Ghosting Fools and Rearranging Faces
Pursuit Force's expository cinematics accomplish what is all too rare in game narrative preliminaries — actually inspiring an urge to keep watching instead of skipping straight into the action. It seems five gangs are threatening to overrun Capital State. To put down the menace, the authorities have created Pursuit Force and granted its officers license to race, jump and kill their way across deserts and over rivers until every last criminal has been apprehended or blown up. Donning the uniform of a Pursuit Force officer, you exercise those powers to the best of your abilities in this combat-racing title for the PSP.
Pursuit Force is not 187: Ride or Die with extra acrobatics, however. These gangs are extraordinarily well-equipped, from the Capelli family's made men to the nuke-stealing mercenaries of the Warlords to the overexposed Vixens. The scenes that introduce the gangs entertain, too, setting the stage for each group with stylish action shots and describing them with comical text overlays like "anarchic tendencies" and "seductive." It all makes for a fairly compelling presentation that's worth a few lines of explanation because it successfully inflates your hopes for the gameplay that follows.
The bulk of the gameplay assumes the form of racing through city streets, mountain roads, and rivers and canals to put the hurt on bad guys or escort good guys while not harming innocent civilians. Each case you solve for Pursuit Force earns a grade of A, B or C, depending on how much time you have left at the end, how many enemies you killed and arrested and how many civilians you rammed. Don't be misled by the game's use of terms like "solving a case," though, as Pursuit Force requires little sleuthing and much deadly force.
The good guys, whether FBI boats shuttling witnesses to safety or ski resort vacationers fleeing the recently prison-broke Convicts, are often quite fragile, so aggressive protective measures are key to winning cases. That means making the most of Pursuit Force's central gameplay idea — your character's superhuman, vehicle-to-vehicle jumping ability. Pull close enough to an enemy ride, and you can execute a stylish lunge onto its trunk or hood, depending on your position when you pounce. As long as you maintain your balance, you're able to pump lead into the passenger and driver and then take their weapons and vehicle for yourself to continue your pursuit.
Seizing enemy vehicles ends up being the fastest and most effective tactic in escort and explicit combat cases alike, leaving plain old targeting and shooting for use when trying to knock helicopters out of the sky. That has the unfortunate side effect of turning the at-first-entertaining jumping mechanic into a repetitive chore. It reduces most career-mode cases to bouts of racing from one gang vehicle to the next just to get into jumping position, while the fire button goes unused for fear of causing too much damage to the boat, armored personnel carrier, motorcycle or other vehicle you're about to commandeer.
In-mission change-ups create a nonstop pace, and the persistent variation is a welcome twist on the combat-racing formula. Chase a mercenary convoy to the docks, for example, then secure the grounds on foot and chase down would-be escapees in a speedboat before they reach the outskirts of town. Save-enabled checkpoints often (and mercifully) accompany major shifts in the action, but illogical goals and muddy feedback are confounding nevertheless. Why waste time with a frustrating stealth-pursuit sequence — the essence of which is to throttle, brake, throttle and brake to maintain a safe distance behind Deadeye, the sharpshooting assassin — when it doesn't make sense to let him get Capital City's mayor in his sights anyway? Then, when you shift from tail mode to protect mode, why not take out Deadeye on the spot instead of hanging out near the mayor's car until the prompt tells you he's safe and that you now can go on the offensive?
While you're driving on land or water, basic shooting controls perform well enough so that your only worries are choosing a target and pushing the fire button as quickly as you can. On-rails helicopter missions break up the driving action, letting you man a mini-gun to attack a mob lawyer's entourage from the sky and shoot down rockets before they strike your chopper, for example, while another Pursuit Force officer handles the piloting. Neither land vehicles nor speedboats handle with great precision, but most tracks don't demand too much out of your reflexes anyway, save for a river course that clusters together several hairpin turns and a few other challenging segments you unlock as you increase in rank.
