Version tested: PlayStation 3
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.
Gimp My Ride
So what else is new? Full Auto 2's developers also spent some of that time which could have been spent fixing the vehicle handling on a bunch of other features - ranging from the welcome to the meaningless. At the "welcome" end of the spectrum are the various power-ups you can pick up as you bimble around the various levels, with the "Full Repair" token being a sight which inspires sighs of relief in many of the more challenging (or frustrating, depending on how kind we're being) levels.
Further down the line towards "meaningless", we have the new storyline mode which takes centre stage in the game. This is an utterly absurd tale which sees you being tasked by a city police Artificial Intelligence to take on the bandits roaming the city in their armed vehicles causing mayhem. Needless to say, the best way to combat this is to get yourself an armed vehicle and roam around causing mayhem. Still, I guess if it was set in Britain they'd probably just raise the taxes on petrol, make a vague statement about the vital role fathers must play in the raising of purveyors of automotive carnage, and hope for the best - which wouldn't make for a terribly interesting game, we confess.
Back in the realms of "welcome", we find significant improvements to the frame-rate in Full Auto 2. Much as we'd love to inspire you all to write 800 comments of outraged fury at our partisan stance on the console war, we should probably note that an extra 12 months in development over the 360 version has probably done wonders for the engine, not the Awesome Power of Sony's Behemoth - but regardless of the reason, Full Auto 2 is definitely a better game when the framerate doesn't collapse like a house of cards every time the sparks start flying.
Graphically, the game doesn't look remarkably different to its Xbox 360 predecessor - it's sharper, certainly, and shows off the console's 1080p capabilities nicely. However, with so many of the assets being recycled from the 360, it's unsurprising that the game on the whole looks familiar. The audio, too, is unremarkable - fairly generic fast-paced electronica which fits the game well, spares us the indignity of having to listen to what some music executive at a game publisher thinks is Hip and Cool, but won't have anyone rushing out to buy a soundtrack.
One area where Full Auto 2 doesn't skimp, thankfully, is the multiplayer - assuming you can actually find anyone to play against online. We had to jump through a few hoops to arrange a game, as there were hardly any running in the United States no matter when we tried. It's a shame, because the multiplayer actually works quite well, with generally good performance (even on a transatlantic match, it was playable if a bit jerky) and a few interesting modes, including some team-based arena modes which have objectives rather than straightforward deathmatch play. A glaring omission is the lack of any kind of communication with your teammates or opponents; the game doesn't support voice headsets, which takes a significant part of the fun out of playing online.
Full Auto 2 was an opportunity to really push the franchise forward - or rather, to give what was initially a very mediocre game a chance of becoming a genuine franchise. As it stands, this is a step sideways rather than a step forward; the fixed framerate and new arena mode are welcome additions, but the core problems with Full Auto haven't been fixed. The difficulty level has gone from being utterly pitiful to being, on occasion, insanely frustrating and unfair, which is a change but by no means an improvement. The level design, the handling and the balance of the whole game remain skewed - just as badly as they were before, if not worse, albeit in different directions this time.
The idea behind Full Auto 2 is solid. Drive Fast. Blow Things Up. If this game had been a real step forward, we'd have been interested in the prospects for the future of the series, but as it stands, Full Auto feels dead in the water. It's okay - not awful enough to slam, and not good enough to recommend. But with a year to build on its predecessor, it needed to be a lot more than "okay" - and while PS3 owners who have never played the original game on Xbox may be tempted by the promise of vehicular carnage, this is definitely a game whose promise is far greater than what it actually delivers.
5 / 10