Version tested: Xbox 360
Help me out, readers. I'm not imagining it, am I? Ten years ago, Vigilante 8 on the PSone was pretty great, right? It gave you a bunch of souped-up 1970s muscle cars, a selection of kick-ass weapons to bolt on the roof and sides, and let you loose in a variety of custom arenas for all-out war. The aim of the game was nothing more lofty than to be the last man standing. Or last car rolling, at least.
When I heard that Vigilante 8 was heading to Xbox Live Arcade my heart didn't just skip, it draped itself in ribbons and cavorted gaily through sunny meadows full of heady, nostalgic blooms. In fact, I seem to recall loving it even more than Twisted Metal: World Tour, on account of the improved graphics and beefy physics.
So why am I so bitterly disappointed now? The obvious answer is because Vigilante 8 was never that good. The more hopeful answer is that this remake of Vigilante 8, which mixes elements from the first game and its 1999 sequel, Second Offense, isn't actually that good. That can't be right, surely?
I certainly don't remember the cars in the 1998 version behaving like they'd been filled with helium, drifting through the air at strangely slow speeds, launching into a hundred barrel rolls after hitting the slightest ramp, flipping and spinning at every opportunity until you feel like you're stuck in a tumble-drier. And I definitely don't recall the controls being this thick and sticky, with even the nippiest sports car unable to perform a basic handbrake turn.
These are the two most immediate problems with this do-over, and it never gets past the sluggish controls or the horrible disorientating effect of the constant physics freak-outs. Faced with such frequent dizzy spells, the graphics engine throws up its hands in sympathy and stops trying. Clipping is constant, the camera frequently gets lodged inside solid objects and enemy vehicles judder and shake as they get hung up on the scenery.
It looks grim, in other words. So much so that the screenshots seem downright misleading. The game never looks that good in action. At times, you'd swear it was just emulating the PSone code rather than benefiting from a brand new HD engine. The music, at least, is pretty good - a self-consciously retro-hip mix of 1970s sounds, from pseudo James Brown dirty funk to grimy Skynyrd-style Southern rock.
The tragedy is that, somewhere in this glitchy and clunky stew, there's still a fun game to be found. Admittedly, sniffing out this amusement means first learning to tolerate the game's shortcomings, and then working past them to focus on the fact that chasing around in cars and shooting stuff with rockets is always going to have some appeal, even when poorly executed.
This appeal is at its most obvious in multiplayer, where you're at least battling fellow humans struggling with the same control issues rather than the dim-bulb AI opponents. With eight wacky 1970s characters and five arenas, there's just enough variety for an 800 Point download, and some of the locations - though tweaked - remain well designed to take full advantage of the relentless action.
Almost everything can be destroyed, and there are several cute little warp points and Easter Eggs lurking about the place. You also get to choose between split-screen or online play, and you can opt for a versus or co-op match. There's even a mostly pointless Free Ride mode so you can drive around the empty arenas looking for hidden tokens without being blasted to atoms.
It's never going to be a game I'd recommend though, purely because fundamental elements like control and camera are so frustratingly unpolished. It's not even as if this is some cynical port by some make-do code shop. Isopod Labs, the developer of this version, was founded by some of the original Luxoflux team that worked on the original. Which raises the question - was the game always this clunky, and if so why hasn't it been fixed? Or have they actually made the game worse in the transition from 1998 to 2008? Whatever the answer, only the devotedly nostalgic will have the patience to put up with heavily armed cars that handle like party balloons.
5 / 10