This gem of an arcade racer is the pleasant surprise of PlayStation Vita's bulging and generally high-quality launch line-up. It's also an absolute steal at under a fiver from the PlayStation Store (or six euros, but sadly no dollars yet - it's due for release in North America on March 6th). But that's not even the half of it. MotorStorm RC is a revival of a sadly neglected sub-genre of racing games - and a bite-sized vision of Sony's cross-platform future, because it's on PS3 too.
It's also a valiant rally from Evolution, the Sony-owned studio whose loud and proud MotorStorm: Apocalypse was all but sunk by a terrible real-life coincidence last year. Humbled but undaunted, a small team at Evolution shrunk the MotorStorm series' off-road vehicles down to radio-controlled models for this top-down racer, and remade its epic locations out of cardboard boxes, mud, tyres and chalk.
The result looks and plays a lot like the classic Micro Machines, or Mashed if you have a shorter memory (or, if you have a slightly longer one, that magnificent arcade cab of the late 1980s, Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart's Super Off Road). You look down on a compact track from above and steer little cars around it, firing them off ramps, round banking and over bumps and around hazards.
RC cars are a perfectly natural fit for this play style. On Vita, the default (and best) control scheme even mimics a radio control handset, with throttle and brake/reverse on the right stick. You can set these to buttons or triggers if you prefer, but being digital, they don't offer the same feel or fine control.
Evolution has always prided itself on its handling physics and those standards haven't lowered alongside the scope and budget of its latest release. The wild, skittering momentum, high speed and low grip of the toy racers is wonderfully conveyed, along with the shrill whine of their electric motors and their harmless, clattering crashes. MotorStorm's trademark surfaces also feature, with dirt, mud, ice and concrete all having an identifiable feel.
The eight car classes, based on MotorStorm favourites such as Buggy, Racing Truck and Big Rig, have distinct and tactile handling characteristics and a couple of them are even great fun to drift. The faster ones - which you won't access until a little way into the game - require real concentration and sensitive use of the throttle to master.
Events unlock simply by earning medals in the races, hot lap time trials, overtake challenges and drifting competitions - up to three in each event. It's no picnic, and by a third of the way through the game you'll be having to work hard to pass events or improve earlier performances to get enough medals to progress.
It might be tough, but it's the opposite of cumbersome. Instantaneous restarts, minimal loading, lap times of 15 to 30 seconds and events that last a couple of minutes at most make this an incredibly fast-paced game, and you're urged on by a soundtrack of insistent dubstep and techno that's mixed so it never drops out for a moment. Immediate, addictive, manageable and focused, MotorStorm RC is an ideal portable game.
What elevates it to a great arcade game is the excellent live leaderboard implementation. Hook up to a wi-fi or 3G connection and RC will flash updates at you when friends and strangers beat your times, as well as show rankings for each event. You might be tooling around with your RC cars in the game's lovely Playground area, trying to jump through basketball hoops or punt footballs through goalposts at the time; just hold a button down and you're whisked straight to that event, with a ghost of your rival's performance (represented neatly by an arrow on the track) to test yourself against. You can send challenges via Facebook or direct message, too.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to select a specific ghost from the leaderboards, and the choice of ghosts when you restart an event is unpredictable to say the least. An even bigger disappointment is the complete lack of local or online multiplayer, which would surely be a riot - although this is an excellent time trial game, which is arguably more than half the battle when it comes to social racing.
If you play MotorStorm RC on PS3, however, you can enjoy split-screen racing for four players. Which brings us to MotorStorm RC's most remarkable feature. This is a true cross-play game, with one price covering both Vita and PS3 versions, no segregation of players on the leaderboards, and your progress saved to the cloud and transferred seamlessly between the two clients. The game is completely identical on the two systems, save a few additional graphical effects on the PS3 version.
It's witchcraft, frankly. This first taste of genuine cross-platform play between home and handheld makes it seem an extremely compelling proposition, and it's very exciting (even though I'm always going to prefer playing RC on Vita - it just seems more at home there). It might not be a vision of the future - you can play Portal on your laptop, after all - but it's certainly a lot more like the present than anything else the console manufacturers are offering.
MotorStorm RC isn't two games in one, it's one game in two - and it's an absurd bargain. With online multiplayer, it would be a miniature classic. As it is, it's recommended for PS3 owners, all but essential if you have a Vita - and for lovers of RC cars or top-down racing, it's a rare treat.