Reviewed: October 25, 2001
Released: September 25, 2001
Midway ventures onto very thin ice with their latest coin-op to home port of Arctic Thunder for the PlayStation 2. You never know quite what to expect when Midway releases a new game. Their previous track record ranges from some incredibly good titles to some insanely bad ones. Arctic Thunder unfortunately falls into the latter category, and while you can't always hold a publisher responsible for a third party product developed out of house, Arctic Thunder was in fact developed by Midway.
Adding further to the humiliation of this title is that fact that it released within days of another Midway title, SpyHunter which is an amazing port of the original coin-op. I seldom get to review two titles from the same company at the same time and certainly no two titles that have been at such opposite ends of the quality spectrum.
Arctic Thunder gets some kudos for being the first snowmobile racing game on the PlayStation 2, but being original simply isn't enough to make a game great; just look at City Crisis. For as much as Arctic Thunder breaks new ground in originality, it also excels in horrible control, poor visuals, and gameplay that seems to drag you along for a two minute ride before leaving you battered and bruised at the finish line.
SSX was a great example of a racing game that takes place outdoors on snow-covered terrain and pretty much set the bar for all future racing games that take place in such an environment. Arctic Thunder never comes close to achieving the same adrenaline rush I got from SSX, and while it may have been an acceptable release as a launch title, Arctic Thunder can't even begin to compete with the amazing second generation titles we are now seeing for the PS2.
I never played the coin-op version of Arctic Thunder, so I can't make any comparisons to the quality of the port. The PS2 version of this racer features some of the most non-interactive gameplay I have ever seen. You could conceivably mash the accelerator down and flip over to another channel on your TV and 2 minutes later find you have placed in the top five. This isn't to say the game is on "rails" but the tracks are narrow with invisible walls that keep you from straying too far past the course or pre-defined shortcuts and hidden paths.
You get to pick from 15 characters, each with their own snowmobile, or you can swap their default ride out with any of the other snowmobiles. This leads to some amusing combinations, as you could conceivably give the burley lumberjack rider a dainty pink snowmobile if you wanted. The characters lack any personality or backstory. There isn't even a bio section in the manual.
Once you have picked your rider and their ride you can choose from the various tracks, many of which must be unlocked of course. The track design is actually one of the better parts of the game, and the courses feature some interested location-based scenery from all over the world. The courses are littered with ramps, tunnels, hidden paths and shortcuts. There is also a bevy of power-ups such as shields, turbos, and a small arsenal of weaponry you can use to slow down or eliminate your opponents.
Arctic Thunder features a trick system that allows you to pull off some amazing moves when you catch some air, but this isn't as cool as you might think. The entire process has been automated so you really have no control to pick, switch, or chain multiple tricks. You simply hang onto the snowmobile and watch whatever happens.
Control is absolutely horrible. Your sled controls like a large log caught in an avalanche. I've ridden snowmobiles and know how they control and this ain't it. The lack of control is perhaps the major reason this game seems to take you along for the ride rather than making you feel like you have any say in what happens.
The game itself is quite difficult. I'm not sure if the AI is super-human or if I just super-suck. You are literally required to locate and use the shortcuts and collect as many turbo-boosts as you can if you ever hope to win a race. I did enjoy the highly competitive nature of the other racers. They all use the course and available power-ups to their individual advantage in an "everyone for themselves" attempt to win each race. Computer riders just don't gang-up on you, but instead will engage the nearest opponent regardless of which side of the TV screen they reside.
Arctic Thunder easily looks like it could have been an original PSX game that I stuck in my PS2 and tried to squeeze out some extra graphical juice. The only problem is this lemon is all dried up. While the tracks are visually above average you will never get to enjoy the scenery as the action is so blindingly fast and out-of-control.
You can choose from one of three viewing modes that include a first-person mode that is all but impossible to play from or two chase views. The default is the near-chase view that is almost equally unplayable and then there is the far-chase view that actually lets you see enough of what's ahead to plan some sort of strategy.
The blazing graphics combined with a very poor frame rate make it very hard to line-up for a ramp or make a sharp turn onto a secret path. The course literally jerks around so fast you have no precise control over your sled, once again leaving you hanging on and being taken for a ride.
The weapons create some interested visuals and exciting special effects, but with a pack of violent racers all firing at the same time the explosions and missiles all blend together in some sort of crazed special effects montage that detracts from any single effect. I must make special note of the Rooster Tail power-up that generate a blinding white plume of snow behind your sled. If you are playing from either of the third person views it will blind you more than any of your opponents. Make sure to be in first-person mode if you plan on using this device.
The sound effects are a mixed bag. The snowmobiles all sound like chainsaws, albeit large chain saws. Outside of the excellent explosions there just isn't that much variety in sound effects, and the few that exist are drowned out with other sounds or with the thumping soundtrack. As I stated previously, with all the riders fighting at once the sounds are just as overlapped and confusing as the graphics.
The music is actually quite good and while it always has a thumping bass track they have cleverly inserted (or rather mixed) level specific musical segments. A good example is when you are racing in the Washington D.C. level, and you can make out parts of "Hail to the Chief" mixed into the techno track.
As with most arcade games of this type, there is no defined conclusion to the game, so your playtime will be as long as you choose to continue playing it. For me, I played through all the tracks (including the ones I unlocked) and the two-player battle arenas in about 6 hours.
Arctic Thunder offers two-player split-screen racing in both track and Battle Arena modes. The battle arenas are enclosed ice arenas littered with power-ups that you can collect and then use on your opponent in a gladiator-style battle. The PS2 is disappointingly limited to two-players (even with a multi-tap); however, the upcoming Xbox version will support four-player arena combat.
I really wanted to like this game. I had high hopes when I learned that a snowmobile racing game was coming to the PlayStation 2. Even if Arctic Thunder does nothing more than set the new "low bar" for the genre, Midway has at least opened the door for the concept of snowmobile racing. Hopefully we will see future titles that explore the concept with a bit more emphasis put into the actual gameplay.
As it stands, Arctic Thunder looks and plays like a hastily produced coin-op port with little to no consideration for the power of the platform it was being ported to or the increasing demands of the gamers who are just now seeing the true power of the PS2, as we enter the second year of its life. With games like Rumble Racing and Twisted Metal Black available I have trouble recommending this game to anyone, even as a weekend rental.