It's Wednesday afternoon. With ECTS less than a day old and the neighbouring PlayStation Experience getting ready for public consumption, those of us inside Earls Court have a lot to be getting on with. So it's understandable when one of our journalist chums grabs us by the ear and whispers conspiratorially, "rumour has it you were checking out Midway games today - what gives?"
With no equivalent to E3's Kentia Hall (unless you're being particularly harsh about the trade show itself), the honour of being "the last resort" is generally reserved for publishers without much to trouble the triple-A production lines of Sony, EA and their ilk - and it's a glove that always seems to fit poor old, well-meaning Midway. (We're ignoring the CD duplication companies and peripheral manufacturers, but then so is everyone else in our profession, so we don't feel at all guilty about that.)
However this year, we had a tip-off that there might be more than just a decent arcade hockey game with a 'z' on the end lurking across the hall. Word from the States (and particularly our rabbity-fig-faggling juice lover chums at Penny Arcade) is that Freaky Flyers - an airborne Mario Kart clone with a Wacky Races motif - is (keep it down) actually rather good. So we decided to play it.
Wacky Races a la Kart
Sure enough, we weren't disappointed. Despite relying on stereotypes older than any of us and a similarly archaic 'kart racing' structure, Freaky Flyers is - from what we've seen of it - surprisingly good fun. It has everything you might expect: over-endowed characters with pronounced appendages, zany accents and varying levels of speed and manoeuvrability; countless weapon pick-ups and power-ups; subtly detailed, shortcut-packed tracks inspired by the works of Hanna-Barbara; luscious cartoon visuals and weather effects; and of course sneaky and malevolent AI players.
The 15 characters range from the obvious (the huge-chested, genetically engineered German freulein flying ace whose shouty cut sequencez rely on zie poor taste) to the pretty obvious (an oil tycoon Sheik on a flying carpet) and downright peculiar (Siamese twins who bicker with one another over the race route), and they handle in much the way you'd expect, reacting with varying degrees of speed to your analogue waggling and taking similarly distinct lengths of time to accelerate. In the hands of the AI, they mostly rely on the same tricks (like leaving mines in front of boost rings).
But each of the tracks is satisfyingly vast, often with multiple routes - Coyote Canyon, for example, lets you zoom down various mineshafts as you navigate the rocky outcroppings and Vegas-like townships, dodging express trains and trigger-happy bandits. Furthermore, each of them has six sub-objectives to complete, like shooting red targets, downing all your competitors, or stage-specific aspects like ferrying Bigfoot to safety in a snowy Ewok-infested forest, which reward you with secret mini-games and characters. Although we couldn't really comment on how likely we'd be to go back and complete these after the fact, as it's pretty difficult to finish first anyway, we can imagine it adds something to the longevity.
The Battle of Midway
In addition to the races, players also get to watch faintly amusing cut scenes between levels and take on those mini-game challenges, like defending a fort in the Wild West from marauding bandits and destroying six of their strongholds, and although the ones we saw weren't terribly exciting, there's plenty of scope for that to change.
However it's the level of detail evident in Freaky Flyers that perhaps took us most unawares. Although the shamelessly Mario Kart-inspired pick-up system gives you basic rockets, mines, shields and speed boosts, you have a standard issue, rechargeable machine gun to use and the option to fire backwards - holding square on the PS2 version to peer out the back and line up your target, if you fancy taking your eyes off the track ahead for a few seconds. In terms of dogfighting, it's hardly going to worry Crimson Skies or even BF1942's Desert Combat mod, but it's more fun than dropping bananas in your wake.
Then again, taking your eyes off the track is often a bad idea with so many different things to plough into, and a damage bar that can rapidly evaporate, leaving you with an agonising wait while the game respawns your aircraft. We've seen trees toppling in our path, mine carts soaring past us and even neon cowboys wiggling their lassos from behind a water tower. Freaky Flyers is definitely one of those games where the other player will have plenty of things to watch while he waits for a go. And with a four-player mode promised in the Xbox version and a solid framerate in the code we played, it looks like the sort of game you'd happily invite your girlfriend's parents over to show off. Assuming they're geeks too.
If we have any worries at this point they're mostly to do with the open-endedness of the levels. With so many options and no track to stick to (or power-slides to master), Freaky Flyers could rapidly lose its appeal, but we were still going strong after an hour and will certainly be seeking it out to review. So in conclusion: yes, we went to play Midway games on day one of ECTS - and it was worth it.