Let's be honest: the PSP is pretty boring right now.
We often joke about our reluctance to take Sony's striking black joy-slab out of the house, but these days there really isn't much point anyway. Like many of the handheld's early adopters - and there must be quite a few or Sony wouldn't devote such enormous resources to suing importers - we've spun through every track in Ridge Racer. We still enjoy clocking big scores on Lumines (bless that Mizuguchi), and the trickle of new content for WipEout Pure certainly gives cause to persevere with Sony's ever-awkward network set-up routines. But, beyond that, we're a bit short of ideas. We tried taking Ape Academy out with us once, but by the time the game loaded we'd already left Oxford Circus and made it halfway to Holborn.
So, it's safe to say that just about everyone is looking forward to the PSP's European launch, because with that comes the promise of all sorts of new fun; all sorts of new driving fun anyway. With the exception of Virtua Tennis, most of the "hot prospects" are things like TOCA Race Driver 2, Colin McRae and this, Sony London's latest stab at vehicular combat. Fired Up! Tedious perpetuation of the sentence-muddling game-title-with-exclamation-mark aside, is it something new to champion? Does it, with the obvious expression already spoken for, leave us pumped? Certainly does.
Pity, then, that we'd exhausted all it had to offer within a few short hours.
We have our doubts that the relatively simple formula - drive around a city shooting things in a highly manoeuvrable car - would have the sort of legs (wheels, perhaps) to hold our attention for that much longer anyway, but sadly we'll never get the chance to find out. In our frenzied rush to get some overdue entertainment out of the PSP, we wound up tearing through its three main cities and uncovering most of their secrets in the time it took for our afternoon crumpets to settle and the idea of dinner to pop into our heads.
It certainly hooks you in. The nicely built cities - not too complex, geometrically, but with enough ramps, rooftops, nooks and crannies to keep you occupied - are full of enemy trucks and tanks, and each has a certain number of set missions to complete. Apart from that, you can blow up lorries that trigger "Fired Up!s" - little 30-to-90-second challenges that involve killing a set number of the enemies spawning helpfully nearby - to populate the level with handy health and shield pick-ups; and you can also scour its recesses for scavenger icons. For each group of seven scav-icons you drive through, you'll find more weapon pick-ups dotted around to complement your left-shoulder-button machinegun.
Graphically it's a bit muddily textured here and there, but the explosive effects are nice - complete with a jolt of the screen to indicate when you've killed something - and although the congregation of multiple units on-screen or lots of explosions nearby tends to bring the game to a crawl, it's perfectly tolerable as it doesn't inconvenience you particularly.
This is mostly because the handling and weapon characteristics are very well tailored to the nature of the game. Each level presents you with a new vehicle - the second and third cities let you choose between two actually, swapping over at a pre-set location - but all of them do roughly the same thing: fire a standard unlimited-use weapon using the left shoulder button, use whatever weapon you've most recently picked up with the right shoulder, zoom around quickly and behave responsively, and turn on a sixpence as if you're wheelspinning excessively.
There's lots of bouncing over surfaces, and some odd reactions to things like pipes when you drive over them, but all the vehicles seem eager to right themselves, go fast, and give you the best chance of killing whatever's honing in on you. Most of the weapons lock onto targets to some extent, and the AI tends to rely on whittling you gradually rather than being smart; they don't manoeuvre much, block you off or fire terribly accurately, so you can often run the gauntlet without engaging them, and some even helpfully drive into walls so you can just pelt them from afar.
The missions themselves, meanwhile, are mainly to-and-fro, with a smattering of others that involve defending or attacking a particular objective, and some more that involve manning gun turrets, or taking photos of sensitive material. Oh lord, the plot - we almost forget. Yes, well, the idea is that you're in some sort of oil-rich state overtaken by the "Republic", ruled by an "Iron Lady" (ho ho), and you're part of the resistance. It's all told through text, so you might just as well ignore it and treat it all like a cunningly constructed arcade-y, mission-based driving game. Which it certainly is.
Too cunning, as it turns out, because one of its cleverest ideas is also the main reason it lacks replay value. The idea of the scavenger icons is partly to give you a means to unlock better weapons, but presumably was also devised in an effort to get you to explore each level thoroughly. That they do. They're spread around quite creatively - we particularly enjoyed searching for them among the nooks of the second level, where they're spread through valleys and draped over a platform-game-style network of ramps and buildings. But in getting you to learn the level they also virtually guarantee that you'll decide to seek them out as soon as possible in each setting, and that in doing so you'll exhaust most of its possibilities. Complete the missions - of which there aren't that many, and none is overwhelmingly difficult - and but for a few "Fired Up!s" you're just a fairly straightforward boss-fight away from finishing the main Story mode. Then there's multiplayer.
Now, this is where your reviewer starts to drift a little into the realms of uncertainty. The multiplayer elements rely on multiple UMDs, so we couldn't test our review copy beyond pootling around each map on our lonesome (aww). Fortunately, we did try them out when we went to see Sony a little while ago (hello chaps!), so we know that they're enjoyable enough - the highly manoeuvrable vehicles making for accessible deathmatch, King of the Hill and Assimilation modes - but as to whether they keep you going for the long haul? Couldn't say. Our gut feeling is that there will be better and more exciting things to do with the PSP's Wi-Fi features - and that most of your friends will have copies of Ridge Racer, WipEout and Virtua Tennis that demand more immediate multiplayer attention.
But, even so, it makes the conclusion bit of the review a bit less straightforward. And - yikes! - that's where we are. So then [clears throat], Fired Up! certainly helped alleviate the sense of handheld boredom. But if you're thinking about spending top dollar on it, you might want to see if some of your friends and colleagues are thinking of doing likewise before committing. The single-player mode is an energetic harmony of reasonable ideas that keeps you interested; indeed, its deficiencies in areas like enemy AI actually contribute to the sense of arcade-y equilibrium. But while it certainly will fire you up in the short-term, that's likely to give way to howls of derision once you realise how quickly it's all over. Perhaps that's why there's an exclamation mark on the end. It's certainly why there's a 7 on the end of this review.
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