You never get a second chance to make a first impression...unless you happen to be an oft-delayed and eventually underwhelming futuristic racing game only available on one console. In that case, you can always hop over the hardware divide and try to impress the other lot instead.
So it is for Fatal Inertia, the futuristic hover racer that briefly made promising noises at the start of this hardware generation. Lest we forget, Fatal Inertia was originally a PS3 launch title that fell by the wayside and eventually only turned up on the 360 last September, preceded by a demo of such legendary awfulness that the game's lead designer expressed public regret that it had been allowed to see the light of day.
Fatal Inertia is the name given to some vaguely-explained far-future racing tournament in which giant corporations provide nippy hovercraft ships for reckless pilots to battle in. You don't have to look too far beyond the meaningless buzzword title, which sounds more like an erotic thriller for physicists, to see that this is a magpie game - snatching popular ideas and imagery from other popular games and shuffling them together in the hope of attracting enough "make do" second-tier purchases. Following its predictably muted 360 reception last year, and after yet more delays, it's finally on the PS3 in a noticeably tinkered form. As well as new tracks, new tutorials and a lot less ugly slowdown, it's also now a mid-priced PSN download rather than a full-priced game on a disc, all of which are good things and should be praised now before the dirty work begins.
See, the makeover's not been a total success. Despite plentiful evidence that effort has been poured into addressing as many problems as possible, the game itself still can't quite rise above its genetic destiny to be anything more than "not bad". While many of the changes will be apparent to anybody playing both versions, the result is all too often something that's different but not necessarily that much better. The new tracks, for instance, are all part of the Proving Grounds Facility, a dusty location which is also home to a rather shallow tutorial mode that walks you through the basics of control and weapon use. There's no instruction on the finer points of control though, and given that the game is almost entirely concerned with hurling your hover racer around tight corners it seems weird that the practice track offers just four gentle bends.
Many of the original game's good ideas at least remain impressive, such as the dual-use power-ups that allow you to use rockets for attack or to propel yourself forward at speed, and the grapple line that allows you to slingshot past obstacles or snarl rivals by tethering them together. They've even retained the same 360 Achievements, though these aren't connected to Sony's new Trophies system. Controls feel different to the 360, but it still lacks that instinctive ability to airbrake your way around a hairpin. Response to urgent manoeuvres feels insubstantial and soft, which in a game relying on speed and accuracy is a real problem.
It's not all for nothing, though. There's a new split-screen career mode, which is a nice touch, while the visuals have been tightened technically and aesthetically. It's still not the best-looking racer on the shelves, but it does have its moments. There's no on-screen damage indicator, either. Obviously, smoke and flames are fairly obvious warning signs, but it'd be nice to have a more precise gauge as to how far from disaster you actually are - especially since you'll spend a lot of time ping-ponging off rockfaces.
Yes, the core problem remains. Track design is still wayward and confusing, and for every moment of inspired construction there are dozens more where chicanes, ramps and tunnels feel random in their placement, replacing practical racing lines with chaotic clutter. Intrusive scenery constantly gets in your way, stopping you in your tracks or sending you rocketing off-course. Routes to checkpoints are vague, and simply turning around to correct a mistake pretty much guarantees you'll lose the race. With no restart option, you can only forfeit and slip lower down the leaderboard. Even the wonky crash reset, which we complained about last time, is still hit or miss, often restarting you in front of walls and other barriers. You only have to look at MotorStorm, which was built on the solid bedrock of multiple effective racing lines, to see how order can be hidden inside controlled chaos but Fatal Inertia lacks that essential refinement. It's irritating rather than challenging.
The presentation hardly lifts the mood. There's an opening animation of a sexy lady zipping herself into a racing suit, but that's it as far as atmosphere or exposition goes. There's no voiceover, no narration, no commentary - all explanations and instructions unfold in scrolling white text to a soundtrack of techno muzak. The menus are bland and sometimes obtuse. You unlock new upgrades and decals for your various racers as you progress, but if you want to apply them you have to manually skip back to the main menu - essentially quitting out of the game - to access the garage, then click all the way back through to get back into the race. The simple fact that there's no immediate option to tune or redesign your vehicles before each round illustrates how half-hearted the career mode is.
The best thing you can say about Fatal Inertia EX is that it's marginally improved from its 360 debut, but not in the sort of ways that elevate final scores. None of its problems are completely game-breaking, but the cumulative negative effect is too much for such a generic title to bear. Most of the problems stem from the fact that it remains a muddled, undiscerning diner at the racing game buffet table, trying to cram its plate with sleek supersonic futuristic racing, rough and tumble rally racing and knockabout arcade power-up kart racing all at the same time.
It's like trying to make a stealth game in the style of a Quake rocket match, and these mutually exclusive goals leave Fatal Inertia straining ineffectually in too many directions at once, suitable only for forgiving players looking for a passable distraction while waiting for WipEout HD or Motorstorm Pacific Rift.