Release Date: September 11, 2007
Fatal Inertia took the long and winding path to retail, beginning life as an intended PlayStation 3 launch title expected to champion the hardware's prowess via the vaunted Unreal Engine 3. Instead, it slipped off of the release schedule and into the punch line of every joke about Sony's exclusive software lineup. This past summer, Koei owned up to the rumored compatibility issues between the PlayStation 3 and Epic's much-licensed middleware, announcing that the original version would be put on indefinite hold in favor of an Xbox 360 iteration, to be available at the advent of the 2007 holiday season.
And let me tell you, the joke about the Wipeout clone with the short courses, absurd physics system and generic everything isn't much funnier. Yet the punch line is the same, as Fatal Inertia packs a near-fatal dose of inconsistency, shoehorned by woefully incompatible elements that allow the hovercraft racer to fall apart in front of your very eyes after an inconspicuous opening.
Curiously enough, Fatal Inertia seems like a fairly solid experience out of the box. Its initial donut-shaped tracks (with 20-second laps) won't impress, but the gameplay is familiar and the game's arsenal actually packs some compelling prospects, including flingable magnets. On the single-player front, the initial handful of circuits pose little challenge to those familiar with the genre, as the AI-controlled opponents hold back a bit to give players a little wiggle room in navigating the environments and learning how to use the weapons.
But it all changes during the second set of circuits, at which point much trickier courses are introduced, with near-perfect opponents replacing the more casual foes available at the start. It's at this point that the game's unspeakably awkward physics come into play. See, even the most expansive tracks in the game feature only 45-second laps, with a handful of checkpoints scattered along the way to keep everyone in line. Think about that combination for a second: short courses, tight checkpoints and the aforementioned perfect opponents.
How the wonky physics come into play is that every attack, bump or presumably inconsequential nudge against a low-hanging stalactite will send your craft spinning out of control, typically off of the necessary path and occasionally into an underground opening from which there is no escape — except by holding the Y button. Occasionally, even that doesn't even work on first attempt. Later courses in the game are filled with little objects and architectural flaws that obstruct the best route to the finish line, but there's no consistency to their destructibility — sometimes a tree branch will give way, and other times it'll stop you cold.
Fatal Inertia diverges from the typical Wipeout formula by sticking to the outdoors, with tracks falling into one of five themes: desert canyon, tropical island, volcanic mountains, frozen tundra and winding forest paths. What boggles the mind is why these wide-open courses force the player back through a metal hoop every five to eight seconds, with a missed checkpoint essentially ruining any chance the vehicle had of a decent finish. It's not as if you can just nick the edge of the checkpoint and have it count as a pass; just like nearly any other solid object in the game, catching the edge of the hoop will send you flying into no man's land.
Such incompatible elements transform Fatal Inertia from unremarkable to, at times, unplayable. But while the racer becomes something of a train wreck after just a couple of hours of play, there are some solid ideas at work. As mentioned previously, the arsenal offers a handful of unique concepts, including dual-fire options on most weapons. For example, rockets and Force Blasts can be launched forward as an offensive burst or shot from behind and utilized as a speed boost.
Tow cables, which can be used to tie up opponents or slingshot your own hovercraft around corners, work better in theory than in execution, but at least the developers are thinking outside the box in some regards. Compiling circuit wins will open up various vehicle upgrades, including new engines, wings and paint schemes. This is one of the more compelling additions to the genre, even if its simplistic menus and decals don't hold up to the likes of the Need for Speed series or other traditional racing titles.
In fact, the whole game is wrapped up in an uninspired brand of genericism that extends beyond the general concept into the backstory, menu screens and even the logo on the box. You get the sense that Koei spent so much of its budget on the Unreal Engine 3 that it couldn't afford to infuse the game with even a smidgen of personality. Rich businessmen funding an extreme sport in the 22nd story may not be the stuff of dreams, but if you're going to include such a narrative, don't just include a paragraph of text before the first race — show it to us. Give us a reason to bounce off of the cavern walls and hope to eke out a seventh-place finish.
What the Unreal Engine 3 offers Fatal Inertia, besides a long paper trail and a new platform of choice, is a glossy sheen that stands out immediately, from the fluttery water effects to the sharply rounded ships. But being "next-gen" is about more than just the ability to produce great screenshots, and that's where the game stumbles a bit. Before and after each race, you'll be treated to a fly-over of each environment, complete with texture flickering and pop-in. While choppiness is never really an issue, there are times when the action seems to slow down a bit, as if the engine is struggling to keep everything moving at full speed.
Eight-player online support should theoretically erase the single-player issues, thrusting everyone into an equal battle, poor physics and all, but there's a catch. A community has yet to surround this title, resulting in abandoned servers with no consistent competition. The situation is so dire that, at press time (three weeks after release), only two of the top 10 players on the leaderboard have played 10 or more races. The 10th-place racer only has a single event to his credit! We hosted a match for nearly an hour on a weekday afternoon and found only a single opponent during that stretch. It's just abysmal at this point, and it seems unlikely to get much better.
With Wipeout locked up on the PlayStation and F-Zero still part of Nintendo's playbook, it stands to reason that the Xbox 360 needs its own AAA hovercraft racing franchise (unless Microsoft has a Quantum Redshift sequel in the offing). Fatal Inertia isn't it. If all of the pieces in this long-delayed puzzle fit properly, Fatal Inertia would simply be a serviceable racer, but the shaky physics, unnecessarily brutal opponents and wild inconsistencies put it strictly in the no-fly zone.
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