Say what you like about the PlayStation 3 (oh you are), but if it's gunning for my affections then it can think about putting the gun down: resurrecting GripShift is the sort of public service that deserves applauding. Cruelly overlooked on the PSP - condemned for "flaws" that were, in many cases, virtually fundamental reasons why it was good, like the handling and slower vehicle speed - I was pretty sure we'd never hear from it again. It didn't find much traction at retail either (your fault).
There are cars here, and some races too, but GripShift's more of a puzzle game, or a collect-'em-up, or a mad upside-down dash to bang your head against a wall. Each of the game's levels is suspended in space, with three goals to complete - reach the finishing line within a time limit, collect various spinning stars, and seek out a "GS" logo that's been squirreled away somewhere around the edges. Single-track roads are the norm to start, but soon give way to frenzied lattices of twisting tarmac, giant loops and floating icebergs, full of rocky obstacles, speed-boosting arrow-strips and even the odd palm-tree. And while the physics are fiercely consistent, they're not playing Newton's tune; your mode of conveyance is more like a go-kart pumped half-full of helium, with a rechargeable jetpack strapped to the back. You can pitch it forward and back as it hurtles off ramps into the air, and use a nitrous system to help manoeuvre regardless of grip - or whether there's ground beneath your tyres.
Like TrackMania, Super Monkey Ball or Mercury Meltdown, the fun stems from trying to complete each of a track's challenges as efficiently as possible. On the PSP there were tons of levels to complete, and they got properly tricky later on. The problem (as I saw it) was that building a high score or beating a hostile time limit wasn't as singularly compelling as it had been in its physics-fussing contempor-toys. I didn't like the ability to complete the tasks separately, or, rather, that there was no greater reward for doing them together - it seemed to belittle your efforts.
For some reason though, the PS3 version has changed my mind. That reason being quite simple, really: online leaderboards.
They're barely a footnote most days, but in GripShift's case they make all the difference. Like the latter PGR games on Xbox/360, every track you complete has its little square-button comparisons. "Ooh, I'm 122nd in the world at beating the time limit." Suddenly there's a compelling reason to go back and do more. The same goes for the other goals. All the individual tasks feel much more competitive. Never mind the fact that the PSP's "mini-games" are gone (I never did mind), this is a great argument for giving the downloadable PS3 version a go. Not only does it show you your position, but it lists the world record for each discipline, giving you an idea of whether you're on the right track, or literally not.
I'm aware that people have whinged about the handling, but I'm really not in that camp. It's not meant to be fast. That's why the races - when there are races - have pick-ups sprinkled all over them. Some are Mario Kart-style weapons, like droppable TNT crates, but the opposition AI is fairly unremarkable, and really the fun is found in grabbing victory while also scooping up all the spinning stars. Elsewhere the handling and physics unite to most significance in the challenges that you can significantly shortcut. It's a lot like sneaking round an impossible corner with a bit of help from the friction in Mercury, or using the edge of a path to bounce a monkey-ball over a ledge; hitting the lip of a kerb or taking flight off the brow of the hill in GripShift is a gateway to greater efficiency. You can instantly restart by hitting pause and popping the cursor down one. It's that kind of ritual; doing the same thing compulsively over and over to beat the little ghost car that represents your best time.
There are customisation elements, alternative unlockable racers, and an online racing mode, but these things didn't have much impact on me - the latter having none, since I was never able to find an opponent, and not for the want of trying. Give me a spare hour and a pile of unknown finish times to try and beat, though, and I'll see you an hour later. For US$ 9.99, there's much greater value here than there was on the PSP, too, and 125 tracks represents a better return.
Alright fine, there are a few legitimate whinges. The level editor's disappeared, meaning that any hopes it had of finding a TrackMania-style audience of avid modders is stifled from the get-go - with any luck, Sidhe and Sony will change their mind about that, and provide one to go with it (hint). And while the car physics are consistent, there are some glitchy moments - some of the foliage you find trackside seems to have no idea how to interact with the car, and the car itself doesn't always know what to do when it's still moving while rolling onto its back, ending up in a sort of improbable, sliding nose-stand compromise. Maybe the time spent implementing the entirely forgettable tilt control (for adjusting pitch - more easily done with the Y axis on the left analogue stick that you're already holding) might have been better invested here.
Otherwise though, I don't see why you'd see much fault in this unless you had unrealistic expectations. You're not going to find Gran Turismo, but then you don't have to go far to really find it, so what's the bother? What you will find, if you give it a chance, is a compelling example of why downloadable services can be good for those little games that clearly deserve an audience.
GripShift costs US$ 9.99 in the American PlayStation 3 Store, but you'll need a credit card registered in your store's home region if you want to buy it. (Cheers Brian.)