Ever since UK developer Psygnosis (now Sony Computer Entertainment Liverpool) crafted the landmark sci-fi racer 'WipEout' for the original Sony PlayStation back in 1995, scant little else has hit the 'anti-gravity hover racing' genre with more than a glancing blow in terms of genuinely comparable quality.
Some may offer up the likes of Nintendo's 'F-Zero', which predates WipEout by a clear five years, as the true genre leader; while some may lose all grasp of gaming reality directly before putting forth the laughably inane 'Crazy Frog Racer' series as a viable contender to WipEout's longstanding mastery of hover racing gameplay.
Sadly, however, both sets of fanatical followers - worthy and unworthy respectively - would be championing their chosen game in vain when challenging WipEout's well-deserved positioning. But what about 'Fatal Inertia', Koei's latest entrant into a racing genre not exactly bursting at the seams with white-knuckle competition and perhaps ripe for a new approach to breakneck, gravity-defying glory?
Well, in short, if there's anything worse than a flat out awful videogame that prompts seething incredulity, an empty wallet, and a stinging rectum, it's a game that oozes masses of potential immediately prior to imploding beneath the weight of player expectation and terrible development decisions. Welcome to the speedy but disappointing world of Fatal Inertia.
While Fatal Inertia never treads the well-worn path of the former consumer reaction, players will find that it all-too quickly secures a perilously terminal footing on the latter by shamefully destroying its qualities with some truly awful gameplay inadequacies and horribly clunky level design.
In the 22nd century mankind has developed the "ultimate form of entertainment," outlines the game's packaging boldly, which has led to the creation of state-of-the-art hovercraft that race at speeds exceeding 900km/h. So, by hurtling through multiple courses spread through (5) varied environments including dense jungle, dark forestry, rocky canyons, icy cliffs, and fiery caverns, the deadly sport of Fatal Inertia was born.
That preamble is fairly typical of the grandiose fluff that opens the game and, while the bare bones structure delivers nothing in terms of accompanying narrative flow, it does at least promise the player heaps of hard-fought, weapon-imbued hover races. Note the use of the word "promise" there, a word chosen carefully seeing as Fatal Inertia breaks its opening promise rather quickly following some intensive and admittedly tantalising Flight, Combat, and Event training.
Once familiar with the basics of hovercraft control, the four types of applicable contest connected to the core Career mode, and the myriad of available weapon pick-ups, the player is then let loose to secure a ride from one of the sport's industrial and technological corporate sponsors - which sporadically provide the player with access to progressively more impressive hovercraft the further they advance.
All of Fatal Inertia's race types are appealing from a gameplay point of view: Magnet Mayhem limits all eight (A.I. or multiplayer) participating racers to firing only forward and rear-charged Magnet Clusters, which attach to vehicles, interfere with flight control, and can lead to destruction if not swiftly shook off; Velocity, as you would imagine, is based entirely on momentum, with weapon pick-ups replaced with speed boosts; Knockout sees the trailing racer eliminated from the contest at the end of each lap until only one racer is left and deemed the winner; and Combat Race is every man for himself with whatever combination of weapon pick-ups they're able to utilise during the race.
All in all, there are a pretty solid selection of race types existing in order to get the blood flowing prior to sweeping down onto more than 50 available tracks... but this is where the problems begin.
Firstly, the vast majority of those 50 tracks are often woefully small and overly basic in terms of layout, to the point where laps are completed in next to no time and full races last little longer than a couple of frantic minutes.
Secondly, track design has been implemented so lazily alongside woolly and unresponsive piloting controls that latter 'oomph-worthy' hovercraft attained by the player will only usher in frustrating bouts of slamming headlong into overhanging canyon walls, sliding uncontrollably into twisted trees, ploughing into looming rocks, and generally failing to navigate various other race-destroying obstacles.
Thirdly, despite what appear to be wide-ranging and open race environments, the tracks themselves are uncomfortably claustrophobic and difficult to process visually while whizzing along at speed. This culminates in the player struggling with a sense of extreme disorientation when successfully attacked by an opponent or, more often than not, crashing without requiring any outside assistance due to the tight confines and sluggish controls.
From an aesthetic angle, Fatal Inertia is doubly disappointing because its vehicle models (which are initially generic but can be evolved in Garage mode thanks to some 300,000 different upgrade combinations) are impressively slick, while the environmental atmospherics and detailing are certainly befitting of the next-generation label. Unfortunately, the blandly inoffensive techno soundtrack, flat vehicle momentum noises, and complete lack of an attending crowd for what is supposedly the world's "ultimate form of entertainment" only serve to tarnish the game's outwardly decent graphics.
It's also worth noting that while Koei's Fatal Inertia hurtles along at a convincing frame rate and manages to avoid unruly clipping or stuttering, its predominantly short and twisty track designs rarely allow the player to experience a truly invigorating sense of straight-line speed - which is surely what the game should have been built around.
Despite the tinker-friendly confines of the Garage and the instant-access attraction of the Quick Race mode, Fatal Inertia and its wealth of in-race pick-ups (which include Rockets, Smoke Bombs, Speed Boosts, Force Fields, EMP Blasts, and the rival-slowing Time Dilator) sadly fail to provide a racing experience worthy of mention in the same breath as WipeEout and F-Zero. Unsurprisingly it's markedly better than Crazy Frog Racer.
Not even the addition of 8-player online and system link multiplayer can help inject the lacklustre race proceedings with any tangible worth in the face of shoddy track design and worryingly slack vehicle controls. While Fatal Inertia's throbbing chassis may be glistening prettily in the next-gen sunshine, popping the latch of truth beneath the hood unveils a poorly refurbished gameplay engine billowing oily smoke that quickly reveals that if the scrap heap isn't currently calling, the bargain basement perhaps is.
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