Joy Ride Turbo Review
Look, ma: hands!
If you were in marketing, you might say that Joy Ride Turbo is two games in one. That's true, just about, even if it isn't necessarily good news. The first of these games, see, is fully-realised but bland. The second is patchy but quietly promising. Sadly, Microsoft spent most of its time and effort fleshing out the wrong one. That makes Joy Ride a rather uneven prospect: it's weighted down on its worst side. It's weighted down on the side that isn't much fun.
The side that isn't much fun has a name, and that name is Championship Series. Championship Series is positively brimming with features. It has unlockable cars, customisable paint jobs, standard kart-racer weaponry, a drift system, a stunt system, boost meters, destructible environments and ten tracks littered with alternate routes to seek out. It's also available in four-player split-screen and (rather laggy) eight-player online, and you can go back through all of the courses - some of which I'm pretty sure have been imported from the original Joy Ride, a Kinect launch game - and merrily time trial your brains out.
Crucially, all of this is enjoyed with a control pad in your hands. Kinect, which made the original game quietly notorious, has taken a hike this time, and Joy Ride is no longer content to secretly play itself while you wiggle your arms around in front of the TV living what the Soap Opera Digest would probably refer to as a miserable lie.
All this bullet-pointing and box ticking doesn't matter quite as much as it should, though, because Joy Ride's Championship mode, while fearsomely inclusive, still isn't that good. Its three speed tiers and range of car classes don't feel sufficiently different from one another, its handling is competent but unexciting, its AI isn't particularly memorable, and its unlocks aren't very interesting or appealing.
More importantly, Joy Ride is entirely lacking any kind of character. Its cartoon environments are expensively, inhumanly cheerful in the manner of a corporate greetings card that might pop through the letterbox to wish you a Merry Winterval once a year, while the Avatars behind the steering wheels of its numerous motors are the same empty-eyed Mii-alikes who snooze and caper on the 360 dashboard. They resemble the idealised siblings dreamt up by a Xerox machine or next-gen Teasmaid that has somehow achieved sentient thought, and they enhance the perception that Joy Ride - the entire game - has tipped itself right into the uncanny valley.
Joy Ride's cars are not particularly playful things, and its courses are not playful places, regardless of the Road Runner canyons and Far-Eastern fortresses sprayed on top of the geometry. (One of then, rather weirdly, has a crashed 747 in the middle of it. What brought it down? Engine failure? Terrorism? Is this a sign of deep civil unrest lurking within the extended Joy Ride universe?)
It's a weird shock, then, when you switch over to the Stunt Park mode and discover that it's considerably more lively than the main event. Stunt Park, right, ditches the competitive racing and the grind of the Championship tournaments. It ditches the conservative track designs and renders your AI companions largely irrelevant, too. Instead, it drops you into a bizarre, Mobius-strip sandbox where you can boost up walls, loop-de-loop, cannon yourself across huge distances and follow trails of coins, Mario style, to discover hidden crannies.
A few of these elements - cannons and the occasional wall run - turn up in some of the standard tracks, but here there's a sense that they're being let loose and muddled together with dangerous excess. The invisible barriers have gone, for the most part, and the special case programming which, in Championship mode, can make your car feel like it's being tugged around by a concealed giant whenever you hit a speed boost, is far less noticeable. You're free to just play.
These sandboxes are clever places, built as a series of intricate curving structures so that you never hit a dead end, you never have to reverse, and you never feel like you've taken the wrong turn. There are objectives, but they're very loose: collect 40 trophies scattered around in hard-to-reach spots; unlock even more of the engine parts you'll have come across in the campaign. For the most part, it's simply about burning around, taking to the sky and chaining the simple thumb-stick stunts together for the sheer fun of it.
It's very nearly Crackdown with cars - but there's just not enough of it, sadly, with only two Stunt Park arenas available when there should have been four or five or six. Even with friends to complicate matters, you'll still sound out every nook and uncover every secret within a couple of hours, and then it's back to the drab campaign or the spotty online multiplayer. There simply isn't the available real estate that the game's best mode deserves. It's the star of the show, but it feels like the understudy.
Is it that surprising that Joy Ride Turbo seems a little confused? Not really, I guess. The series has been a bit of a botch from the start: unveiled as a micro-transaction free-to-play title before being hastily promoted to Kinect launch filler, and now flung across to good ol' XBLA to add a bit of burning rubber to the scheduling.
Are there more Stunt Parks on the way in the form of DLC? I'd certainly be up for that, but I suspect the fickle, migratory audience on Xbox Live has already moved on - to something that truly knows what it is, perhaps. To something with a little more personality. Merry Winterval.