Reviewing Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse is difficult, because if I were to say it's bland, unfunny, and offensive, a large portion of the audience will fire back with, "Just like the show!" Meanwhile, another portion will suggest that I find the game vile simply because I don't like the cartoon it's based on.
Neither response will do justice to quite how rotten this game is, however, because Back to the Multiverse offends independently of the show. For the record, I quite like Seth McFarlane, despite his many detractors, and I am capable of enjoying Family Guy. Yeah, I know, I'm a terrible person for that.
But if you think the SHOW's bad, the game is like that time we did a wacky activity with an obscure eighties personality!
Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Heavy Iron Studios
Release: November 20, 2012
If Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse provides one laudable service, it's that it is a nostalgic experience. Remember licensed games from the early 2000s? The ones that provided borderline workable gameplay with visuals that lost something in the transition from 2D cartoon to 3D software? The kind of videogame that regurgitated lines from the show, completely out of context, in the petty hope that we'd remember an old joke and be tricked into thinking it was funny?
Multiverse is exactly that experience. Memories of old Simpsons and South Park games come flooding back in this soporific third-person shooter with substandard cel-shaded graphics that'd look right at home on a PlayStation 2. As Brian states that all he needs now "is a midget with some gin," or as Stewie charmlessly repeats that victory shall be his, it's hard not to feel a little reminiscent glow in the heart. Indeed, this is everything we've come to know and loathe about licensed games, distilled into its purest form.
Any "original" writing found within the game is offensive, and not in the usual Family Guy way. At least on the show, there's a sense the writers were aiming to be funny. Not so in Back to the Multiverse. Nary does a level go by without something being called "gay" or "queer." There's no actual gag to that -- it's just someone calling something gay, and we're meant to laugh. One level set in a world where "it's desirable to be crippled" comes off not as satirical or witty, but as outright spiteful. I love offensive humor, but only if there's "humor" evidenced somewhere in the proceedings. There are no offensive jokes here, there are only offensive comments, coming from a developer that's trying far too hard to emulate McFarlane.
This unfunny dialog is repeated over and over again. If an Amish opponent's banal sex joke doesn't make you smile the first time, you'll be trying to eat your own teeth after you've heard it for the twentieth. Get it, because Amish people don't have sex? No? Get it now? Now? How about now? Over and over again, a tiny selection of character models per level bark the same puerile phrases at you, while the protagonists fire back with out-of-place commentary culled shamelessly from the show.
Gameplay does nothing to make up for the worthless script, either. Played co-op or solo, the campaign puts us in the role of Stewie and Brian as they travel the Multiverse and pursue recurring nemesis Bertram. A sub-standard third-person shooter, our two heroes run from point A to point B, mowing down brainless enemies and occasionally stopping to activate a switch or pursue a short fetch quest. Stewie has access to a range of powerful weapons, such as rocket launchers, laser pistols, and satchel charges, while Brian uses more grounded weaponry including pistols and shotguns. As chapters are cleared, each character can access more guns, but it becomes clear early on that Brian's shotgun is really the only decent weapon in the game. Everything else is either unwieldy or ineffective, while the shotgun's spread and high damage makes up for how terrible the actual combat is to control.
With its floaty physics and imprecise aiming, Multiverse's shambolic combat feels like something dredged up from the N64 era. It's barely even worth aiming due to how erratically enemies run around and how inadequate the weapons are. The only worthwhile tactic is to just take that shotgun and run around in vague circles, blasting the air until the last enemy stops spouting repetitive and unamusing trash. This is more or less how the game is played from beginning to end. Its idea of challenge is to throw more enemies at the player, a tactic mitigated by the fact that dying simply respawns you a few yard back, with no actual penalty. Progress is a matter of attrition, a pointless slog for the few hours it takes to reach its anticlimactic climax.
Special combat items alleviate some of the boredom temporarily. It can be at least mildly amusing to distract enemies with a Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man, or summon Ernie the Giant Chicken to combat enemies to the tune of "Surfin' Bird." These may raise a slight smirk once, but only once. If at all.
There's a set of challenge courses that reuse stages from the main game and charge you with special tasks, such as collecting items within a time limit or killing a set number of enemies without slaughtering innocent characters. While the challenges themselves are unremarkable, they do let you use characters other than Brian and Stewie -- all of which seem to be noticeably more fun to use. They all have their own unique weapons that are far more enjoyable to use, such as Lois' salad-spewing kitchen utensils or Quagmire's machine gun. Quite why these superior characters were relegated to a bunch of shallow extra modes is puzzling, because if they were usable in the campaign, it might have made for a better experience.
Multiplayer is also available, but it's local only, and is really just a series of mundane and trite modes designed to let players run around thoughtlessly shooting each other, just like the rest of the game. It exists more or less for the purpose of allowing Multiverse to say it has multiplayer. In that effort, it at least can be called a success.
Technical issues are naturally in place, to really hammer home how substandard eveything is. The game regularly freezes itself for a few seconds, usually in intervals of two. This can throw the audio out of sync in cutscenes, or screw up your actions as it lags out just when you attempt to input something. As already noted, the visuals are unappealing and dated, especially the poorly compressed cinematics.
Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse is crude, archaic, sloppy, and unfunny, but I don't want the show to be blamed for any of it -- not because I wish to defend Family Guy, but because by blaming the show, we let this game get away with being the invidious dross it is. Multiverse deserves is to be judged as feculence on its own merits, singled out to be eviscerated mercilessly, and if we tie it so closely to the property upon which it is based, we allow its burden to be shouldered.
Let Back to the Multiverse drift alone -- naked, ashamed, and floating bereft on a sea of contempt, buoyed not by excuse nor justification. It is not bad because Family Guy is bad, it is bad because it is unfettered, unrepentant swill.