An evil magician comes to your house one evening and turns you and all your party-going friends into a bunch of miniature cars. To combat this wicked wizard's nefarious deeds, you'll have to race through the various areas of your house. Only by crossing the finish line first will you win back the souls of your transformed pals. That's the ludicrous premise of Pocket Racers for the PlayStation Portable; unfortunately, that isn't the worst thing about this boring, clichéd combat racing game.
Minicar racing games have been done many times before but never quite as poorly as here. Up to four cars take part in the races that skirt bathroom sinks, kitchen freezers, and fiery furnaces, or along stairs and indoor scaffolding. Regardless of location, all of the circuits in Pocket Racers have some things in common: plenty of ontrack objects to get in your way and a complete sense of randomness to their design. From a design standpoint, the tracks don't feel like rooms of a home so much as stretches of racing track simply strung together and dotted with familiar household objects every once in a while. The objects on the track--everything from ketchup stains to soda cans--demonstrate some primitive physics, but there isn't any consistency from object to object.
These aren't the only problems in Pocket Racers' racing events. The cars feature a number of different attributes, such as speed, acceleration, weight, and handling. While the cars handle differently from model to model, they all prove to be unwieldy in the game, thanks in no small part to the game's ugly physics. For example, jumps are always a risk in the game because there's no telling when your car will land on its side and simply skid along without ever righting itself back on its tires. Contact with the artificially intelligent opponents on the track is usually a big no-no, and you'll usually find yourself on the losing end of any shoving match. As a result, winning some of the later races seems to be more a matter of catching a few lucky breaks than skillfully navigating your way through the tracks.
Should you run into trouble on the track, you can reset at any time by pressing the circle button. The problem is that it takes too long to reset, and the game sometimes resets you to a position that isn't exactly ideal (such as the lip of a ledge, off which your car falls in a never-ending loop, no matter how many times you reset). To pile on the problems, the game's anemic frame rate adds a healthy heaping of tedium to an already unsavory mix.
If you think the weapons that are added to Pocket Racers' gameplay will spice things up, well, think again. As you race along the circuits, you'll find multiple pickups along the way, including rockets, lightning bolts, freeze bolts, and a shield that makes you impervious to opponent attacks. Like everything else in Pocket Racers, these weapons are underwhelming across the board. For example, the rockets are incredibly slow, and it takes several seconds for them to catch up to your opponent, even if he isn't that far ahead of you. The lightning attacks are specifically used for blowing up trackside objects to hamper the progress of your opponents, and their success rate seems absolutely random in the game. Sometimes you'll blow up a box or can, and it will wipe out everyone in front of you; other times, you'll fire away...and your opponents will blow right through the chaos more or less untouched. There's also a turbo pickup you can find on the tracks that will give you a brief boost of speed, complete with ugly, washed-out turbo effects. In a strange gameplay quirk, resetting your car on the track results in the loss of your current offensive weapon but not a defensive shield if you've picked one up.
The single-player experience in Pocket Racers is made up of the various soul races that you use to win back the souls of your friends. By winning races you capture soul gems; you'll also find soul shards on the track that you can collect. Before running an official soul race, you can choose to take your car and practice the track or run a time trial, but because the races are so short, there's no reason not to simply dive in and get to the real races. After you complete all the race events at the bronze level, you go back and compete for silver and gold medals, with the main difference being the aggressiveness of the AI opponents. Still, you won't need to play through these series more than once to have had enough of Pocket Racers' dull, lifeless gameplay. The game also includes online play, with such modes as race, soccer, and domination--provided you can find someone to play with online.
Taken on an item-by-item basis, Pocket Racers isn't a horrible-looking game. The cars are bright and shiny, with some decent variety in their designs. The tracks, apart from their slapped-together character, have their visual moments too. This is mostly found in the multiple elevation changes that can make for a few interesting moments. Also, the game has four camera angles to choose from, which is one or two more than you might expect. It's when the game is put into motion that things fall apart. The frame rate, which starts at slow and periodically dips down to sluglike, effectively removes all the excitement from the game. The soundtrack is just as uninspiring--the car engines are droning and lifeless. The weapons and crash effects are also dull. On the plus side, the techno-flavored soundtrack isn't half bad, but you won't be humming any of its tunes anytime soon.
Despite a crazy premise and a budget price, Pocket Racers doesn't deliver the goods. Its ineffective weapons and sluggish pace make this a game that doesn't get the two main ingredients of combat racing games right. To make matters worse, the tracks you race on are just as inconsistent. If it's not the worst racing game on the PSP, it's definitely running in the back of the pack.