Sometimes, art imitates art. Take LocoCycle, a QTE-addled blaster and brawler inspired, allegedly, by a viewing of the horrid motorbike action movie Torque ("A peculiarly slow kind of torture" - Salon.com). The idea, I suspect, was to make the video game equivalent of a bad movie - that is, a game with all the pleasures a bad movie can offer but none of the attendant pitfalls. You'd get the goofiness, the endearing cheapness and the warm thrill of the implausible, but you'd be saved from the tedium, the mindlessness, the slow creep of frustration.
Sadly, it hasn't quite worked out that way.
Yet I still find it hard to describe the LocoCycle set-up without it sounding like something I want to play. Everyone I explain it to has a good laugh, too (although, granted, some people also say, "Um, that sounds a bit racist"). Twisted Pixel's downloadable Xbox One launch title revolves around I.R.I.S., a future-tech military superbike who's struck by lightning, Johnny Five-style. Inevitably, she develops a serious case of free will, ditching a life of drone warfare to head across the States and visit a biker rally. She sets off in something of a hurry, as well, taking her mechanic Pablo along with her when his trouser leg becomes tangled in her exhaust pipe. This is the next five hours of your life, then: follow I.R.I.S. and Pablo as the former drags the latter across hundreds of miles of US roadway, tackling the shadowy agents sent to bring them down and also tangling with S.P.I.K.E., a rival future-tech military superbike, voiced by Robert Patrick.
Let's put aside the sad fact that, yes, you can guest star in several brilliant episodes of The Sopranos and it still won't save you from eventually having to portray a sentient Harley who's stopped off at a roadside concession to eat an ice cream. That's just the fate of the jobbing actor. What's important here is that the basics of LocoCycle could be great fun: there's plenty of mayhem promised as I.R.I.S. and Pablo fight the nefarious forces stacked against them, and there are plenty of jokes lined up, too, since Pablo can only speak Spanish (imagine that!) and I.R.I.S., frazzled by 1.21 gigawatts of electricity, confuses almost everything he says, mistaking his fearful yelping for roars of enjoyment, and interpreting his urgent requests to go home as a series of ballsy master plans designed to make proceedings even more exciting. All of this in an action game that unfolds at a steady 200mph.
Things start to fall apart almost immediately, however. Since you're already handling brawling and gunplay, LocoCycle wisely decides to take care of regular, non-boost acceleration and - for the most part - any major acts of steering, so as not to mire you in a muddle of controls. Necessary as this is, the end result is a game where it often doesn't feel like you're moving in any meaningful way at all. After an early upgrade, you can plough through incoming traffic and never take a scratch, and you can also bump against the invisible walls on either side of the road without coming a cropper. In essence, most of LocoCycle plays out in a narrow corridor where you're mainly going to be moving left and right a little and boosting for a few seconds. The sensation of rapid speed goes right out the window as soon as you learn to ignore most of the scenery. Instead, you get a claustrophobic action game saddled with what amounts to an annoying camera as you occasionally lurch, automatically, around corners.
That action game has deeper problems. The brawling is mindless but acceptable. You can launch I.R.I.S. into the air to bash up jetpack foes or you can swipe at vehicles on the ground. There's a weak strike and a stronger, slower attack - this one involves swinging poor Pablo about by his legs, or even launching him like a boomerang - and what challenge there is builds around extending your combos while countering incoming blows. It's extremely basic - and none of the foes chucked into the game during the four or five hours of its duration really encourage any new tactics - but it's similar to Arkham Asylum in principle, and the animation, with its kung-fuing motorbike and its crunchy slo-mo finishers, at least drives home a pleasant sense of nutty violence.
Shooting is a lot worse, thanks to a near-total absence of feedback. There's no weight or recoil to I.R.I.S.'s weapons, while the enemies - many of them are gurning clones leaning out of windows and wielding automatics - serve to remind you how little has really changed since the days of Chase HQ. Occasionally you'll get dynamite midgets who require boosting to dislodge, you'll often need to play Zelda Tennis with an incoming projectile, and sometimes you'll face a boss that brings shooting and brawling together - but again, there's little meaningful variety.
The upgrade store that appears between levels allows you to spend XP on only the lamest of improvements. There's a system for trading kills for a health boost, for example, as well as extenders for things like recharge rates and weapon damage. Beyond that, there are eventually elemental combo tweaks or a drone on offer, but they add almost nothing to the experience.
Worst of all, LocoCycle's limp mechanics are stretched across a game that features the worst kind of cut-and-paste level design. Shoot five of these guys, now tackle eight of these guys in a brawl, now engage in a little QTE spectacle - it doesn't really matter if you miss the prompts - and now shoot another five of these guys before we dust off the QTEs again. Even the most interesting baddies are eventually ground down to busywork as the levels endlessly redeploy them in the name of padding, and every other new wrinkle is quickly smoothed away by repetition, too. At one moment, you're lofted into the sky to bombard a battleship from above. Shades of 1942! It's an entertaining diversion for a few seconds, but then you bombard another seemingly identical battleship, and another.
"The sense is of a game that's being rushed to meet a launch - a game where repetition is being called upon to make up for a series of crushing central inadequacies"
If there are clever variations here, they're vanishingly small. The sense is of a game that's being rushed to meet a launch - a game where repetition is being called upon to make up for a series of crushing central inadequacies. If you're going to be facing the same handful of threats over and over, the game you're playing had better be approaching Bayonetta's calibre. Each attack must be a thing of joy.
Bosses round things out. They're exciting in principle, as you take on robots and helicopters and poor old Robert Patrick, but lifeless in execution and almost hilariously over-extended. The challenge isn't high, but the sheer length of each encounter will slice away at your soul. As will the length of the theoretically charming home-made live action cut-scenes: all filled with witty ideas and nice ambitions, but undermined by a lack of editing.
LocoCycle doesn't even work as a ballpark indicator of the Xbox One's technical potential, as, beneath a solid frame-rate and a few graphical effects that give the action the strange, hard-lined sheen of Crackdown, the game looks and feels like the reskinned XBLA title that it apparently is. Sometimes, it doesn't even look like that. I don't think it counts as a spoiler to say that much of the final stage plays out over a stuttering loop of aerial skyline footage that could have been captured by a CNN chopper. Elsewhere, you move from ugly desert to ugly farmland to ugly snowdrifts and rivers. If you're after something that shows off what your new console can do, LocoCycle is almost perverse in its corner-cutting and lack of visual thrill.
Ultimately, the whole thing is depressing more often than it's annoying. Twisted Pixel's lineage suggests that LocoCycle is made by talented and creative designers who had a handful of potentially entertaining ideas to play with. The implementation is rushed and slipshod, however, ignoring fundamental problems and expending limited energy on the wrong things. What you're getting for your money feels a little like somebody else's office in-joke: you can sense the well-intentioned laughter, but you can't really join in.