When a title is released which is multiplayer-driven, it's normally released on the back of a tried and tested pedigree. This is demonstrated by the likes of "Quake 3 Arena" which, as everyone knows by now, was the last title in a succession of games which led the pack into the era of online multiplayer gaming. Rarely has any genre other than the first-person shooter or role-playing game been known to forage into the online gaming arena, and driving games in particular aren't exactly known for their towering presence in this area. With 1nsane (or Insane as I'll name it, for the sake of my sanity .. no pun intended), Codemasters have set out to change this.
Keep On Rollin'
Insane is not a subtle game. It is not the kind of shy, retiring type of game that demands you pick away at its nuances to reveal a truly great title, and this is immediately obvious from the moment you load it up. A hefty rawk soundtrack rattles your speakers as a mixture of impressive in-game footage and pre-rendered video flits about the screen, all of which assures you that you're not exactly in for a Sunday driving sim (what did you expect with a name like 1nsane? - Obvious Statement Ed).
Upon starting the game proper, I was presented with the options to set up my player and have a quick race, start a championship career, or have a go at the online mode. In the championship mode most of the game is locked away and only one race is available in the 4x4 class when you start out. Through your success in the championship games you gain points in various modes such as checkpoint dashes and Capture the Flag. The more points you gain, the more of the game you can have to play. At this early stage, the variety of possibilities appears astounding...
Of all the features in Insane, the most obvious is the superb physics engine. As vehicles bounce across the landscape it can become realistically (but frustratingly) easy to roll your car over and end up with your face in the dirt. This is usually enough to completely destroy your chances of winning a game, and can happen with worrying frequency.
The play areas are all extremely open and set in different locales, from deserts to traditionally dreary English countryside. However, it soon becomes apparent after extended periods of play that it's usually only the textures and set pieces that differ from race to race, and I soon began to find myself willing for something different to look at aside from trees and hills. This isn't to say that Insane doesn't look nice, because when it shines, it shines extremely well. Vehicle models are wonderfully animated and detailed, and some of the (rare) location-specific moments, such as herds of wild bulls fleeing from the roaring motors, are quite endearing. Texture quality is also extremely good and occasionally has the ability to almost suspend disbelief as your 4x4 plummets down a cliff face and rolls to a stop in a shallow swamp. Unfortunately the sheer nature of the landscapes ends up transforming the impression of the game from pleasant surprise into sheer monotony.
The truly low point of playing Insane comes when you realise just how shallow it really is. There really isn't all that much to do, and the appeal is rather limited in the single player mode, which is a shame because first impressions are superb. Once you have played through the first class of the game and moved onto the more interesting modes of play though, the path soon becomes predictable and you grow bored very easily. Insane does have its moments of brilliance - playing the destruction derby mode with massive smoke-belching trucks atop a towering precipice is quite fun to say the least - but these are rare in comparison to the dull ones.
Let's Take This Outside
If Insane proves to be at least a little hopeful in single player mode, then there is always the chance that it could redeem itself in its multiplayer mode. Game browsing is offered via the included Codemasters Multiplayer Network client software, and games can be set up by any player in a fashion very similar to the dire MSN Gaming Zone. On a lowly 56k modem it wouldn't be much use (or much fun) trying to host a game, so a search for at least a cable server is usually in order.
This is simple enough, just click on a game waiting for players and enter a small chatroom whilst you wait for someone to play with. Once there are enough players the host launches the game at their end, and then yours launches when they are ready. Once in the game menu you must pick your preferred vehicle and you can chat to the other players about which mode you would like to play. Once this is out of the way you press the Ready button and off you go.
Online the game plays pretty much exactly the same as the single player mode. In fact I couldn't really tell the difference between the behaviour of human players and the solo mode CPU opponents, which seems like a credit to the AI until you realise that this is simply due to the almost completely random nature of most races. Of course, on a low-speed connection the issue of lag comes into play, and boy does it come into play in Insane. More often that not a race descends into farce as the game completely loses track of itself and players seem to skim along the ground at supernatural speeds, disappear from view, or just completely freeze on the spot. For a game so geared towards online play, this does not bode well.
Make Like Tom And Cruise
After playing Insane for many, many hours searching for some morsel resembling a saving grace, I came to the decision that what could have been a brilliantly fun game actually ends up as an empty shell waiting for something to fill it.
What that one thing is resides in games like the Motocross and Midtown Madness series. These are games which can last as long as the player could possibly want them to, which have an almost endless supply of stuff to do, and which at their utmost try to make the entire experience fun. Insane simply flutters it's eyelashes and then makes off with your mate just when you think you're getting somewhere. Bitter, me? Nah...
It all boils down to the old adage of quality over content. Insane has a large range of game modes, but these are actually just very slight variations on each other - Capture the Flag versus Return the Flag, anybody? The fantastic physics and the almost-gimmicky random terrain generator (which would be a great idea if all the preset levels weren't so seemingly random in the first place) would both be perfect accompaniments to something fun. If the developers had only taken stock of what the competition had been doing all this time, then perhaps we could have had a fantastic riot of a title on our hands.
Insane tries extremely hard, but ultimately comes out looking very shallow with nothing particularly stunning to offer. The fact that online performance is so abysmal is unforgivable for a game aimed at a multiplayer audience, and only affirms the fact that Invictus really just haven't thought out the idea very well at all. Try it only if you're looking for a change from Quake 3 or Counter-Strike, but don't expect too much.