You've probably seen those radio-controlled cars you can bounce, flip, and spin because the top and bottom are identical; when they land after a jump, they start trucking just as soon as they get enough wheels touching the ground to create some traction. Now imagine that you could not only race a vehicle like that, but that you could also use it to ram anything that gets in your way - other cars, barricades, construction equipment, columns supporting massive buildings, you name it - without taking damage. Add a couple of mounts for weapons and special items like missiles, turbo speed, temporary wormholes, and even a tool that cuts off every competitor's engine, and you've got a pretty good idea of what awaits you in Rollcage, an extremely cool arcade racer that does just about everything right.
Rollcage developer Attention to Detail obviously didn't spend a lot of time concocting a back story to explain why you and five other racers are raising all manner of hell on 20 futuristic tracks; all I figured out from the cryptic manual intro is that "rollcagers" are renegades who've made a conscious effort to make their sport as violent as possible after it achieved widespread popularity. That could be viewed as a commentary on everything from music to art, but all I know for sure is that it gives gamers the chance to do stuff they never dreamed of in an arcade racer.
This isn't the first racing game that puts you behind the wheel of an armed vehicle, but Rollcage stands apart from the pack in several ways. Most racing games - even ones where you're shooting at other drivers - put a premium on keeping your car on the track as much as possible. In Rollcage, on the other hand, you can not only bounce and flip and always land wheel-side down, but you also can drive along walls and even on tunnel ceilings. You might wonder just why you'd bother doing that, but sometimes it's the best way to pass an opponent, as well as the only way to grab certain power-ups. Then there's the whole notion of collisions. Sure, they slow you down, but hit the right object - a column supporting a building, for instance - and you'll be long gone as your opponent either gets buried in debris or runs smack-dab into a smoking heap of rubble.
Of course, you might prefer a more direct approach to slowing down your opponents, and that's where the power-ups scattered around each track come into play. Homing missiles automatically target the weakest part of structures, letting you bring the walls tumbling down without slowing your own car down; you can also target a vehicle in front of you and flip it out of control. The time warp slows down every car on the track except yours; leader missiles take out - you guessed it - the lead car; the driller bores through almost everything in its path; an ice sheet makes opponents lose nearly all their traction; and the wormhole lets you leapfrog past the car directly in front of you. And power-ups aren't limited to offensive weapons, either. Turbo boosts your speed until the scenery is just a blur, and the shield protects you from enemy weapons and decreases the chance of spinouts after collisions.
Just like in Motorhead, the relatively humdrum car graphics in Rollcage are more than compensated for by wonderfully detailed trackside scenery - assuming you've got time to admire your surroundings while driving at breakneck speeds, that is. Vast cityscapes, barren volcanic wastelands, lush islands, and busy industrial sites are the sorts of settings you'll be racing on, and with the exception of some fairly cruddy 2D trees (common to nearly all arcade racers), the graphics work is top-notch. Even more visually impressive than the scenery are the weapons effects. Use the time warp, and the entire display begins to undulate and sway in a psychedelic haze; fire the leader missile, and you'll see brilliant trails of flames as it screams just above the track in search of the front-runner. My fave? The wormhole - it slowly advances on the car in front of you before engulfing it and removing it from your path.
You'll find all the usual race options here: League competition is the Rollcage equivalent of a season; arcade lets you race on almost all the game's 20 tracks; and time attack lets you try to top your own best lap times. A welcome feature is the inclusion of multiple difficulty levels; it takes considerable practice to learn how to handle a car that can drive upside down on a ceiling, but even the newest of newbies can compete on the game's easy setting.
Even on the easy setting, though, you'll run into one of the game's few drawbacks: You can get bashed around so much that sometimes you'll just want to throw up your hands in defeat. Picture driving bumper cars at 350kph, and you've got a notion of just how disorientating the smash-bang action in Rollcage can be. Practice can help you avoid some of the show-stopping collisions, but even the best drivers can fall victim to multiple collisions and find themselves out of the running - unless they manage to lay their hands on a mighty power-up like the time warp or leader missile, that is, and even those probably won't take you from last to first if you're running at the highest difficulty setting.
Where Rollcage really disappoints, though, is in its multiplayer support. It's not that the game doesn't offer multiplayer modes - the full suite of connection options are supported, including TCP/IP and serial connections, and split-screen play is available for up to four players on a single system. The real problem is finding opponents: Because Rollcage isn't supported on services like Mplayer, HEAT, or the Internet Gaming Zone, about the only way to scare up some mano-a-mano action is to pray that someone on Kali has a copy of the game. Psygnosis should seriously consider providing at least a rudimentary matching service - a bulletin board for posting challenges or a chat room - so its customers can get the most out of their games. No matter how good the single-player game is, it's easy to envision just how much fun it would be to go up against human drivers.
Action hounds who like their driving spiced with some mayhem will definitely want to add this one to their shopping cart, but even if you're not a fan of this sort of fare, you ought to download the demo if only to see the brain-searing weapons effects and topsy-turvy action. And here's hoping that Psygnosis puts a little effort into making it easier to find someone to use that wormhole thingy on...