Poor old Ghost Rider, already fighting the age old stigma of being a game based on a movie licence, the Nicholas Cage film in question has been through a painfully long and troubled gestation period that's recently seen it finally limp into cinema's to almost universal critical distain. To make matters worse for 2K Games' PS2 game it's movie premier-linked release date comes just before the overshadowing European launch of the PS3 and the last hurrah on the PS2 of the stunning God Of War series, a series that Ghost Rider borrows so heavily from it could almost be related. So, it's hardly surprising that enthusiasm for this new release is hardly sky high. However, in the interests of objectivity it seems only fair to try and judge the game on its own merits as opposed to simply taking the easy pot shots that a game already this hampered by fate so readily offers.
Picking up right after the climax of the film, the plot of the game has been penned by comic writers Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti and sees Johnny 'Ghost Rider' Blaze enlisted to help clear the earth of demonic nasties thereby helping the evil Mephisto keep his end of a deal with the angels up in Heaven, stopping the end of the world in the process. As if the prospect of staving off the apocalypse wasn't enough Mephisto also threatens to kill Johnny's girl Roxanne should he refuse to play ball. How's that for motivation! Despite the comic book pedigree of the writers involved even in gaming terms the story is pretty weak and underdeveloped, meaning it won't be something either writer will want to keep on their CV for long. The story such as it is is kept ticking over between missions via some semi animated comic book style panels and a typically gruff voiceover from Sam Elliot. It's an interesting change from the normal CGI or in game cut scenes and while it could be labelled as 'cheap' if you were being cynical it does work fairly well and is a nice nod to the character's comic book heritage for all those that thought the movie and game was the beginning and end of all things Ghost Rider.
Delve into the game proper and you'll find most levels see Ghost Rider battling his way through demon filled area after demon filled area killing everything in sight with levels ranging from town squares and government bases to caverns in the depths of hell visiting various locations familiar from the film in the process. Each level is broken up into numerous smaller enclosed battlegrounds, each of which has the exit blocked in some way until you've dealt with the hordes of bad guys that magically appear fully intent on your destruction once you've arrived. It's not the most sophisticated method of progression in the world and does tend to feel as restrictive and fake as you would expect in this world of expansively freeform sandbox gaming. But Ghost Rider never claims to be anything more than a button bashing arcade action game and as such it's the combat itself that needs to be the real star and here's where it gets a little tricky. Anyone who's played the aforementioned 'God Of War' or even Capcom's 'Devil May Cry' series will be right at home, in fact combine the two games, swap GoW's swinging blades for Ghost Riders Hellfire chain, slap a set of dark hellish textures on everything and you've pretty much got the idea. Taking your cues from such popular series is of course a double-edged sword, get it right and you'll be applauded for taking the genre to the next level, get it wrong and you'll be derided for being a sub standard knock off. Make no mistake, Ghost Rider never comes close to the former, but it's also a little unfair to consign it completely to the latter. While it ticks all the boxes needed to do the job, combo based combat, upgradeable special moves and character stats, combo multipliers and finishing moves a-plenty it can't quite ever pull them off with as much style and panache as something like, oh lets say, God Of War. Crucially however, it does do it all well enough to provide some solid fun.
It does have some fresh ideas of its own too, the most obvious of these is the bike riding levels that crop up now and then offering a welcome change of pace. Essentially they never amount to much more than speeding down a narrow track astride Ghost Riders flaming motorcycle jumping over or sliding under obstacles and doing your best to take out as many bad guys along the way before you reach the end of the stage but they work well enough despite having the most basic motorcycle handling models seen in many a long year. In a nice addition for fans of the central character and his comic book history, once you've maxed out all of your game related (or even before if you want) you can spend any upgrade points you earn unlocking various making-of videos and comics. None of which are worth buying the game for on their own but are nice easy to obtain rewards to enjoy once you have.
Although it may sound like I'm apologising for and even trying to talk up a game that no doubt many other reviewers will slate I'm not blind to its flaws, of which there are a fair number. Most damagingly the upgrade system isn't in the least bit balanced, the ease with which upgrade points (the souls of your victims) are earned means even an average player will have maxed out most of the abilities within the first few levels thereby making the rest of the game that much less of a challenge. It's also woefully short, in these days of ten and fifteen hour epics you'll be lucky to spend half that completing Ghost Rider, a fact made all the more galling when you realise that the developers couldn't even fill that small amount of gaming time with fresh locations and instead often have you fighting your way back through the same areas. Also, while button bashing can always get you so far in games like this there's normally a point where you realise you'll need to pay a bit more attention and actually learn some of the moves and combos to get any farther. Unfortunately this point never really comes with Ghost Rider, learning the moves can make your progress more spectacular for sure, but it won't often get you anywhere that blindly flailing at the buttons wouldn't and that's a shame as it takes a lot of the sense of skill out of the experience. Special mention also goes to the complete lack of camera control available to the player, where the right analogue stick just begs to be used to spin the camera round at times instead it's been assigned to a fairly pointless multidirectional roll supposed to allow you to avoid attacks but in reality hardly ever needed.
Graphically, this being a PS2 game (and not one called Okami) its never going to take your breath away now we're all becoming so used to next gen HD gaming, but, taking it in context the graphics do a decent enough job of showing the world of Ghost Rider without ever being spectacular. The character models are a bit bland in places and there is a slightly hazy quality to the whole thing, although thankfully they nailed the whole flame-effect bit. The level design isn't often what you'd call inspired but to be fair the action also rarely lets up enough for you to spend too much time looking around.
The problem Ghost Rider has is that by following the leaders of the pack so closely it never really gives itself a chance to stand out from their shadow, meaning it will forever be judged for what it isn't rather than what it actually is. Taking it on its own merits it's a generally fun but rather un-ambitious and far too short arcade brawler that certainly isn't going to change the world but will happily provide a few hours of solid fun for anyone willing to give it a go. How many will spare the time or more importantly the money, with pennies already being saved for the imminent release of GoW2, is questionable, but anyone that does will find that just because something isn't great doesn't mean its bad. 66%