You can’t fault Halfbrick’s rate of output of late – with four Minis titles released so far, the Australian developer is easily one of the more accomplished and prolific studios currently putting games out there. Equally, each has its own identity and style, from the basic but compulsive Echoes and the addictive Blast Off to last month’s wickedly funny, utterly gorgeous but sadly overpriced Age of Zombies.
And so to Rocket Racing, Halfbrick’s fourth game and yet again another departure from the norm: essentially a top-down racer that looks like Wipeout would on an Amiga and controls like a rally game set on ice, with one killer mechanic: the drift heavy physics makes way for grinding - driving close to the edge of the track causes a boost in your ship’s propulsion, upping your speed in exchange for danger.
Rocket Racing’s main pull is the campaign mode, a series of races, time trials and challenges spread over a number of increasingly difficulty (and initially locked) tiers. Progress is swift and non-linear (you’re free to take on each tier from multiple angles) and there’s plenty of variety on offer from 10 second blasts to multiple race Grands Prix, but if you don’t learn to grind quickly you’ll not make it very far easily.
Tracks are numerous, races are often tight and tense (despite the fact that there’s no contact with the other AI racers) and there’s enough challenge between the twists and turns to keep players on their toes, especially as you move up the ranks. There’s no power-ups, mind, and with just one button (plus either d-pad or analog steering) the game’s surprising depth takes a while to fully appreciate.
So far, so good, but here’s the rub: Rocket Racing is hamstrung by its platform: the game practically screams multiplayer but Minis have no such connectivity, resulting in Halfbrick’s attempt to extend the life of the campaign mode with a hot-seat style affair which, whilst nice and fun in a Tony Hawk ‘Horse’ kind of way – especially when competiting for best time – is no substitute for real man-on-man racing, which is missing.
Also of note is a lack of dedicated time trials, a real shame as the game’s life is curtailed without it, and especially disappointing given that previous Halfbrick games have always provided developer scores to challenge the best gamers – not to mention the game’s Xbox 360 Indie Games outing last year was based on such a mode. Whether this affects you as much is clearly subjective, but I’m a sucker for a time trial mode.
Visually the game is lovely; distinctly 16-bit era backgrounds with parallax scrolling to add some physicality, nice particle effects and trails when grinding and 3D polygonal ships atop everything. It’s all very smooth (although the menus are a little less so) and perfectly suited to the game’s style – there’s even billboard style adverts for other Halfbrick minis dotted about each track, which adds a little something to the atmosphere.
Crucially, though, Rocket Racing is a solid PSP Minis title. Ironically, given the game’s £3.99 price tag, promotion to a ‘proper’ PSP game would have opened the door to a more comprehensive multiplayer component but as it stands whilst Halfbrick’s latest doesn’t quite reach the level set by Blast Off it is great fun and gets devilishly tricky towards the end. Let’s hope an update adds the much needed time trial mode, though.