When I go to the shops and I want a loaf of bread, I don't go into the butcher's. When I go to the pub, I don't try and buy sausage (not least because I usually go to the pub in Vauxhall, where the notion of buying sausage has all sorts of other connotations).
When I buy kart racing games, I don't expect to spend a quarter of an hour peering at load screens and cut-scenes and platforming before I get anywhere near a race. And yet so it is in Crash Tag Team Racing.
I think the idea is that some camp German's lost his marbles (or jewels or something - I don't know, I was buttering a crumpet at the time) and you have to buzz around an amusement park winning them back by racing through tracks in each of the themed zones (Happily Ever Faster, and er... Okay, I haven't committed them to memory, which is actually quite symbolic of the whole experience). For some reason, you also have to do lots of staple 90s-issue platforming to get to each race, collecting crystals and coins in the process and body-slamming ninja penguins. You know how that stuff works. You just don't expect it in a kart racing game.
What you do expect is tight track design and a supremely engaging racing model. These days, you expect these things because of Mario Kart DS. That game continues to entertain me - not least because I keep figuring out new things about how it works, and the satisfaction of being able to manipulate the red-sparked drifting model to snake expertly through a pack of tight right-angled turns never gets old. Crash doesn't have anything like that. It's dull and easy. Tracks are forgettable, shortcuts unnecessary, and drifting is just a case of tapping square as you turn - doing so builds up boost, but you rarely need it to win. The hard difficulty level's quite challenging, but that shouldn't be mistaken for fun.
Indeed, actual racing doesn't feel like the focus - the power-ups do. Mario Kart makes a big deal of power-ups of course, but its are memorable, often avoidable; tactical. Crash's are lazy (monkey dynamite, exploding chickens), forgettable, and any notion of using them tactically is quickly dispensed with - almost as quickly as the power-ups themselves. Even so, they have a huge bearing on the outcome of a race. As does "clashing" - the process of borging another kart, which allows you to either drive or man a turret on top. The AI control of the kart is perfectly good, so if you've a sure aim you might as well ride shotgun. Splitting from the clash gives you a speed boost.
Beyond the races, which feel disjointed thanks to the platforming in-between and huge loading times, for which there's no excuse, there are time trials, combat races, deathmatch arenas, shoot-the-target races and a stunt mode. But I'd challenge anyone to get as much entertainment out of these as anything in Mario Kart or the PSP's other racing games. Combat is just racing around holding down fire or manning a turret - death is too cheap for it to be that enjoyable, while the target races are like the coin-collection bits of Mario Kart's Mission Mode blown up into a full game - and the stunt mode gives you so few tricks to perform that you'll fall into the routine of just driving back and forth doing the same things over and over until the timer runs down.
As for the platforming that links everything up, the camera's awful, the level design is reasonable but never, ever anything new, and the collision detection fuels tedium. Whacking ninja penguins, for example, often takes about four attempts as you try and line up your body slam. And when you realise that there are about four million coins in the game, you'll soon stop bothering to smash open crates for more. Unless you really, really want those extra items of clothing on sale here and there. I wanted a kart-sodding-racing game.
There is at least an ad-hoc Wi-Fi multiplayer mode for up to eight players. Which is handy if you've got any friends who bought the game and have unlocked all the tracks in single-player. But like the rest of the game, the balance is completely wrong - there's no sense of risk, challenge or order, the power-up system has a randomness and lack of definition about it, and the tracks themselves are often so wide as to render them completely forgettable. It's one of those games that fudges into a blur in your head; you can pick out the details with a bit of effort, but it's a struggle to convince your brain to allocate the cycles.
I feel that I should say something like, "it's one for the kids". Except, doing so would be hugely lazy and condescending, so I won't. Automatically assuming that colourful, slightly wacky visuals (is that a doorway that isn't straight-cut? What a crazy world we live in!) and a lack of challenge amount to something children want to play is like saying, "Americans are stupid" - a ridiculous statement in itself, and actually rather bigoted. When I was small, I played Super Mario Kart. I remember hating Princess Peach, but that was because of her elastic AI, not because she was a girl. Children aren't thick. Nor do many of them have PSPs, I would imagine. More likely they have a Nintendo DS, in which case there's a far better karting curriculum available to them.
A trifle harsh? I don't really think so. There's a lot of game in Crash Tag Team Racing, but there isn't a lot of good game. And since there isn't really a lot of kart-racing game either, on a system that seems to have more pure racing games than any other in recent memory, it's hard to think of a good reason to tag it any other way.
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