Time hasn't been so kind to Heathcliff, the trouble-making orange cat created by George Gately in 1973. Despite having a comic strip five years before Jim Davis' Garfield showed up, he's been out of the public eye while the other orange feline is enjoying a new life thanks to feature films and an ongoing TV series. Like all big stars, though, Heathcliff seems poised to make a big comeback with a straight-to-DVD animated movie followed by a theatrical film and TV series in 2012. Like almost all licensed things nowadays, video games are coming into the picture. Unlike most things, however, games based on the license are hitting stores before the rest of the projects. With the license in hand, Storm City Games has taken Heathcliff into what can be considered safe territory with a kart racing game called Heathcliff: The Fast and The Furriest. Based on what we've seen, though, Heathcliff's comeback could be rough road.
In a marked break for games of this genre, there is an actual story in The Fast and The Furriest. A group of alien felines called the Alikats have come to Earth looking for a new home. Upon entering our atmosphere, they discovered that similar-looking beings already exist here. Intrigued, they abduct Heathcliff's girlfriend, Sonja, for further analysis. Of course, he isn't going to lie down without a fight and demands that the aliens give her back. They agree to a winner-take-all contest of go-kart racing and employ a mind-control device to brainwash Heathcliff's allies and tip the scales in their favor. Playing as Heathcliff, your task is to win the various racing tournaments, break the brainwash lock on your friends, and save Sonja.
The game features a few different modes, though only one is multiplayer-enabled. The story mode has you only playing as Heathcliff racing through various circuits in classic kart racing fashion. Like any kart-racing title, you'll find speed strips on the road to temporarily give you a turbo boost once you drive over them. You'll also find various weapons that range from missiles and shields to more unusual speakers that knock down anyone driving near you. One change from the typical kart racing structure is the presence of boss fights at the end of each circuit; each boss must be defeated before the circuit can be completed.
The other two modes are more straightforward and, honestly, lacking. Tournament mode is a single-player affair that mirrors the story mode, minus the presence of cut scenes. While this gives you the opportunity to race each track with characters other than Heathcliff, it feels like an empty reward since the only differences between each character is in their overall appearances and not their stats. Single race mode is the lone multiplayer opportunity where you can race against others on a track of your choosing. Unlike almost every other kart racing title on the platform, the game only supports racing for up to two people while AI opponents fill out the rest of the slots. With that kind of limit, it's difficult to justify choosing this game over other kart racing titles.
Even if one were fine with the game only supporting a maximum of two players instead of four, there are a myriad of other issues that plague The Fast and The Furriest. The AI uses a flawed rubber-banding system to keep each race close. No matter how far in the lead you may be, you'll always have someone a second or two behind you, ready to take over when you make a slight mistake. Unfortunately, the effect doesn't work the other way. If you're in last place, you'll most likely stay there no matter what tactics you employ.
The bosses are also a pain to take down because your weapons feel pretty useless. Whether you're using homing missiles or machine guns, no weapon seems to have any effect on the bosses or other racers. The most useful weapon you have is your car, which, thanks to the wonky physics system, has the uncanny ability to knock another kart clean off its racing line. Even touching a wall can cause you to slow down dramatically or force your kart to a complete stop, giving other racers more than enough time to catch up and take an insurmountable lead.
The issue with the game's physics is further highlighted thanks to the finicky controls. Steering is very touchy when using either the Wii Remote or in conjunction with the Nunchuk, and you never get the feeling that you've finally mastered the steering system even after playing through many races. Everything else, from the acceleration to the braking, seems to be fine. There's a dedicated button for powersliding, and while it might be useful in other titles, the already-shaky mechanics relegate the function to obscurity.
For a title released at this stage in the Wii's life cycle, the graphics are inexcusable. The game is colorful, if a bit simplistic, but there's nothing that makes you think that the system's power is being used at all. The environments are comprised of simple shapes and geometry. The curves on the road show off sharp angles, and the buildings and walls appear flat and lifeless despite the presence of faux ads on the side. The cars don't feel creative, and the characters sitting inside also look as angular as the tracks. The particle effects, such as the kart's exhausts, are too simplistic while other effects, like the sparkle seen when racing through Heathcliff's neighborhood, seem pointless.
To top it all off, there's never a moment when it feels like you're racing at high enough speeds. Whether your speedometer reads 80 or 210 MPH, you feel like you're racing at a snail's pace despite the simple graphics and textures being used in conjunction with a 4:3 480i presentation. The Fast and The Furriest looks more like an enhanced Nintendo 64 title than something belonging on the GameCube, let alone the Wii, and people looking at the game will think it's a Virtual Console title rather than a game that's native to the console.
The sound is barely tolerable. The music is the sort of happy tune you're used to hearing on other platformers and kart racing titles, and while the tunes are different, they're so similar that it seems like the same song is playing over and over again. The effects are fine, though they lack any sort of punch to elevate them beyond generic. The voices, though, are a real shame. Whether these are the voices that will be used for the upcoming animated movie remain to be seen, but from the few available sound bites, they seem phoned in. The characters only speak when getting hit or crossing the finish line, but they all sound lifeless — as if someone left in placeholder files without remembering to replace them before going to print.
The Nintendo Wii is home to a bevy of good kart racing titles, including Mario Kart Wii and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing. Unfortunately, Heathcliff: The Fast and The Furriest is the polar opposite of those games. The controls are abysmal, and everything else from a technical standpoint is below sub-par. The multiplayer feels limiting, and the modes feel tacked on. Most importantly, the broken game mechanics and cutthroat AI make for a gaming experience that just isn't fun. This is a game that everyone, including die-hard Heathcliff fans, should avoid at all costs.
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