Release Date: October 9, 2008
One of the first things you learn as a writer is to be leery of anything that features a large number of adjectives all in a row. Usually, this emphasis on complementary words is a cover for something awful, sort of like how when a politician calls a colleague "The esteemed and knowledgeable gentleman from the great state of [fill in the blank]," what he really means is "the jerk over there who disagrees with me and is therefore an idiot." It is with this deep-seated suspicion that I approached Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, for a game with a title that long must be utterly terrible. It turns out I was wrong, and this game is full of surprises and a lot more fun than I would've originally imagined.
If you're anything like me, when you read the game's title, you think that it must be a racing game, perhaps something of a cross between WipEout and Twisted Metal with equal parts speed and destruction. That is incorrect, though, as SARPBC is actually a sports game. That's right, this isn't a racing game at all; it's a soccer title.
The basic premise of the game is that competitors are divided into two teams (from 1v1 to 4v4) and placed on one of three maps with a goal at each end. Your task is to gain control of the ball in the middle of the arena and knock it into your opponent's goal. The entire game lasts three minutes, and once time expires, the team with the highest score wins. Sounds simple enough, no? Well there's far more to the game than that, and it won't be long before you discover the title's true depth.
First off, rather than using full-size vehicles for the game, developer Psyonix has opted for RC cars that zip and dart around the track. The upside to this is that they are much faster and more responsive than a standard car, and they can easily race from one end of the arena to the other in the blink of an eye. Also, these little cars aren't stock models either; oh no, they're outfitted with plenty of turbo boosters and thrusters, which allow them to not only reach new speeds (hence the "supersonic" part of the title), but also jump, twist and roll to attack the ball (and each other) in many different ways. The little buggers can be tough to get a handle on at first, but once you see someone who's mastered the ins and outs of the cars in action, you'll be amazed at what they can do.
The main focus of SARPBC is the multiplayer aspect, but it's important to start off in the single-player experience in order to fully appreciate the title. The single-player portion is divided into mini-games and tournaments, each of which offers a fair amount of depth and variety. There are 20 different mini-games to choose from (divided into five tiers of four events each), and they feature everything from the standard "score as many goals as possible within the time limit," to the more unorthodox "race around and destroy as many opponent cars as you can." Each challenge rewards you for your prowess with one to five stars, and a large component of the game's replay value comes from returning to challenges you've already conquered in order to beat your previous score and earn a few more stars (and in turn, Trophies).
The mini-games included in SARPBC are actually quite ingenious, as each of them goes a long way toward teaching you the strategies you'll need to utilize in actual live games. After devoting serious time to the events, you'll likely head into matches against human opponents armed with new tactics and abilities. In a way, it's one of the most brilliant tutorials ever created.
If you're feeling more in the mood for a match but don't want to test your skills against real competitors, the game also features 13 tournaments that pit you against AI bots of varying number and abilities. While you start off with simple 2v2 beginner matches, you'll soon find yourself facing off against tougher competitors solo, or even trying to hold out in handicapped matches where it's just you against a small army of opposition.
It's actually in these tournaments where some of SARPBC's flaws start to rear their heads in the form of questionable AI. While opposing cars are often merciless in their attacks on your goal, your teammates don't seem to share the same urgency to score on the other team. Oftentimes, I would find my partner(s) whacking the ball the wrong way, thereby setting up easy shots for the opposition, or wandering off to some other part of the arena altogether even as both sides are waging a pitched battle to gain control of the ball. Sure, your companions will manage to score a goal once in a while, but it's often due to you setting them up perfectly or them just happening to bump a ball that was going in anyway. Even worse is when they try to "help" your shot along and end up knocking it offline and out of the goal. It's hard enough to score points in SARPBC anyway (more on that later), but the sometimes-insipid AI doesn't make it any easier.
Of course, you can get rid of the bot problem entirely by opting to jump over to the game's multiplayer mode, which can be utilized both on- and offline. The game supports up to eight players at a time, and in our testing, the online matches were just as smooth and problem-free as the offline events. Unfortunately, while the gameplay itself is rather good, the matchmaking isn't quite as hot.
When you start up an online match, SARPBC asks you to select your team size and the specific map you'd like to play on; from there, it starts crunching the numbers and looks for a game that matches up. If it finds one, bingo, you're in. However, in my experience, the game could rarely ever find a match to dump me into straightaway, and instead I had to wait for it to offer me other games that were taking place which I could join. While it was nice that I could eventually find a game to play, the matchmaking could have been streamlined by simply presenting a list of available games and letting players choose from there. Furthermore, the online community for the title is still pretty tiny, and it can be difficult to find games anyway, regardless of team size or map. Sadly, this issue is only going to become more pronounced as the title ages and gamers move on to other offerings.
Once you do get going, though, you'll find the online matches to be quite fun, even though they can be equally frustrating. Perhaps the game's biggest flaw, both on- and offline, is the crazy kooky ball physics Psyonix chose to include. You see, even though the ball is rather large and looks to be made of some kind of metal, it reacts as though composed of a highly elastic rubber, meaning that even the slightest nudge will send it bouncing and caroming wildly about the arena. While this can be somewhat amusing and makes for rather entertaining moments, it also means that it's nearly impossible to strategize, and goals often result not in careful planning and execution, but rather a lucky bounce amidst the mayhem. Even after the various mini-games teach you all the different angles and trajectories at which you can hit the ball and make a shot on goal, the element of unpredictability is so high that you're better off simply charging in blindly and hoping for the best.
What it all comes down to is that Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars is a quirky game that packs a lot of potential fun, but not without a few problematic issues. The game looks and sounds great for a downloadable title, featuring details in lighting and sound effects that go above and beyond what we're used to, as well as a fresh gameplay mechanic that is truly a welcome change in an increasingly stagnant industry. Still, the erratic AI, troublesome ball physics and unreliable matchmaking, coupled with the $15 price tag, make this a game that I cannot easily recommend to everyone. Go ahead and try out the demo (make sure to give the online play a shot), and if you like the small sampling, go ahead and buy, confident in the fact that there's more where that came from.
More articles about Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars