Futuristic racing games really only need to get one thing right in order to succeed: an awe-inspiring sense of speed. Oh sure, things like excellent course design, tough-minded artificial intelligence, and sleek vehicle design don't hurt, but the one thing you want to do when racing in the far-flung future is actually feel like you're racing in the far-flung future. Unfortunately, despite the occasional burst of fun, Koei's attempt at a Wipeout-like sci-fi racer often feels stuck in neutral.
The Fatal Inertia combat racing series, as it's known in the game, features a series of hovercraft, built and sponsored by megacorporations, that are raced around the world. There are four different models of hovercraft in the game, and all feature slightly different attributes and handling. Some are nimble but pokey, others are bulky but tough to damage. Which craft you choose depends not just on your personal piloting style, but the various events you will enter in the game, and the setup of the courses you race.
Events in the Fatal Inertia series are divided among three skill levels--beginner, professional, and elite--and each series contains three or more race events such as combat races (straight dashes to the finish line using any weapon you pick up along the way); knockout races, where the last racer in each successive lap is eliminated; and velocity events, which feature simple courses and fewer available weapons. One of the best race types, magnet mayhem, features just one weapon--magnets, of course. Here, you're given a more or less endless supply of magnets that you can blast at opponents ahead of or behind you (by pressing the RB or LB buttons). These magnets attach themselves to your enemies and eventually explode; and with that many magnets flying around you, the action can be quite harrowing and produce more than a few white-knuckle moments.
In fact, in some cases, the weapons are the best aspects of Fatal Inertia. Weapons like the time dilator (which temporarily slows down time for every craft but yours), the EMP (which blasts your opponents with an electromagnetic wave), and the aforementioned magnets are all fun alternatives to your typical rocket launcher and machine guns found in other games of this ilk. The cable has perhaps the most uses: You can attach it to other opponents to drag them down, or use them to slingshot your way around tight corners. Unfortunately, nailing a perfect cable turn seems more a matter of luck than skill most of the time, a phenomenon that seems to crop up all too often in the game.
Part of the problem has to do with the game's extremely aggressive AI. Once you zip your way through the beginner series, you'll find plenty of challenge for you throughout the rest of the game. The opponent craft aren't just quick around the corners, they're smart with their weapons--so you'll quickly realize that no lead, no matter how large, is insurmountable in this game. That said, luck can play to your hand as well; it's not uncommon on some of the longer courses to go from worst to first during the course of a single lap. Where the frustration really sets in with Fatal Inertia is the sometimes-confusing and often cheap-feeling track design. There are multiple turns on some courses that seem purposefully designed to cause you to fail in any race craft but the Mercury class (the most agile in the game).
Fatal Inertia's title is a tip-off to the import the game puts on physics, and there's no doubt that the game has a bouncing, floaty feel to it. Too much so, in some cases. It's undeniably cool to launch your craft off the edge of an active volcano and dive-bomb toward the molten rock below you. It can also be incredibly frustrating to navigate your craft through narrow paths of stone built that leave little to no room for error. When you go underground on some courses, things get even worse, as it's far too easy to get disoriented in these dark sections, even with guide arrows pointing the way. Despite the occasional extreme speed bursts when using weapons like rockets or force beams, you rarely feel your craft is doing the extreme velocity posted on your speedometer. There's little doubt that if futuristic hovercraft capable of supersonic speeds actually existed, they'd handle like they do in Fatal Inertia. That doesn't mean, however, that they're much fun to pilot around.
The game's courses are laid out in a number of exotic locales, from the heavily forested Deepwoods Pass to the icy expanse of Glacier Bay. These environments are uniformly gorgeous--from the abandoned ship caught in the ice in Glacier Bay to the fiery, volcanic danger of Devil's Summit--there are plenty of striking settings to pilot your ship through. Unfortunately, many of the courses built on these environments are far too short to be enjoyed; in one case, you're literally just running laps on a small oval surrounding a mountain peak. There are the rare opportunities for you to open up the throttle and skim across a marsh's surface or zip through an icy cave, but these are the exceptions to Fatal Inertia's often uninspired, and sometimes incredibly frustrating track designs.
Fatal Inertia gives you a bit of customization over your various hovercraft that reside in your garage. You can earn new parts (some of which, like engines and wings, will affect the performance of your ride) as well as new emblems and paint styles earned from scoring combat points when using weapons in a race. It's not the most flexible customization system in the world, but it will at least give you a unique ride when you take your game online. There don't seem to be a lot of players online in Fatal Inertia yet, but, as best we could tell after a handful of races, the game seems to perform comparably to the offline game. Up to eight players can race online, with AI craft filling in the holes when you have a less-than-full field.
The imaginative weapons and skillful AI give Fatal Inertia a good deal of replayability, but it's easy to become frustrated by the lackluster speed and ruthlessly acute physics. Those who aren't put off by a demanding game will find some good ideas and plenty of challenge here. For everyone else, Fatal Inertia's title might be less a selling point than a warning.