The Fatal Inertia Demo arrived on Xbox Live the other day and now we have an idea of what Koei has been up to. While not a direct descendent of WipEout, it takes some key ingredients - namely the hovering cars and the weapons, which can be acquired by passing over pods of colored light on the racetrack. Racetrack, however, is used lightly, as you speed through canyons, not between buildings in this high-velocity sci-fi racer.
I am skeptical about these types of games as a rule; nobody has been able to one-up WipEout, and it's been over ten years. We saw a bevy of titles on the N64, including Star Wars Episode One: Racer, which was close, and WipEout 64, which was not. There was PowerDrome on the Xbox that was a damn fine game that saw little to no play.
Generally speaking, these sort of racing games either turn out "mmm'kay" or they don't turn out at all.
After playing the Fatal Inertia Demo (what little there was) until I thoroughly exhausted my interest and my afternoon, I am not entirely sure where (even if) I would classify it in the spectrum from mmm'kay to bad. I think when the final build ships it will fit somewhere in there - but that's also the nature of the demo: not everything is shown.
It definitely fits in the category of "different."
What surprised me - and what I think will help Fatal Inertia outshine the competition (what competition?) - is the physics engine. Powered by the Unreal 3 Engine, Fatal Inertia makes keeping your hovercar in the air the real trick, while your opponents will do everything in their power to slow you down and send you to some death you hadn't planned on. The way the vehicles move is jarring, but given a few play throughs will get less difficult to deal with. Still, it's not an easy thing to get used to, and I wish that the physics kept the hovercars repelled from the ground more firmly (I instincively nosed-down hoping to gain speed, only to discover nosing-down puts you right into the ground).
It's also easy to richochet off a wall and get stuck (that's why they built the "reset" Y-button into the gameplay). Couple this with all the opponents throwing weapons at you and Fatal Inertia is a very difficult game to jump right in to.
Of course, once you get the hang you will be throwing weapons as well, and much of the game is a balancing act of maintaining your speed - navagating those tough crevasses - and shrugging off hinderances. The weapons in the game range from magnetic weights (that can throw off your opponents control) to shields to a rocket-missile (it's not redundant, just play and see). Most of the weapons try to disrupt your opponents' clean race instead of just destroying them outright, which causes the player to think up dirtier means to dispose of the competition.
I won't pretend to fully understand the weapons now, some of them are straight forward while others are head-scratchers.
The controls are pretty normal for this kind of game: A is accelerate, and X is Brake, Y lets your reset your hovercar while B looks behind you. Double tapping R or L trigger will make you Barrel Roll. This will shrug off enemy weapons as will holding X + A and then releasing it to do the "Brake Boost." Hold L or R trigger and you'll strafe. The bumpers fire your primary and secondary weapons.
Actually, I found the controls to be slightly difficult, and would have preferred the bumpers swapped with the triggers, but I'm sure the option will be available in the release.
The demo lets you play in one level (a canyon vista) with two variations on the length (one short and one long) and in one hovercar that looks vaguely like a giant phallus. The longer races are better. They allow you more time to trump the leaders and pull ahead.
There are a few modes that the game lets you try: Exhibition Combat Race, Elite Combat Race, and Elite Victory Race. Combat races are where you score points for attacking opponents on top of your pole position. Velocity Races are just normal races where combat points aren't awarded.
I will save my verdict until the final game releases as I don't believe the length of the courses in the demo are sufficient to really say one way or the other. I'll say this, though: sometimes the game can get so tough that you just can't fight back up to place third, and that's discouraging, seeing as how 4 laps in the tracks given are about 2 minutes of actual gameplay - not enough time. But it looks like Fatal Inertia will have enough to offer fans of the genre, and perhaps even offer something new.