PSP Review - 'Pocket Racers'

by Erik "NekoIncardine" Ottosen on Aug. 12, 2007 @ 4:05 a.m. PDT

A unique twist on handheld racing games, Pocket Racers redefines the term "road rage" by offering players the chance to drive for their soul against a powerful evil adversary in detailed racing environments, either solo or with friends.

Genre: Racing
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: November 14, 2006

You can't always review the latest games. Sometimes, it's good to look back at games that have long passed their expiration date, and see what held up and what didn't. It's not like late 2006 lacked gems on the previous-generation consoles, after all, so surely there's gotta be a couple of hidden diamonds amongst the pile, right?

Well, this first selection didn't really pull much out. Pocket Racers is one of those games that hides behind a physics engine, poking gameplay in through tiny holes here and there and trying to make the result sound more impressive than it is. Konami licensed the highly popular Havok engine for Pocket Racers, and then (seemingly afterwards) came up with the game to match, stuffing the engine into a racing title which brings up images of remote-control cars. Then they sort of go off the deep end trying to figure out why the player should race remote-control cars.

If anything drops Pocket Racers from "almost great" to "barely thought-out junkware," it's a story which can be defined in a single internet acronym: WTFITS. For optimal effect, picture a cat saying that while seething in anger, and then have some random goth guy walk in, summon pretty green lights, steal the cat's soul, and shove it into a remote-control car. The kitten must then race around varied environments, with its soul and the souls of all its friends (who also got tossed into cars) on the line. Now, replace the kitten with you, the player, and you have the entire plot of Pocket Racers. The green goth dude, who is only described as a "Soul Stealer," is also stealing your actual cars, too, just to be mean.

Around this time, you, the reader, might be incredulous as to just how messed-up this plot is. If you are, you've probably never heard of Custer's Revenge or Burger Time, or any other game which comes up with a patently ludicrous storyline and probably would have been better off without one. To make things worse, Konami then proceeded to make the storyline into the sole unlock system. You can practice races freely, but to progress, you must participate in a "Soul Race" and win it. Losing costs you one of your friends' souls (and his car), and winning lets you progress and gets you a "Soul Gem" that'll give you one of your friends back. Win all five soul races in a grouping, and you unlock the next five races, until you've unlocked and won all 15 courses.

The basic gameplay of Pocket Racers is pretty standard small-scale racer fare, just with physics. Spin around the courses at what the game tries to convince you is a high speed, picking up a painfully limited array of power-ups, one of which serves as pretty much the sole reason for putting the physics engine into the game. Spin around faster than anyone else, and you win. This sort of gameplay is innately old, but can still be fun when done right. However, short courses, not enough courses, slow frame rate, and poor takes on the most generic kart-racing weapons (speed boost, shield, freezer, knock opposing car around, knock random object around in hopes of knocking opposing car around) don't hold up to the pattern.

It's not as if Konami spent so much time on other aspects of the game that it'd explain why the gameplay is poor. The interface is a seemingly random collection of uncomfortably unembellished text, spinning icons representing your friends' souls, and confusingly identical-looking menus. As if this weren't bad enough, Konami then threw the Sony battery icon in the upper-right corner, as if you, the player, are too stupid to press the "home" button to check your battery status.

The graphics are only marginally above PSP average, with textures that end up making it look significantly below that unfortunately sub-par bar. Sound effects are generic and without any punch, and the soundtrack consists entirely of grating techno music that will quickly make you wish Konami had taken the time to put in custom soundtracks instead of the ad-hoc multiplayer which seems to describe itself, as if to imply there were an infrastructure mode. Needless to say, there isn't. It's as if the game were developed as quickly as possible, on as little budget as possible, solely to be thrown at people who buy almost anything and regret it afterwards.

Pocket Racers was made for the holiday rush as a cheap, new game that could be shoveled out to parents, resulting in sad kids who have just become victims of the shovelware industry yet again. A lack of budget led to a lack of time spent on it, leading to the rather ludicrous premise, the worst use of the Havok physics engine I have yet seen in a video game, and overall just plain hilariously bad design and implementation. Don't bother wasting your time on it, if you were considering it for some reason. Some games age well, while others do so poorly. This one doesn't age at all; it was junk from the start.

Score: 4.6/10

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