Where is there left to go with ATV racing? Climax Studios exhausted all possibilities on the feature side with the third PS2 ATV Offroad Fury
, while the originators of offroad racing at Rainbow Studios long ago made ATVs the supporting character of its own series with THQ's ATV Unleashed
franchise. The only place left to take ATV racing is out on the road.
Free-roaming racing and cord-free gameplay are destined to get together. You've got wild racing gameplay that can get very technical but can also be played loose and for air, depending on how much focus you can spare for a few laps. You've got wide-open areas that are there for no reason other than to pop air off of and get dirty on. You've got get-up-and-ride gameplay that any race fan can instantly jump into for a few multiplayer challenges. And with PlayStation Portable as a gifted rookie game system ready to prove itself, it seemed that this would be a welcome chance to take the ATV Offroad Fury series (which, like T.H.U.G. 2, was ignored its last time out despite finishing strong) back out for a ride.
But before you strap on your helmet for a portable ride, make sure your insurance is paid up, because this PSP edition is a bumpier ride than expected. ATV Offroad Fury: Blazin' Trails game packs enough features to rocket it over a dozen lined-up trailer trucks, but the clunky graphics engine and stiff control give it a ramp that's might make you think twice about trying to air over a VW Bug. It's still a hell of a racing series and a total package, but for those expecting the effortless play that the series pulls off so well, this first PSP effort is a rough ride.
When ATV is running full-throttle, it's an example of everything that's great about PSP. The feature set, which includes a vast set of online modes as well as a wealth of unlockable content, is crazy-deep. The game builds upon Climax's effort with the third PS2 game, adding more minigames and a cool card system to an already impressive spread of tracks and racing modes. All of the rider and ATV customization features made the transition to the portable, as do the Waypoint Editor and Ghost Data racing. The game goes to every length to provide you with stuff to do, and while a lot of it is locked up and will require a lot of work to earn, players might find themselves playing around in the menu almost as much as they are playing the game. And it's all sewn up tight with a great auto-save feature to make the play experience extra-buttery!
Infrastructure Mode support obviously gives the PSP version an immediate holeshot. It's a robust feature that rivals Twisted Metal: Head-On as one of the best implementations of PSP network play, and it can easily go up against console efforts with how many features it has and how easy connectivity is. Once you're on a HotSpot, you can host any one of the game modes (including all of the multiplayer mini-games) and weed out players either above or below your abilities by setting rank limits. Sort out which racers you like to race against (or don't want to see) by setting up a Buddy List and Ignore List. Make the match a little more interesting by wagering special cards you have earned on a match. Keep track of your online progress and the rankings of other top racers on the complex scoreboard system, where you can scroll though page after page, track after track of racing stats. Even download ghost data from the world's ten best racers on each course to test your skills against their best times and moves. All that, and the bag of chips that is stability -- we only had one race fail on us so far while playing online, and it seemed most likely that the host either ran out of batteries or was a baby and quit. And get this -- you stay online at a low level even if you jump back to play single player, so you don't have to haggle with logging back in if you go out to set up your bike or do other things.
There's pure depth to this online feature, maybe even more than the PS2 ATV Offroad Fury's. Much of it factors back to your personal progress through the game's total career. The cards you have earned/stolen from other players may unlock features or gear for play in the game. Posting up the world's best scores allows you custom paint jobs for your ATV to show off your medal-winning class level. And while cheaters and quitters will still hamper the experience, an improved chat system over the standard PSP input makes communication easier while we wait for games to implement mic chat, and the ranking system makes continuing on an important consideration before you flake out and quit a race. Hell, there are big-name Xbox Live games that would be envious of what's being done here with a handheld PlayStation.
That slick feature set is spit-polishing gameplay that's rusty and crusty. ATV Offroad Fury was looking a little long in the tooth with the third game -- that good ol' pre-loading mayhem was tightened up for the third game, but the things that hadn't been fixed from the breakthrough original were still sticking out at the seams. Blazin' Trails should have been the chance for a fresh way to experience an aging game, but the PSP edition isn't up to the task.
The physics model used for the PSP game is troubled by interaction, and looks to be harshly overcompensating for errors made with the console version. On PS2, the crash system was loosened up so that players could man it up in impacts with walls -- this led to less crashing and more physical play, but also made for some silly moments where you were batting around the arena bags like balloons. The PSP game swings far the other side, with impact physics that, in the early going, can't take a feather hit without throwing your rider clean. And a big error on the physics system had us hung up on railings and arena barriers a few times, unable to high-side our wheels down to dig ourselves out. It makes for a particularly rough game for beginners, and with so much unlockable stuff on top of a game that was so inviting to all comers before, that's a turn for the worse.
Steering and control has also not been given all it can get out of PSP. This is one of the few games where even our PSP die-hards who love the analog controller thought of abandoning it for the D-Pad -- the analog sensitivity curve isn't very balanced for this kind of floaty-yet-technical racing. You don't feel the dig of your tires biting into the dirt when you make a turn, and while the graphics on the handlebars animate instantly, it feels as though there's a delay before you actually cut a turn. Pre-load seems silly how easy and quick it punches up, while tricks drag on the animation for ages. Whoop-dee sections have never been the series' strong suit in recreating the realistic challenges of nosing in and out just right, but this game is particularly simple with the small bumps. This PSP game drives like an early version of a game still looking for its footing, not a well-run vet with several honors on its record.
ATV Offroad Fury is also a PSP game chasing desperately after a framerate. The whole 60/30 debate will continue to spark debate, but we'll take anything that's steady. Just at a glance, you can really see Blazin' Trails come short of the PSP's best when it's running full out, and it gets no better from there. The framerate takes a dip when it pulls a turn (somewhat like PC FPSes that do great when you're running along but chunk up when you spin the axis.) And it gets downright ugly when you fall off your ATV ... let's not even talk about that, it hurts too much. The PlayStation 2 edition always prided itself on a pristine framerate, and it's sad to see the PSP game hobbled by its early engine.
It's not like the game is a looker slowed down by its hotness. On PSP, it's serviceable, but not much else. Ground textures are washed out and don't show the ruts well, and colors are muted compared to the lush qualities this series usually makes flair with. Draw distance also holds up short, not drawing out for miles and miles like on the console version -- for the most part, we can settle for it being short on a portable, but when the waypoint markers don't fade in until you're nearly on top of them even though you're seeing hills way back in the distance, it becomes a problem. Many of the cool extra touches from the PS2 game, like the helicopter flying around with its searchlights running, are still present; on the other hand, lighting and water effects have been done with little fanfare.
It's amazing how much we're getting out of PlayStation Portable yet how quickly we're becoming jaded to it after years of pixels and sprites, but that's the deal -- we already expect more out of this brand-new system than what's on show here. The PSP version cuts the field down from six racers to just four (multiplayer or single), but it can't handle that smaller number well either. It seems to run better when you're in player-only Enduro stages, which is funny since these are more graphically complex (except for the crowd effects) and expansive than the simple Supercross arenas; you get no framerate benefit out of being the leader all alone, so we don't know where the technology failed this title, we just know that it did.
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