Reviewed: October 15, 2005
Released: September 15, 2005
To call GripShift a “racing” game is doing a huge disservice to the title. Sure you drive a car, and even race other cars for several laps before crossing a finish line, but those are the exceptions to what is otherwise a fiendishly clever blend of genres. Even the creators seem to be confused, as the box proudly proclaims the game to be a “Puzzle-Platform-Driving-Action” game. Well, which one is it?
Actually, it’s all of them and probably touches on a few genres they didn’t even mention like “sports” (Penguin Bowling). And we can’t overlook the track editor that lets you flex your creative muscle by giving you the freedom to create your own courses. But I get ahead of myself. Back to the beginning.
GripShift offers more than 100 challenging levels spread across four distinct worlds like a desert mesa or snow-capped mountains. But unlike most racing games with real tracks, GripShift is often nothing more than select strips of asphalt in various pieces that are hovering over a bottomless void where one slip off the track sends you back to the starting line.
Just imagine somebody taking all of the pieces of track from a Hot Wheels set, separating them, and then suspending them from the ceiling. Sometimes the tracks are continuous as they twist through tight turns or into exciting loops, but often you will have to jump and turbo your way across gaps in the track.
Physics are about as realistic as the track layouts. Your car is extremely bouncy and the turbo boost will override all other forces acting on the car allow you to steer and rocket yourself through midair. Track design and even game design will demand that you think outside the box on this game.
Each of the tracks has three completion goals. You have the time limit, the collectible stars, and the bonus icon. If you are lucky you might be able to do the first two on a single pass but the bonus icon is often hidden way out of the way on some desolate island hovering in space. Not only do you have to figure out how to reach and collect the icon, you have to get back to the track and across the finish line before the counter hits zero.
The screenshots only hint at the complexity and sheer evilness of the tracks. Some tracks will have totally unrealistic par times until you realize that you have to launch yourself across massive voids and land on a section of track much closer to the finish line, thus avoiding 75% of the entire track.
One of my favorite tracks featured a massive loop where you had to drive to the very top and brake, and then watch your car freefall to a small ledge in the center of the loop where the bonus icon was waiting. There was an intense feeling of vertigo as the tires broke free from the track and the car tumbled toward the unseen ledge below.
Other tracks will have moving platforms that take you from one side of a gap to the other and you won’t find anything more taxing on your patience that watching that timer tick down as the platform slowly approaches.
Scattered along the tracks are gold stars that you must collect for one of the completion goals. These are usually laid out in what is commonly called “the driving line” so if you drive smart you can’t help but collect them. There are also bottles of nitro along the track and each one will partially fill your larger nitrous meter that can be expelled at will allowing you to achieve great heights and even fly for short sustained bursts.
As you complete the various challenges you will eventually unlock the race mode and numerous mini-games like Penguin Bowling (no penguins were hurt during the testing of this game), and variations of soccer, hockey, and even pool. Race mode offers practice, single race, time challenge, and championship for those who prefer a more traditional race experience.
There is also a Playground mode, which is totally off the hook. Just think of a giant skate park only stead of a skateboard you are driving a car around a giant bowl with 8-minutes to collect 99 stars. Of course these stars are all over the place including midair forcing you to try and try again, several tricky jumps at various speeds to get that perfect arc. Then you have stars along the rim of the bowl that require skateboard-like moves, up the side and arcing back down. It took me six tries to even get the Bronze medal on this level and I fear the Gold may be out of my abilities – it’s just that hard.
There are several characters that you can choose to race as once they are unlocked, and the same goes for cars, each with their own stats for top speed, handling, grip, weight, boost, etc. While you never really have to change drivers or cars, you might find some tracks or even certain challenges on those tracks are more suited toward a specific vehicle.
The game is designed around quick and repetitive trial and error gameplay. To that end the load times are virtually non-existent when reloading the same track or event. The only problem I did have was with the menu, which always prompted for Next Race rather than Retry whenever you completed an event. This isn’t a problem if you got the Gold medal but if you get impatient after a bronze or silver and hit the X button too fast you’ll have to do a lot of backtracking to get back to the current event, because it will load the next race which takes about a minute, then you have to exit that, return to the menu, find the event you were playing and reload that.
There is a solid multiplayer component in GripShift that allows you to not only challenge friends to race on custom tracks that you built using the handy in-game track editor, but also play the various mini-games or go head-to-head in Deathmatch or Reverse Tag. Deathmatch is particularly fun with various weapon power-ups set inside an arena-style level. It’s frag or be fragged for up to four players.
Wondrous, enchanting, twisting, vertigo, queasy are all valid words I could use to describe the visuals while playing GripShift. Each level just gets more insane as the game progresses, which is always a good trick to keep you playing. Before the race you get a fly-through of the level that will show you the track layout and the location of that elusive bonus icon.
The cars are practically copyright violations of Matchbox cars, at least in general aesthetics and the way those black wheels bounce around independently of the car. Combined with the floaty physics and bottomless voids, this is one of those games you had better play on the first half of your lunch hour rather than the second.
The menus and character and car select screens are nicely detailed and well animated. The HUD is informative and kept to the outer edges of the screen while colorful icons; power-ups and arrows indicate on-track objects and goals.
The opening hip-hop track that greets you every time you start this game will have you thinking you mistakenly put in your copy of Need for Speed Underground Rivals. But once you get into the game proper there are plenty of rock, techno, and even some downright annoyingly repetitive riffs that will wear you down like a cheese grater. The events are generally short enough that you seldom have to listen to one song very long but you will be turning down the music during longer games like Penguin Bowling.
The rest of the game is pretty much sound effects like revving engines and screeching tires and the whoosh if turbo boost. And perhaps the single most frequent (and annoying) sound you will hear in the game, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….”
There are five skill levels for the Challenge mode ranging from Beginner to Insane. There are 100 tracks, each with three challenging goals to complete for a perfect score. Combine all that with six creative mini-games and the unlimited potential of the track editor and you have a game that defies conventional value on the PSP. It might take you weeks or a month to “win” the game but you will never “finish” it.
For as ambitious a title as GripShift aspires to be it actually succeeds at touching on most of the genres listed on the box in a truly unique and inventive fashion. The very nature of the game design lends itself to short bursts of gameplay. The longest mission you can do is the Playground and that is 8-minutes or less. Most runs last less than a minute and seldom go beyond two or three.
GripShift won’t satisfy anyone looking for a pure racing experience, but if you are looking for a more challenging puzzle-style game with racecars, wonky physics, and high-speed action then look no further.