When was the last time you went to an arcade to play a game? I'd guess the answer was "ages ago" for most of us, for the simple reason that home games machines have become incredibly powerful, and there's no longer the aspirational value attached to going to a deafening smoky room chock full of cutting edge gaming cabinets.
This death of the arcade is one thing, but perhaps the greater tragedy is the gradual loss of instant 'arcade action' gameplay, with ever more value placed on the more beardy, more cerebral, but often less fun world of the simulation.
And, if one genre has suffered in this respect perhaps more than any other then it's driving - and rally driving specifically. Not being of the petrol headed persuasion, the thought of tinkering with suspension settings and faffing with changing tyres fills me with an irrational dread. I. Just. Want. To. Play. The. Sodding. Game.
So, if there was ever a Rally game tailored specifically to tap into a gamers' arcade instincts, it's Shox. No faffing, no tweaking, no murderously dull technical detail, just mentally fast, in your face 60fps action that hooks you from the off.
As with every driving game, there's a ton of tracks and cars to unlock. But the system of unlocking new modes is far more forgiving, and accessible than many others in the genre. Ploughing through each of the five car classes relies on getting a good average placing - but rather than force you to play through each track in order, you can return later to certain tricky tracks and master them until you finally get a placing average good enough for you to win the trophy.
With a greater emphasis on fun and the casual gamer - in typical EA style - the early tracks are quite easy, so almost anyone can jump straight into the game and get some semblance of success, rather than be forced to go through hoops to learn some anal control mechanics. To add to the sense of insanity, each track has three 'Shox' zones, which are essentially checkpoints that reward the player with medals (Gold, Silver, or Bronze) depending on how quickly you make it through. And as an added incentive, if you manage to score Gold in each zone, a screen warping Shockwave is triggered, which if you can ride adds wads of cash to your total.
With this in mind, initial impressions can be that Shox is the bimbo of Rally games, full of graphical gimmicks and slow motion show off moments, but it's justifiable. To pull off a great arcade game is to make sure of one basic thing - 60 frames per second - and Shox is without question one of, if not the smoothest, and fastest driving game yet seen on the PS2. Word has it that developers EA UK knocked this up in just eight months - and on the evidence in front of our eyes, this is one hell of an achievement, with a slick, assured look that is a world away from the bland, sterile look of nearly all PS2 racers to date (GT3 aside).
Ok, so Shox looks nice, granted, but look beyond the eye candy and the rewards are there. Progression from the second and third car classes sees Shox really beginning to display a pleasing amount of depth, while still retaining that classic One-More-Go arcade gameplay that keeps you up to 4.30 a.m with bleeding eyes.
As always with driving games, the car's the star, and attempting to tackle Shox with the wrong one can have frustrating consequences. But if you're really fed up, there are two ways out of your dilemma: either buy another one (if you've clocked up enough prize money), or gamble a much lesser stake in a short one on one race to the finish line. Buying a car is usually frustratingly out of reach, so gambling ends up being your most likely avenue of progression. Sadly, EA has, erm, shockingly misjudged this method, to the point that it can - in some cases - take 10 or more attempts to win the car - by which time you've spent almost as much as it cost to buy the damn thing outright, and suffered a fair bit of frustration into the bargain.
One of the more controversial elements of Shox that will also divide gamers is the handling. And guess what? Yes, it's pure arcade, which is to admit it's entirely unrealistic and any resemblance to real life is completely co-incidental - thank the lord. But despite what you may have read elsewhere, the differing surfaces (ice, gravel, sand, tarmac) do make a huge difference to the way your car controls. There is a palpable sense of relief when you make it through some of the later ice stages, and when bombing it through some of the bumpy Arid courses, the second you make it to a bit of tarmac gives you a rare section of traction sanity.
Another area where Shox can annoy is the computer AI. The drones don't seem to have any semblance of personality, and drive around all bunched up, meaning that one or two slip ups can result in going from first to sixth and back again in the space of half a lap. Shox only seems to really work as a game when you're good enough to take the lead and stay there, otherwise you'll be hurling the joypad across the room cursing the game's unforgiving nature.
One area EA UK made very little effort is the game's audio. The music is reduced to an indistinguishable rattle, while the engine noise blurs into a sound resembling a swarm of bees. The annoying yelps from the commentator as you enter and exit each Shox zone can get on your tits after a while too ("This Is IT!!!" and "Coooome ON!!" burn into your brain very quickly). Generic, pointless and lazy are three words that spring to mind here, but to be fair it doesn't detract from the game too much - the desire to progress overrides such quibbles.
On balance, EA has pulled out a product of genuine quality that with a little more work in a few basic areas would have been a must have title. As it is, it's more for casual gamers that want a post pub session on a title they can pick up and play and get stuck into.
Me? I enjoyed it immensely, but it frustrated just that little bit too much to ever be considered a classic. Shox is a typical EA game: great presentation, instant playability for the mass market, but one that serious gamers will be able to pick endless holes in.