Cars going extremely fast and stuff blowing up. How could they go wrong? No matter how much we sing the praises of artistic, emotive masterpieces like ICO or Okami, nobody can deny that the very foundation on which videogames are built consists of giant boulders like Cars Going Extremely Fast and Stuff Blowing Up. Combine the two, and surely entertainment just happens?
Admittedly, it didn't happen last time. The first Full Auto was an Xbox 360 exclusive, and the series' defection to the PS3 probably won't provoke a flood of tears and fevered breast-beating among 360 owners. It was a good, if somewhat obvious, idea - combine the mechanics of Burnout with the time-rewinding of Prince of Persia, and top it all off by giving the cars guns to increase the carnage.
Unfortunately, the whole turned out to be somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The driving handled poorly and compared badly to Burnout, the time-rewinding made everything vastly too easy and stripped the game of any challenge, the guns were utterly unsatisfying and fiddly to control, and ultimately didn't add anything to the game. Combined with crap framerates - albeit rather pretty graphics - the end result was a game whose good ideas were drowned in a sea of weak design.
Full Auto 2 shifts platform, and unlike plenty of other games which will accompany the PS3 down the aisle in Europe, it is at least a sequel to the Xbox 360 original, rather than a port. Unfortunately, while the game has been tweaked, enhanced and remodelled in some respects, the developer seems to have spent the past year poking and prodding all the wrong parts.
For those unaware of the Xbox 360 title, the bulk of what you need to know about Full Auto is summarised above. You participate in a series of races against other cars with guns strapped to them, burning rubber through the city streets as you fling bullets, smoke clouds and what have you at your opponents. The hook, as it were, is that when you crash into a wall (quite frequently), you can hammer a button to make time rewind, which drags you out of the wall, back onto the road, and lets you correct your error this time around.
This mechanic remains intact in Full Auto 2, although this time around your ability to rewind is somewhat restricted by the fact that your time manipulation abilities share a bar with your boost power. In theory, this should introduce a tricky balancing act to the game; in practice, it does make things somewhat tougher, but discourages you from using the boost more than anything else. Full Auto 2 recycles much of its level design from the first game, but increases the speed of the action significantly. Even for the most competent player, anything other than extremely judicious use of the boost is going to send you flying into an obstacle at full tilt.
The effect of the increased speed is not, as the designers might have hoped, to make things more exciting and challenging. Rather, it makes everything more frustrating - because despite its obsession with aping Burnout, Full Auto was never really designed properly for high speeds. Burnout's clever level design funnels vehicles at a fast pace through its tracks, giving a wonderfully reckless edge to the sensation of speed. Full Auto, on the other hand, fills its levels with unnecessary outcrops, alcoves and obstacles. It knocks you from first to last place, from over 100 miles per hour to a standstill, on a whim, and demands a level of caution which is totally at odds with the presentation of the game. Increasing the speed just makes the frustration mount up, not the challenge.
Tragically - and frankly, astonishingly - the speed is about the only thing which has changed about how your car handles. Your vehicle still moves like a helium balloon, with handling which would be more suited to a toy hovercraft than for a heavily armoured war machine. Tiny jumps send you floating through the air, and sliding around corners never feels controlled or precise. We're drawn inexorably back to the Burnout comparison; Burnout's physics model is far from realistic, but it's fun, and everything feels weighty and right. By comparison, Full Auto 2 feels as if you were racing a car made out of balsawood. On the moon.
Still - guns, eh? Guns strapped to cars, that's got to be good? Actually, it is. Although the weapons you start out with - a crappy machine gun and a smoke screen - are rather weak, you're soon gifted with more meaty alternatives like an oversized shotgun, landmines and so on. Each vehicle can be equipped with a gun that aims forward, and another weapon to take care of enemies behind you, and you select your weapon load-out before each of the events in the game.
By and large, they work extremely well - they're satisfying to fire and cause a fair amount of damage. Unfortunately, the addition of an aiming mechanism for the weapons just makes things fiddly; the game allows you to aim your front weapon to some extent with the right stick, but to do so, you need to take your thumb off the vital face buttons on that side of the pad. It's not a good solution, and the game would be more enjoyable with some degree of auto-aim or lock-on rather than a manual aiming control; perhaps less skilled, but definitely more fun. As it is, you'll find yourself ignoring the ability to aim, for the most part, and just trying to get up close and fire instead.
Or, alternatively, not bothering. While the weapons are one of the stronger points of the game, they suffer innately from the problem that they don't actually do you much good in the races which form the bulk of Full Auto 2's events. Enemies you take down will respawn and catch up with remarkable speed, and the game is absolutely shameless in its use of rubber-banding - ensuring that you're always surrounded by enemies, and never far out in front. The explosions and crashes are extremely satisfying when you're on the death-dealing end of them, certainly, but you find yourself longing for Burnout's more interesting mechanic of nudging enemies into obstacles - or at least, for the use of weapons to actually be a bit more meaningful.
Where the weapons come into their own a bit more is in Full Auto 2's new mode, which is Destruction Derby style arena combat. This is actually a lot more promising than the original racing mode of the game, not least because all those niggling comparisons with the likes of Burnout disappear. It helps that these levels are genuinely new, so our unkind tendancy to think of the game as Full Auto 1.5 can be laid to rest for a while. In essence, these sections chuck you into a big (and usually multi-layered) arena, throw in a bunch of bots, and set you off to take down opponents until the mission objectives are sated.
It's here that the developers have seemingly made a serious effort to make sure nobody ever accuses Full Auto of being too easy again. The enemy AI is brutal and relentless - but normally in a good way, with plenty of variety in tactics and genuine cunning on display. Strategies range from ramming you into a wall and perforating you with a shotgun, to weaving around deliberately avoiding your forward-firing weapons, leading you into a nail-biting dogfight style situation. Our major problem with this mode was that sometimes the odds are stacked against you a bit too much; it works as open deathmatch, but when enemies start ganging up on you, it's all too easy to end up trapped and running out of health. When this happens it doesn't feel like your fault - it feels like the game was unfair. Unfair isn't fun, but thankfully, for the most part the arena modes in Full Auto 2 are fun.