Simpsons Hit & Run is the redemption of Simpsons Road Rage.
Road Rage was a Simpsonsized Crazy Taxi where you drive around Springfield ferrying characters from the show. Unfortunately (for Simpsons fans) Road Rage - on any console - came off a second rate rip off of a popular game that had already run its course. Which it was.
Hit & Run is another rip-off; this time it's Grand Theft Auto filtered through the yellow Simpsons lens. You are still driving around Springfield, but now your goals are mission-based, plus you can leave the car to enter buildings, kick generic passers-by, collect hidden items, and walk around town. Perhaps what H&R proves is that the GTA formula is so good that can't be totally destroyed, even by a license that simply can't spawn a good video game.
(And probably shouldn't. What makes The Simpsons tv show so great is the comic timing, the sarcasm, the social commentary... stuff that is impossible to recreate in an action game. The only reason people keep bothering to disturb this sleeping giant of all-age franchises is to kick a few more dollars out of its abused hide.)
The good news is that H&R is genuinely fun, although I'm talking from the already weakened standards of previous Simpsons games and licensed titles in general. In no way does this measure up to the Marios and GTAs of the world, but it is passably fun while it lasts. This is a great weekend rental, or something to trot out for some quick, short-term fun (especially with people who have never played it before.) Small environments combined with easy missions makes this a very quick title.
Simpsons Hit & Run consists of seven levels, each with a specific playable character. Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge and Apu (Homer and Bart repeat on levels six and seven) must run through seven missions, given out by characters standing around the sidewalks, streets and parking lots of Springfield. Each mission leads into the next - by means of thin plot contrivances - but you don't have to speed directly from one to another. In the freeform style of GTA, you can drive around town looking for hidden pickups, street race missions, new cars/costumes to buy, and the one bonus mission. (Yes, only *one* bonus mission per level. Not very inspiring, is it?)
The "Hit & Run" aspect refers to an interesting take on the GTA style of vehicle violence. You're allowed to do whatever you want - knock over lightposts, slam into other cars, skid through outdoor tables and signs - until you fill your H&R meter. When that happens, Police Chief Wiggum and his patrol car squad come after you. It is possible to outlast them; after so many seconds they just vanish. But if they catch you, you have to pay out 50 coins. The bribe amount can really hurt your potential for buying the bonus cars and costumes, so reckless players will find themselves broke and stuck with the initial set of crappy vehicles. The flipside is that you get coins for knocking over stuff, so it's a constant balancing act. Drive like crazy to get money, but then slow it down so you don't attract the cops.
The missions are the only required element to proceed through the levels - and even some of those are skippable - but completists like myself will be constantly checking the Level Progress screen to see what hidden items remain to be found. Each level has 7 collectible cards to find, scattered coins, plus hidden gags and invisible wasp cameras. I know you're thinking WTF is a wasp camera, but I'll get to that.
The gags are little comedy bits, often taken directly from the show. When you see a small cloud of sparkles hovering near something, you wander over and activate it. The Squishee machine explodes. Bart's clown bed rattles. The Kamp Krusty flag turns into Kamp Bart. The gags add a bit of life to the town, especially the ones that play random voice quips from the character standing unseen on the other side of the door, like Cletus inside his outhouse or the Flanders kids in their bomb shelter.
In actuality though, that's not a lot to do. A diligent player can easily clear several entire levels in a night; if not to 100% than at least to 98% each. H&R could have benefitted from even more of GTA's source code and included triggerable random missions... like the criminal chases, ambulance rides, and pizza delivery modes of Vice City. Minigames would have been nice as well... like actually being to play the Larry the Looter arcade game instead of just watching the cartoon demo as a gag.
Another disappointment is that the level environments repeat. There's really only three different worlds among the seven levels: Springfield/Suburb (x3), Springfield/Downtown (x2) and Springfield/Waterfront (x2). There are subtle (and not so subtle) differences between reruns, like Macy's Parade balloons inserted into the second Downtown level, and the addition of Burns's Mansion in the second Suburb, but it still makes the game feel shorter than it is since you're basically driving the same streets.
Entirely unforgiveable is that many of the same collectible gags repeat on the levels as well. That's just plain lazy. And it hurts the replay value of collecting all the items because you already know where half of them are.
Still thinking about those wasp cameras? I know I was when I first read about them. The wasp cameras are about the most insanely stupid, un-Simpsons plot device possible. They do fit into the storyline, eventually, though for most of the game I was dumbfounded by them. And even when the game wraps around to explaining why there are giant wasp cameras all over town (because the plot twists into a Treehouse of Horror episode - watch the dates on the loading screens) you can't help but wonder why the creators chose giant wasps.
As far as Simpsons refs goes, this is a goldmine. The Stonecutters' Secret Tunnel, Lisa's "Floreda" costume, the midget skeleton inside the sci-fi robot, Wall E. Weasel's, the Seven Duffs... every corner of the game recalls some great Simpsons episode. The characters are voiced by the original cast, so there's no jarring sound-alikes to wreck the mood. Your character will shout random lines as you drive, but never to the point of annoyance. Having five playable characters (plus several talking chauffeur characters) keeps that from being a problem.
Unfortunately, if you've played Road Rage you're going to experience a lot of deja vu. Many of the same visual gags appear in both games. It's a shame, because Road Rage pales in comparison to Hit & Run.
For every place where the game throws in a great bonus touch, it runs cheap in another. Each character's extra costumes has it's own unique waiting animation... but mission explanation scenes all show you and another character standing six feet apart, mouths wagging but never syncing with the VO. Each level has individually tailored music - saxy stuff for Lisa, Indian tunes for Apu... but walk along any platform area and you'll see how you can stand on nothing for yards beyond the edge. It all adds up to a very uneven presentation.
In terms of mission difficulty, nothing is overly hard. Most of the later missions rely on you learning to control a fast car and knowing your street shortcuts. Since speed is generally the issue, it can be incredibly disturbing to have your entire mission scuttled because you foolishly rammed oncoming traffic, but that's all part of the game. At the end of the day, Hit & Run just isn't that hard. The simple controls and easier levels could easily be approached by younger gamers - although some characters' minor swearing might not be welcomed. But note this, kids: your character never dies, and if your car gets stuck on something you just hit a button to restore it.
I think this is a fun game and worth your time to play it, just way too short. If only it had ongoing missions, more unlockables, a split-screen 2P mode, or more open-ended play, this would be a fun pick-up-and-play title. As it stands, I've reached 98% game completion in under two weeks, and I was pacing myself. All I am missing is the expensive purchasable items; I ran out of money. This game should not sell for $50. You're only getting half that in gameplay. Rent first or buy cheap.