completely distract from the game's dearth of actual laughs, or the repetitious, scuffed-up feel of the gameplay.
Taking place a few years after the events of Ghostbusters II, Ghostbusters: The Video Game puts you in the role of a nameless, mute new recruit who's been brought on as an "Experimental Equipment Technician," which is another way of saying "your proton pack has all kinds of new tricks." Right off the bat, you're hanging in the firehouse with the boys, listening to Janine take bizarre calls, striking up conversations with Vigo the Carpathian, and generally just soaking in the rich ectoplasmic atmosphere. Once the game kicks in, you'll go on a whirlwind tour of memorable Ghostbusters faces and places, starting off with the recapturing of Slimer at the Sedgwick Hotel, moving to Times Square to face the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and then on to the main branch of the New York Public Library to finally bring in the silence-loving Grey Lady. The story even does a fairly admirable job of tying it all back into a story about Gozer the Gozerian. For the first few hours, I honestly found all the loving fan service intoxicating. Even the new characters and locations seemed to mesh well.
Eventually, though, I realized that, while there were moments of amusement, there hadn't been an honest laugh in the game. The references and call-backs are relentless, but just saying "hey, remember that?" isn't inherently funny. The tone of the material itself isn't great, but part of the blame definitely rests on the voice work itself, which often feels flat and disconnected from the action. Still, you can tell that someone is really proud of the fact that they got Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and William Atherton to reprise their roles, because it seems like there's barely a moment that someone's not chatting your ear off. Characters are constantly explaining your next objective, providing some backstory, or shouting out helpful tips when you're going at it with ghosts. Again, it's rich in volume, but it can feel overbearing, and it has a habit of recycling certain lines a little too often. It bums me out to admit it, but after spending some six hours playing through the story in Ghostbusters: The Video Game, I don't want to hear any of those actors' voices for a while.
The process of trapping a ghost is an involved one, and in Ghostbusters: The Video Game, a terrific-looking one, as well. The way your energy beam chaotically twists around your targets and blows apart any unfortunate objects that might get in your path, and the way a ghost will stretch out and try to claw its way away from the trap look as good as it ever did in the movies. The characters look uncannily like 19-year-younger versions of the actors playing them, though there's something about the way they animate, particularly during cutscenes, that feels cartoony in a way that doesn't quite match the characters or the voice work.
The gameplay is reliant on the basic act of busting ghosts and the familiar hardware associated with it. There are a lot of lesser spooks that will evaporate if you hammer on them long enough, but you'll also spend a lot of time going through the full capture process, wearing down ghosts and wrangling them into a trap. You start off with a basic neutrino wand and ghost trap setup, but as the story progresses, you'll be granted upgrades that allow you to shoot more concussive blasts of energy, "freeze" ghosts with a stasis beam, neutralize toxic black slime with your positively charged slime blower, and more. Some of your proton pack's abilities--specifically the capture beam and the slime tether--let you play with the game's physics, allowing you to engage in some occasional light puzzle work. You'll earn money for every ghost you take out, which you can put towards various upgrades, but for as regularly as the game introduces new toys for you to play with, I didn't feel like the core of the gameplay really changed that much from the beginning to the end, and it all feels a little bit sloppy. I won't deny that it's unique amongst third-person shooters, but even still, what was exciting the first few times eventually felt rote to me.
Most of the time, the game puts you on a narrow, straightforward path. Turns out this is a good thing, as it's rotten about giving you cues as to where you need to go next, which can lead to some aimless wandering on the rare occasion that it opens up a little bit. You'll spend most of the game rolling with some combination of the Ghostbusters team, who will occasionally lead you down the right path, back you up in a fight, and revive you if you get knocked down. Your AI-controlled teammates can get knocked down too, and it seems like that happens rather often, leading to a number of chaotic situations where it feels like you're spending more time babysitting the AI than actually bustin' ghosts.
Perhaps most baffling to me about my experience with Ghostbusters: The Video Game is, as problematic as I found the single-player experience, how much I found myself enjoying the multiplayer. This online mode consists of six different four-player co-op "job" types, which you can attack one at a time, or in a few different three-level mini-campaigns. It's mostly just variants on arena-based multiplayer modes you're probably already familiar with, but the unique tools of the Ghostbusters put an interesting twist on them, and there's some good persistence with the money you earn and a "most wanted" list of ghosts to hunt down to keep you coming back. Some modified weapon behavior aside, it doesn't really handle much differently from the single-player, but the pacing is tighter and playing with live teammates is far more gratifying. This, no doubt, is a point that will irritate PC players, as that version of Ghostbusters: The Video Game features none of the multiplayer action found in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game is nothing if not enthusiastic for the source material, which will undoubtedly be enough for some to have a good time. It certainly kept me going for a good while, but nostalgia alone couldn't quite carry the whole experience. This is one of the pitfalls of something as recognizable as Ghostbusters. It comes with a built-in audience, but that audience can come with some high expectations.