Being disappointed by PSP games is becoming something of a habit at the moment which either means I'm becoming a world weary cynic (well, more of one anyway...) or the PSP is currently suffering a slew of missed opportunities as promising games are ruined by lazy design choices and stunted ambitions. Because there's nothing like a bit of healthy denial, let's assume it's the latter. M.A.C.H, rather handily, fits into that category perfectly, a fun airborne racing game that, through no fault of the actual in-game racing experience, ends up as a disappointing lacklustre shadow of what it could so easily have been given a bit more care and attention.
To start at the beginning, the year is 2049 and the world superpowers have dispensed with the need for fighter pilots by developing fully automatic unmanned aircraft. This has left a large number of frustrated fly-boys and unused planes (quite why the new auto-pilot systems couldn't be fitted to existing planes is never explained). Combine the two and what have you got? High risk, high excitement jet racing of course! Ahem. Thankfully the story serves as nothing more than a vague reason to hang the traditional racing game structure on the wings of some cool looking planes. And a traditional racing game structure is just what we find when we look under the hood, three single player modes giving you the expected arcade, (single race) career (umm... career) and challenge (objective based single events) option. As you'd expect the bulk of the single player game is to be found in the career mode which is split into five difficulty levels each with a number of different events to be competed in. These events are made up of normal course-based races and open area based timed dogfights with points being awarded in each depending on your finishing position. As well as aiming to finish top of the points table in each difficulty you can also win cash for finishing first in individual events, cash that can then be spent in the upgrade shop either on new planes or customising your existing one with a variety of new and improved parts as well as a large number of pointless, unless that kind of thing floats your boat, paint jobs and logos.
Whichever mode you choose you'll eventually get to be sat in a plane, ready to race. This being an arcade racer in every sense of the word the designers have wisely chosen to take a very liberal view of plane mechanics, flying is automatic, at least in the sense that doing nothing wont see your plane hurtling towards the ground, instead you're left to apply the throttle by holding down the X button (a swift double tap will cause a speed boost, turbo gauge allowing) and steering your way through the twisty turny courses. Hitting walls or mid course obstacles doesn't result in the gruesome fireball of death or induce a doomed spinning nosedive as it would in the 'real world', instead your plane will happily bounce off most mid air collisions needing a pretty full on high speed crash to cause destruction and even then you're re-spawned close by instantly. During each race there are pickups to be grabbed which give you a range of in race upgrades from weapons such as missiles and mines to handy speed boosts. The mid race combat is very much in the Wipeout scheme of things, meaning that taking out your opponents with force is often just as important as out racing them and adds a large dose of excitement to races that would otherwise have been a little bland. The AI does sometimes seem a little too keen on blowing you up on the final straight which can get frustrating and does make you question how fair the game is playing with its weapons but a well timed barrel roll here or there can often avoid such attacks meaning you're never quite the sitting duck you could have been.
Graphically it all looks very nice too, with an impressive sense of speed, especially on the faster planes, and some nice weapons effects. The courses are all well designed and offer a range of good looking environments to race through from oil rigs to tropical islands. But, and here's where the disappointment starts to kick in, there are only five of them. Yep, that's right, five. Okay, so there are some small variations sometimes and you get to fly mirrored versions of them too but still, its the same five tracks you end up flying through time and time again. For a racing game in this day and age to come to the table with so little variety to offer is unforgivable and unfortunately the sense of things missing doesn't end there.
With such a stunted selection of tracks meaning that the single player modes get repetitive depressingly quickly you'd have hoped for some decent multiplayer action, and indeed the game does support eight player multiplayer action to keep you interested. But, guess what, only over an ad-hoc connection. For the love of all things sacred why? What IS wrong with PSP developers that mean they seem unable to use the potentially great infrastructure mode? Think about it, seriously, what are the chances of anyone finding a) enough PSP owning friends in the same room at the same time to setup a decent multiplayer game, and b) them all having gone out and paid for a copy of a game that despite all its good points is hardly a triple A title. It's just not going to happen, and yet having put in the work to create a multiplayer mode, once again, a PSP developer has crippled it by making it ad-hoc only. It is, of course, horribly unfair for me to throw such accusations solely at the feet of M.A.C.H. as it's multiplayer philosophy is the same as the huge majority of PSP games, it's just a game so crying out for a decent online multiplayer mode to make up for the lack of variety in its single player experience that it's doubly disappointing to see it so poorly served. The PSP has the ability to do true online, multiplayer, online multiplayer on consoles is clearly 'a good thing' and yet only a handful of PSP games offer it, and Sony wonder why it's not selling in the numbers they'd hoped for. Frustrated? Moi? To rub salt into the open wound game sharing is also supported but is limited to only two planes and one course rendering it spectacularly pointless as anything more than a demo, there goes another good idea falling into the black hole marked underdeveloped.
What's so disappointing about M.A.C.H is that it's actually a really fun racer, the arcade approach works well and the high powered jets are fun to pilot making a nice change from cars and giving a third dimension to the racing. The mid race combat adds spice to the whole thing and the dogfights are a good addition letting you fly free away from the confines of the courses. But, and it's a show stoppingly big but, the whole package fails to do the actually racing justice. You'll be bored of the small number of courses within the first few hours and, unless you have a decent number of friends who own copies, the multiplayer mode won't ever get enough use to make it worthwhile. With another five or more tracks and a true online multiplayer mode this would have been a superb game which would probably have deserved a score in the eighties, as it stands its just too slight an experience to really recommend which is a shame. If you have the sort of disposable income that means you can afford to buy games on a whim then you'll enjoy the small amount of time you spend with M.A.C.H. but for those who are looking for value for money there isn't much to be found here.