Version tested: Wii
A warning to all trend-conscious Wii owners: rubbishy mini-game compilations are so last season. The latest fashion for autumn Y2K8 is rubbishy driving games, preferably with a futuristic twist. Or so suggests the latest pile of wretched old tat to land on my desk, of which 75 per cent consists of rubbishy driving games. Two-thirds with a futuristic twist.
One of them isn't too bad, to be fair. Another one almost makes it into the realms of mediocre. But the third is less playable than tennis on a trampoline and seven thousand times less fun. Just to top things off, the remaining 25 per cent is made up of a rubbishy mini-game compilation. Well done everyone.
Time to take a look at what's strolling down the catwalk this season, then. As Gok Wan would say, "Let me feel your bangers, it's all right I'm gay." Or rather, "Let's get going, gorgeous!"
It's always worrying when the developer can't even be bothered to think up a name for their game and ends up going literal. Here we have Off Road, the latest effort from the studio which brought us Football Game and Shoot Things. Probably.
Off Road is officially licenced, at least - there are Ford and Land Rover logos on the box, and proper cars in the game. They are joined by ugly visuals, terrible AI and pathetic physics. Not all of the cars handle badly; some of them handle appallingly, and as the game progresses you can unlock vehicles which handle awfully, shoddily, dreadfully and horrifically.
Theoretically, you steer by holding the Wii remote horizontally and tilting it left and right. In practice, the slightest of nudges will send your car swerving around like it's being driven by a flailing shark who's caught his fins in the wheel. The cars appear to have been made of PVC and filled with helium, judging by the way they float across the track and spring bouncily off obstacles.
There are ice, desert and water environments to drive around, though due to the aforementioned handling these might as well be margarine, extra virgin and WD-40. The races are utterly tedious. It's enough of a struggle trying to make your car go in a straight line, let alone worrying about opponents who zoom off right away at the start of the race never to be seen again.
There's a half-baked attempt to offer a range of game options - tournament, arcade and career modes, checkpoint and slalom challenges and so on. But none of them are enjoyable; they merely represent different kinds of tedious, with great dollops of frustration mixed in. There is also a split-screen multiplayer mode where you can only see half of your car at any given moment.
Off Road is not as hateful as, say, RealPlay Racing, but you still shouldn't buy it.
This game looks like it's based on a shonky Saturday morning cartoon series, perhaps one subsidised by the Canadian Goverment and produced collaboratively by studios in Japan and Quebec, who argue constantly over how spiky the hair should be. In fact, Emergency Heroes has been invented by Ubisoft, and produced collaboratively by studios in Barcelona and Newcastle. I was hoping for Byker Grove as reimagined by Gaudi, but I was disappointed. Instead, think Knight Rider meets Casualty. On Caprica.
Emergency Heroes is set in a futuristic world where just one emergency service takes care of all crime, medical and fire-related business. As a member of this task force you're given a series of missions to carry out, and a collection of increasingly silly vehicles to play around with. Take the fire engine, for example - which is in fact a big red SUV with a giant hose welded to the roof. Then there's a police car which looks like a blue Batmobile with an enormous black and yellow-striped snowplow stuck on the front. There are also buggies, motorbikes, trucks and plenty of other vehicles - nearly 50 in total.
Missions involve things like chasing another car and ramming it to the point of destruction, or using the hose on to extinguish fires as you drive round a circuit. None of them are tricky to complete, and most of them are so easy as to be tedious. Like the ones where you just drive the blue Batmobile through pile after pile of burned-out cars, which requires no skill other than the ability to drive the car in a straight line.
This is a much easier proposition than in Off Road, as the controls in Emergency Heroes aren't too bad. Once again you hold the remote horizontally and tilt to steer. There's a little bit of swerving and the handbrake is so excitable it's pretty much useless, but basically the controls work.
The environments are described as "free-roaming", which is fair - you can choose what order you tackle missions in, and must drive to different start points to embark on them. However, there's not much of an area to roam around, and what there is isn't pretty. It's all sci-fi skyscrapers, ramps, overpasses and monorails, and it all looks like it belongs in a PSone game.
Still. Emergency Heroes has got police snowplows and fire jeeps and motorbikes and if you fill up the turbo meter you can go faster, and you can put the siren on whenever you like, and it's not too hard and you don't die and if you are a five year-old boy you will love it.
If you're the parent of a five year-old boy, you can sit them in front of Emergency Heroes and leave the room, confident it's less graphically violent than an episode of The Archers. Just be aware that for anyone over five, it's also less thrilling. Which brings us neatly to:
This game is based on a cartoon series, the same one that inspired the Wachowski brothers' live action movie spin-off. Think F-Zero and WipEout meet... Just think F-Zero and WipEout, seeing as Speed Racer rips off both of those. It's quite good fun.
There will be no prizes for originality, though. Speed Racer features championship, single race and time trial modes. You can drive different cars with different balances of speed, acceleration, handling and strength. The lady driver's car is pink. The tracks are punctuated with plenty of tunnels, jumps and loop-the-loops, and look like they've been made by squashing a disco into a ball and flattening it out with a rolling pin. The music is traditional boomchi-boomchi-boomchi nineties beats with seventies-style riffs over the top; it sounds like what would happen if Robert Miles got drunk next to a tape recorder with Earth, Wind and Fire.
