Racing special: PGR4, Forza 2, Test Drive, GripShift.
Everyone likes cars. Even the greens have got their favourites, made of regenerative braking systems, Atkinson cycle engines, old yoghurt pots and bits of rhubarb. And it seems that videogames about cars are just as susceptible to a bit of the old premium downloadable content as anything. Not at all surprised by this, we decided to take a spin round some of it so you don't get run over by poor value. Rev your feeble metaphors and join us.
A few years ago, a friend of mine gave a popular Japanese videogame 8/10 in a British magazine. I like it more than that, and I was surprised by the response, so (it occurs to me you're going to like this story) I asked what stopped it getting a higher score. The answer came back: "I wasn't sure if people would like it the way I do."
Sometimes, the emphasis is definitely on "way". EG old boy Ronan didn't like the sequel to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance as much as he thought he would because it wasn't as good for "loot racing". Kristan loves adventure games like Fahrenheit, but thinks action bits should go take a running jump (as, I suppose, is their wont).
Which bring me to GripShift, because it is so completely made for me. It's a racing game where each circuit is suspended in the sky and has three objectives: get round as quickly as possible, collect stars and get round as quickly as possible, and collect a "GS" token and get round as quickly as possible. As a straightforward racer, it's a bit floaty and derivative. But it's not really about that. It's not really even about racing against other people directly; it's about taking advantage of the abstract physics to uncover shortcuts; and it's about shaving your times until they're bald enough to top global leaderboards.
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.
Last go. Last-last go. Super-last go. Mega-super last go.
My little car has just fallen off the side of a road into an abyss for the sixth time in a row. The last five times, I was nearly getting it right. This time, I just plain fell off. I am cross. However I am not cross with the game. Yes, it is a game beholden to its airy, oily handling model, which revels in its lack of Newtonian logic, but it isn't random; in fact it's incredibly exact, and the many parameters that define the difference between success and failure are exactly the sorts of things that inspired admiration in games like Trackmania, Mercury and Super Monkey Ball. When I finish this paragraph, I'm going to pick the PSP up again and embark on my seventh attempt.
Reviewers, particularly at this time of year when the demands of the job are severe, can find it hard to separate their own frustration - that of being unable to knock down a game's barriers quickly - from that which their readers are likely to experience. This is true of many games, of course, but games like Gripshift increase the divide, because Gripshift is built for people who delight in repetition for the sake of completion rather than mere progression. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that you should be wary of people telling you that Gripshift is frustrating because you have to do things over and over. That's the point.