Attacking gangs on foot requires an abrupt shift control-wise, but enemies feel less aggressive outside their vehicles, usually giving you a decent grace period to get your bearings. The camera is less cooperative and can be disorienting in its twitchiness when you change directions too quickly. As long as you remember to fire, the auto-targeting takes care of the hard part, and makes the on-foot segments that much less challenging. Ideally, Warlords, Vixens and the other three gangs would be more aggressive and the controls would be flexible enough to let you handle the challenge. As it is, instead of feeling like an equally fun counterpoint to the vehicle segments, most running-and-gunning parts of cases feel like moderately successful diversions that you have to complete before the actual fun returns.
Every takedown — even the easy ones, of which there are many — contributes to a full Justice meter, the prime benefit of which is the ability to shoot while jumping. That gives you a significant advantage over enemies, who at least have a shot at knocking you off their cars if you have to wait until you land to start causing damage. Should you find yourself in a near-death situation, you can use all that Justice to replenish your life meter, too, but as long as you and your vehicle are healthy, Justice is much more attractive for its offensive benefits and for the extra bit of style it lends to the slow-mo jumping animations.
Jump-shooting also gives you a head start in slaughtering each vehicle full of enemies before moving on, an edge that comes in handy when battling the toughest enemy Pursuit Force has to offer — the clock. For a few cases at the beginning, the frequent countdowns create some urgency and prevent you from dispensing justice in too leisurely a fashion. As you unlock additional gangs and more challenging cases, every career mission — whether you're up against an explicit countdown or just trying to reach a dam before Warlords can breach it with rockets — begins to feel like a time trial, making races feel not urgent but arbitrary. Of course, something has to put the race in a combat-racing game, but balancing the game toward having to worry about survival as much as watching the clock would've helped Pursuit Force seem less simplistic in its approach to generating excitement.
The non-career modes — Time Trial and Race — are good for the one-off events you'd expect. Each case solved as a career officer unlocks new courses and cars (as well as gallery images and videos) for use in the alternate modes. Despite differences in acceleration, strength and other attributes, most vehicles of the same class (sedan, convertible, etc.) feel quite similar in practice. As Pursuit Force is single-player only, you're just racing against AI enemies who aren't terribly compelling opponents outside the context of the structured combat missions.
As you advance from case to case, your commander's tough-cop trash talk stands over and above the '80s-TV-sounding score with lines like, "People die when you daydream!" or, "You remind me of me" if you do something to his liking. The gangs taunt you, too, often falling back on the old standby "pig." The voiceover gets repetitive, but only reaches distraction level when the repetition underscores the spotty sense of humor, as when your commander reminds you repeatedly that you shouldn't be afraid of the mayor's bad breath, or compares your driving to a grandmother on her way to church.
The aforementioned cinematics impress most thoroughly among the visuals, but your Pursuit Force officer's design and jumping animations also excel with a certain XXX ridiculousness. The vehicles offer plenty of design variety, from the official Pursuit Force car and speedboat to starred-and-striped Vixen sports cars and classic Capelli mob-mobiles. The environments at first seem wholly immersive, but after a couple of trips down the river, you start noticing the seams running through Vulture Canyon's walls. Perhaps if the sense of speed were more consistent — a Speed-knockoff has you driving a bus at an awfully pokey-looking 100 MPH, while the final Capelli case feels full-throttle throughout — you wouldn't have time to notice graphical quibbles. Even so, the rocky desertscapes and snowy mountainsides give a modest boost to the mediocre gameplay's ability to keep you interested.
Almost Taking Back the Streets
Pursuit Force is a package you want to like. Achieving a high score seems at first like reward enough for the positive anticipation created by the initial presentation buzz. You're even tempted to retry cases to earn an A rating. By the time you reach lieutenant, however, the thrill of the slick jumping move has long worn off. Despite some thrills in the early going and the novelty of encountering new gangs, Pursuit Force depends too heavily on the clock to maintain excitement, eventually becoming a casualty of its own simplicity.
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