Just as with Emergency Heroes and that other driving game so tedious I've forgotten what it's called in the time it took to write the preceding paragraphs, you steer your car by holding the remote sideways. But the calibration is much better here, and there's the added bonus of stunts and car combat. You can perform jumps and rolls by jerking the remote upwards, and shunt into other vehicles by jabbing it left or right. This feels intuitive and works surprisingly well. You can throw in button presses to pull off flashier moves, which adds depth and almost manages to make up for the fact the combat is referred to as "Car-Fu" throughout the game.
Stunting and shunting fills up your boost meter, as does driving over the many speed pads littered around. Save up four boosts, and pressing B four times will send you into The Zone. This means you'll zoom along at super-high speeds, bashing anything in your path off the track. Best of all, your car turns to glowing golden jelly, green and silver sparkles spin psychedically through the air, and everything else turns a bright, pulsating, brain-trembling purple. It makes Rainbow Road look like the M4.
It doesn't take long to master the combat moves, and it's easy to unlock all the tracks, characters and vehicles within an afternoon; don't expect anything like the challenge and complexity of WipEout or F-Zero. The multiplayer won't ever hold a candle to Mario Kart, either, and it's only for two players. But if you should spot Speed Racer in a bargain bin, and fancy a few hours of simple, entertaining arcade racing, it's worth a look.
At last, croquet comes to the Wii! It's just one of nine mini-games which comprise Sports Party (except they're really just four mini-games wearing different hats, but more of that later).
Have no fear, Sports Party has nothing in common with the abominable Game Party. Well, "nothing" is a bit strong; they've both got the word "Party" in the title, and they both represent a waste of the time of every single individual involved in their creation. But the former is published by Ubisoft and is merely piss poor; the latter is published by Midway and is less enjoyable than drinking piss. Then sicking it up. Then washing your hair in it.
Plus, Sports Party has better production values (the fact Sports Party has production values is an improvement over Game Party, though). There's a nice tiki theme to the whole thing. The visuals are relatively decent, with a fair amount of detail and animations that aren't completely wretched. The steel drum-infused soundtrack makes you want a pina colada.
But what of the games? Why, they are rubbish, of course. The true test of any sports-themed Wii mini-game compilation is its Wii Sports tennis rip-off, and this one wears a badminton hat. It's rotten. Immediately after a player serves, the camera swings round from behind their character to take an overview of the court - even though the shuttlecock is still in motion. This is extremely disorienting and makes it hard to time your return accurately. The problem is compounded by the fact you don't have the extra second of thinking time afforded by the bounce in Wii Sports tennis. The volleyball mini-game is badminton dressed up differently, and suffers from the same stupid camera thing.
Quite why Ubisoft decided to revive the olden days sports of horseshoes and lawn darts is anyone's guess, but here they are. It's hard to imagine throwing rusty bits of metal at another bit of metal was all that much fun in 1848 and it's certainly no more fun today, though you are less likely to die of tetanus. You just press B and make a throwing gesture to chuck the horseshoes, and it's hard to believe the game is really measuring the motion or strength of your movements; so any success you enjoy feels like pot luck. The lawn darts mini-game is horsehoes with a hat on, and just as entertaining i.e. not very.
But ah, the croquet! Or as it's more commonly known, polo for people who are too poor to own horses but too posh for Swingball. I've never played the real thing, preferring to spend my time dancing, drinking, smoking some fags, playing some pool and watching roaches climb the wall. So I do not understand the rules and cannot tell you if this is an accurate virtual interpretation of the sport. It's quite relaxing though and you can choose what colour balls you want.
The mechanic is the same as that used in the mini-golf game - hold your remote pointing downwards, and swing it like a mallet / club. You have to ensure the remote is perfectly straight and aligned with the floor, which is annoying, especially if you're on your fourth pina colada of the afternoon. And the game isn't brilliant at judging the strength of your swing. However, the mini-golf courses are nicely designed, and certainly more interesting to play around on than Wii Sports golf's tedious old rolling hills.
And finally, there are three basketball games. Not six, as the main menu cheekily implies; just the same three games on two different courts. Someone ought to call Trading Standards. All the games are rubbish due to the fact the mechanic of flicking the remote doesn't work properly. As with horse darts, it feels any points you score are down to luck.
There are other problems with Sports Party. The instructions preceding each game are over-complicated, absent of any visuals and for some reason presented in capitalised font, Which Makes Them Odd To Read And Is Very Annoying Let Me Tell You. They're likely to put off non-gamers who just want to wave a remote around without worrying about super-spikes and scoring systems.
But the main issues are the limited selection of mini-games, and the fact none of them are much fun. There aren't really nine games here, whatever the back of the box might say; you're really getting horse darts, volleyminton, crogolf and basketballbasketballbasketball. They're all lazily designed and won't entertain anyone for more than a handful of goes.
It could be worse; it could be Game Party. I described that as being like "a party where there's nothing to drink but Tesco Value brandy and there are only four other guests and they're all racist then your ex turns up and gets off with a Danish supermodel". This is like a party where the brandy is at least from Sainsbury's mid-price range, and the four guests are thinking about voting Conservative because it's time for a change actually, and your ex turns up with some CDs you left behind and you have a nice chat about how work's going. Still. You wouldn't pay 19.99 to go to that party either, would you?