Despite some blistering speed, the one thing Fatal Inertia can't outrun is comparisons to both Wipeout and Mario Kart. At first glance, the futuristic racer from Koei looks like nothing more than an explicit attempt at emulating the success of Wipeout, a game many credit with single-handedly introducing the PlayStation to the over-18 market. Played a little, in fact this sci-fi racer reveals itself as bearing a fair amount more in common with the automotive adventures of our favourite rotund plumber.
At Fatal Inertia's core is the career mode, which invites you to progress through a series of increasingly difficult four-race leagues set across otherworldly locations, which is typical of the title's rather ordinary approach to the norms of this sub-genre of the driving game. Despite this, Fatal Inertia is still a reasonably good title, and though its substance may be a little unadventurous, the subtleties within are worthy of great praise.
The weapons you can scoop up from the generous scattering of collection points that litter each level are perhaps the development team's best accomplishment, as they re-invent classics like the homing missile as slightly more delicate tools of destruction. The standard device for felling your rivals comes in the form of the Magnet missile, which can be fired ahead or behind and locks on to nearby contestants. Once it has attached itself to a ship, the Magnet will eventually explode, though it actually causes very little damage. Instead, its power comes with its subtle effect on the physics of its target vehicle.
Effectively the Magnet interferes with the slipstream and the balance of any of the sleek hovercraft it sticks to, and several on your chassis can make cornering impossible. Almost every weapon in the game has similarly unique and flexible attributes, such as the rocket, which can be fired backwards as a boost, or towards another craft whereupon fixing itself it acts as a thruster. Sending out a torrent of flame in the opposite direction to which it is facing, the newly attached rocket interferes severely with the handling and pace of its victim.
The other standout power-up comes in the form of the elasticised cable that can be used with a standard or magnetic grapple, to grasp hold of vehicles or the landscape. It gives you several tactical options, such as connecting two rival racers with a clothes line that will snack on rocky outcrops and other scenery, or firing it into a corner and using it to slingshot ahead. Combining the two techniques, a skilled pilot can even grab onto an adversary in front, pulling them back whilst boosting forward on a wave of stolen inertia. Any of these attacks can be shaken off with a simple barrel roll, but in the heat of a race the brief derogatory effect of spiralling to one side can cost you a place, or worse, the race.
Even the standard nitro is delicately remoulded, defying the traditional boost. To activate it you must brake and accelerate together, before releasing to enjoy the benefits of your brief conservation of energy. Initially this seems to counter Fatal Inertia's feel for speed, but you'll soon begin to appreciate the advantages of slowing down to speed up.
However, despite so many nice ideas, Fatal Inertia is still a fairly regular racing game. It is very well produced and has a knack for creating the kind of highly-strung chases that so many kart games miss, but the design of its tracks, and the curious inclusion of checkpoint gates that are diminutive compared to the raceway around them, can be hugely frustrating. The pitch and yaw controls are well implemented, and allow for an instinctive and considerable extra degree of influence, but they would be far more useful on courses that were undulating on the flat plain instead of lumpy and angular as is often the case here. Elsewhere the control set-up is uncomplicated and well implemented, and rarely gives you the chance to prod at it with the finger of blame when you go careering off the course.
The mixture of race types is commendable though, and brings some variety to what could otherwise be repetitive and uninspiring. There is of course a traditional race mode that allows for combat and pursuit, but Knockout, which eliminates each subsequent holder of last place with each passing lap, and Magnet Madness, which focuses on Fatal Inertia's omnipresent weapon, are far more exciting to play. The perfectly worthy, speed-orientated Full Throttle mode, which only features power-ups concerned with acceleration, is actually the least enjoyable, but rather than being a poor choice with regard to game design, its inclusion instead highlights the success of the weapons so prolific in the other race types.
Though it is eye-catching in places, Fatal Inertia rarely nears exceptional in the visual department. The landscapes are well realised and the various effects look suitably pretty, but even in its most cheerful moments it makes for rather tasteless eye candy. Each ship can be upgraded significantly both visually and in terms of performance, and a number of skins can be unlocked, but like most elements of this game, whilst somewhere above average, the graphics fall a little short of superb. Fatal Inertia's visual characteristics do outperform its audio though, as quickly the musical score and bank of sound effects feel tedious and somewhat lumbering, despite relatively impressive production values.
For those looking for a purist's racing game with a finely tuned handling model, it is probably best to stick to the familiar territory of F-Zero and the aforementioned Sony classic, but if you're after a well-balanced combat racer with a fair bit of energy and some wonderful details, Fatal Inertia is well worth considering. Its excellent weapon set should make for some fantastic and skilled online gaming, and for now it fills a gap on the Xbox 360, which is undernourished in terms of both futuristic and combat racers.