Things you can very comfortably assume about gamers in their thirties include them having more disposable income than free time, and them loving Ghostbusters on a deep and spiritual level.
So the prospect of an asymmetrical “let’s jump on this for an hour” multiplayer game set in the Ghostbusters universe, featuring Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and a lavish recreation of the iconic firehouse HQ (complete with slidey poles and the basement containment unit) seems destined to be a successful one.
It is, inevitably, headed up by Illfonic, who has carved out a bit of a niche for This Sort Of Thing. This will be their third licensed Left 4 Dead-em-up after the lukewarmly received Friday the 13th: The Game and the, er, lukewarmly received Predator: Hunting Grounds. In general, it’s the umpteenth attempt to adapt Ghostbusters into the medium of the interactive nonsense box, and it’s just as valid an approach as any of the others, which run the gamut from 8-bit business management sim to big-budget third-person shooter.
Which is where Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed deviates most visibly from the last bustin’ game you felt good about – the Ghostbuster gameplay here is strictly first person, and for good reason according to Illfonic CEO Chuck Brungardt: “one thing we wanted to do is really immerse the player in that Ghostbusters experience…you know, the tension that can build when searching for a ghost, the power of firing the particle thrower and your proton pack”.
Yep, Chuck, we know it very well. As I recall, in the school playgrounds of the mid-80s to early 90s, nothing inspired as much Hollywood roleplay as Ghostbusters. For years, not a single lunchtime went by without some kind of argument about who gets to be Peter (I always bagsied Ray, having figured out early on that being lumped with the pressure to improvise as a wisecracking Bill Murray was a poisoned chalice not worth fighting over). Well, Illfonic has solved that, because you can’t ‘be Peter’ in this. Instead, you get to build your own Ghostbuster from scratch – a point of pride for Jared Gerritzen, Illfonic’s head of creative: “we’re making this for a massive Ghostbusters community, making sure that we have representation of all shapes, sizes, races and genders. So we have a big customization system for the character”.
Players will also be able to customise their ghost avatar by visiting Ray’s Occult Books (staffed, of course, by Ray Stantz himself) and opening a copy of Tobin’s Spirit Guide. It’s a clever use of the series’ background detail; the type of fan-favourite minor trivia that Illfonic is very good at plucking from the lore to use as a conceit for some game mechanic or another. And, it’s a great sign that so much thought has gone into something that will, statistically, occupy around a fifth of the player’s time.
This is where the Ghostbusters license comes into its own: no part of this formula is a consolation prize. In Friday the 13th, the precious little time you spent stalking other players as Jason was considerably more fun than the majority of the game where you played a youth camp counsellor looking for their car keys. Likewise with Predator: Hunting Grounds – who wants to play a mercenary with trench foot when you could be prowling the treetops as the galaxy’s deadliest ugly?
If anything, you might think Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed lies in danger of just flipping that inequity on its head; that having to play as the antagonist will be a drag, while four of your mates get to live it up with their jumpsuits and proton cannons and quick wit. Not so: the ghost gameplay looks to be an absolute blast. Your objective in this mode is to terrify every punter at a location (in the demo we were shown this was a museum). Ghost mode gameplay is in a nice and roomy third-person view. You can possess objects, fly around as a deathly apparition, make loud noises, and just generally be a little bastard to your heart’s content. There’s something inherently satisfying about scaring the wits out of little computer people – this is the hook of entire games after all (like Ghost Master, for example. Remember that?)
As you scare more and more people, the level gradually changes to reflect the levels of metaphysical (and, er, physical) damage you’ve inflicted. Toward the end of a successful ghost run, the local decor takes on a remarkably Fairground Haunted House chic. It’s the sort of wraparound visual feedback that is hugely rewarding for you, and panic-inducing for your opponents who, if things have reached this stage, probably aren’t coordinating very well.
The Ghostbuster team have a few tasks to manage – firstly, finding the ghost, who may be possessing any object. Secondly, catching the ghost, who may have planted a “rift” somewhere in the level to facilitate an easy escape from the clutches of a particle stream. Thirdly, managing the fear level in the crowd. That is, undoing the psychic damage that the ghost has caused, by talking to people and getting them to calm down. Again, this all ties in beautifully with elements from the films – investigating, shooting, crowd control.
There’s a role for every kind of player here: your sneaky buggers, your Nice Shootin’ Tex’s, your smoke-em-outs, and even your pacifists. Illfonic has gone to great lengths to ensure that the game is fun regardless of your skill level or whether or not anyone likes you; AI can seamlessly step in to fill out the roles (even mid-match). Once again, this is laser-targeted at people my age; we’re all knackered husks with no mates and crap reaction times, so the effort is much appreciated.
You can’t drive Ecto-1, because this isn’t Forza, but she’s here, putting in a shift for cutscenes and giving Winston something to lean on at HQ. And it’s important for her to be here, because it’s part of the fabric of the world. And that’s something which a lot of Left 4 Dead clones have fallen short of in the years since it debuted, prompting countless others to try and replicate its success: the stakes felt real because the world and characters within it felt real. An emphasis on immersion, not as empty aesthetic but as the very soul of the thing, is the main differentiator between a ‘game’ and an ‘experience’. It’s an exceedingly difficult thing to pull off in a multiplayer title, which is why Left 4 Dead remains a standout example of it after such a huge length of time.
With Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed, the team at Illfonic might just have found the perfect containment system for bottling that magic. After honing its craft for the last five years or so, it seems that the right license has now come along to really make the most of it – something that’s not quite a horror and not quite a shooter. Something quirky, endearing, and ultimately very human. With upgradable proton packs. A playground fantasy beautifully realised – if it can pull it off.