In Fatal Inertia, the first game from Japanese publisher Koei's new Canadian development studio, you drive futuristic hovering race vehicles at ridiculous speeds and fire weapons to impede the progress of your opponents.
In simple terms, this means that Fatal Inertia is going to be dogged from the outset by the basic assumption that it's just another WipEout clone. All the ingredients are there, after all; even the visual style of the game owes a certain something to WipEout's Designers Republic-influenced graphic design.
However, a few races around Fatal Inertia's varied environments reveals that there's a far closer parallel to be drawn than WipEout. In fact, in many regards, the game departs dramatically from the WipEout formula - especially in terms of its tracks, which are criss-crossed with shortcuts, obstacles and so on, a far cry from WipEout's carefully crafted smooth-walled tunnels.
As such, the parallel we ended up drawing after about half an hour with the game wasn't with WipEout. Instead, it was with Mario Kart - a game which the development team profess to be huge fans of, and one to which Fatal Inertia may well be a surprisingly solid next-gen homage.
They've Gone To Plaid
The Mario Kart comparison holds pretty true for the bulk of Fatal Inertia's design decisions. The game may be futuristic and gritty, rather than bright and cartoonish, but Koei's intentions are clearly in line with Nintendo's despite this - the game is meant to be simple to pick up and play for anyone, but full of advanced techniques that will take a while to master.
From what we've seen, Fatal Inertia makes a damned good stab at achieving exactly this. The basic controls for your vehicle are incredibly intuitive for anyone who has played a racing game before, and feel responsive and enjoyable. The stages you race around are intricate in their layout, but it's rare to get lost (we only managed this a couple of times on one of the more open stages), and once you grasp the fact that your craft has solid up and down flight controls as well as standard steering, zooming around the tracks is pretty straightforward and enjoyable.
However, there are tricks and subtleties to it - partially in terms of the various shortcuts, which call upon players to work out the most favourable routes as they play, but also in terms of the handling itself. Introducing up and down as concepts alongside left and right makes a significant change to the handling we're all used to from the likes of F-Zero and WipEout. The beginner won't even notice it, but after a few races we had picked up the fact that pressing close to the ground gives a speed boost traded off against increased risk of pranging your nose against a rock, while careful adjustments to your height can let you whiz through track sections that looked impassable otherwise.
Weapons, too, start out simple and get more complex as you play with them. Unlike most combat racing games, weapons in Fatal Inertia are designed to screw around with the physics of your opponent and impede their progress, rather than simply destroying them. When you start playing, just firing weapons at will works fine; but as you progress, you'll need to think more carefully about what each weapon actually does.
The most common weapons in the games are all, essentially, magnets. One type fires out a shower of powerful, heavy magnets, which attach to an enemy craft and proceed to weigh down the vehicle realistically - so, for example, if you hit his left wing, his handling will drag heavily to the left. It's more subtle than a shotgun, but no less lethal when applied properly.
Even traditional weapons get a magnetic makeover - the rocket launcher no longer blows things up, but rather attaches itself to an enemy vehicle and then fires a powerful rocket boost. Get one of those stuck to an enemy off-centre, and it'll almost certainly send them into a spin and then promptly into a rock-face. A secondary fire mode, however, actually attaches the rocket to your own tail - granting you a powerful but tricky to master boost.
It's clear, then, that a fairly solid physics model is the second string to Fatal Inertia's bow, along with the Mario Kart style "easy to pick up, hard to master" approach. This mostly manifests itself in the behaviour of your craft - they pick up locational damage as you whiz around, too, which can result in a lot of F-Zero style retirements if you're bumping and grinding your way along too many cliff faces. However, there are also some nods to track physics, especially in the form of boulders, stalactites, and so on which roll around or break off convincingly if disturbed by passing craft, causing hazards for others.
My brains are going into my feet!
The other major string in this bow, if the analogy stretches quite that far, is that Fatal Inertia offers a level of customisation to its vehicles which will appeal greatly to anyone of a tinkering mindset. Each of the initial craft fits a basic racing archetype (fast but hard to handle, slow but heavily armoured, and so on), but as you progress through the race tournaments that make up the single-player game, you'll unlock a huge variety of bits and pieces to customise your vehicle.
This customisation isn't just about tweaking the stats of the craft, though - the team has been careful to include a huge range of visual changes that can be made to each vehicle, ensuring that you'll be able to create a fairly unique look to bring online and race against others. The game supports eight players online, the same number that it throws onto the track in each single player race. Actually, that's a point of minor concern; we'd rather hoped for F-Zero-style races with dozens of opponents, and the smaller number being thrown around by Fatal Inertia could lead to some races where you don't see much of the other players.
Graphically, this Unreal 3 engine-based game isn't going to be winning any awards; the art direction isn't terribly inspired, and the graphics themselves are sitting right in the middle of Average Country by the standards of other next-gen titles. However, Koei appears to have focused its efforts on framerate rather than fancy effects, which is probably the right decision for this sort of game. The build we played seemed silky smooth even in busy parts of the track; if the final build can keep up this framerate consistently, a lot of criticism of the visuals will be forgiven.
Perhaps more importantly, the game does offer plenty of variety in its tracks. Six major areas make up the game's content - each with a unique type of terrain, ranging from an icy Arctic shoreline to a rocky Grand Canyon style area riddled with huge caves. Within each area, there are eight or nine courses, and several of them are somewhat specialised - such as Havoc courses, which boast far more weapon pads than normal, or Navigator courses, which focus on racing over combat and require a deft hand on the analogue stick.
As a first game from a new studio, Fatal Inertia is looking rather promising. Although it's being launched into a genre which is full of competition from very highly regarded franchises such as F-Zero and WipEout, there's not actually been much action on the high-speed racing front in the past couple of years.
Above all, the team's intriguing decision to look to Mario Kart for its inspiration could well pay off nicely by bringing MK's unrivalled gameplay mechanics to a setting that's arguably more palatable for many Xbox owners. That all depends, of course, on Fatal Inertia's ability to live up to the promise we saw in a fairly solid preview build; a question we'll tackle in more depth closer to the launch of the game.
Fatal Inertia is out on Xbox 360 in September, with a PS3 version to follow later on. There's a demo of the game on Xbox Live Marketplace right now for 360 owners.