Speed Punks — Let the game on!

Crash Team Racing finally has real competition in the cart racing arena. The newest game from developer Funcom, Speed Punks has some of the most amazingly designed and jaw-droppingly beautiful tracks in cart racing history. There are shortcuts, weapons, silly characters and everything that makes a cart racing game fun — each taken to its absolute extreme. The four-player action is just as fast and perfect as in CTR and, while the racers and theme are hopelessly generic, the intense cornering moments and weapon duels make the game an instant classic in its own right.

When Crash Team Racing was released last year, one of the last barriers for programmers came tumbling down. Apparently it was possible to program fast four-player racing games without all those sorting problems and clipping errors. Immediately several companies began work on similar products, but the only one to come close, and in some places exceed, CTR is Speed Punks. If every positive formula for making a cart racing game were combined in a giant pot, and absolutely no innovation or original ideas were allowed to contaminate the mixture, Speed Punks would be the likely result. Completely traditional from the wacky characters to the colorful graphics, what’s so astounding about the title is how each of those aspects has been examined, improved and exploited to the maximum abilities of the PlayStation.

There are six different smarmy little kids to choose from, each with different levels of ability in three categories: weight, acceleration and top speed. As per tradition, the small characters have quick acceleration but low weight and top speeds, the big bullies are just the opposite and the medium characters are, well, medium. Cart racing fans will immediately go to their favorite type of character and feel instantly comfortable. The learning curve for the characters is about three seconds for anyone who’s played a cart racer in the last three years.

The control scheme is another example of the “if it ain’t broke… ” theory. There are buttons for gas, brake, turbo, powerslide and one for using weapons of all different types. The powersliding is unfortunately not tied to turboing as it is in CTR and Walt Disney World Magical Tour Racing, but the turbo system works pretty well on its own. Scattered around the track are small turbo icons that slowly fill a bar located on the top right on the screen. When and how much to use turbo is entirely up to the racer.

Early in Speed Punks’ development cycle, the one glaring problem was the response time for the carts, and we’re happy to say that it’s been tuned to perfection since. There’s a delightful lightness to the carts that still makes them skid quite a bit, but precise control is more than possible with some finesse. Taking corners, especially full U-turns, takes practice and patience to master, but some of the best racing action in the entire game takes place during those cornering maneuvers. Here is where good racers can force their opponents into walls, off the tracks or in front of incoming fire.

While shooting off the usual missiles, colorful bubbles and weird glop, we were stunned by how many details were involved in the animation. Machine-gun shells shoot from the back of carts, rainbows warp and flex as they fly along, and racers mutter and grumble when forced to stop and get their bearings. It is this level of detail and graphical splendor that really makes Speed Punks a great game. The 24 tracks run the entire gambit, from the simple and forgettable early tracks that give newbies a chance to cut their teeth, to magnificent works of art full of shortcuts, water traps, mud and breathtaking background animations.