Full Auto can only be the product of a load of men who desperately wanted to blend action movies with racing. The idea is so simple that it could well have been devised on the back of a napkin. You take cars and attach a couple of high powered weapons. You then place these cars in numerous destructible city-like environments and let the racers blow everything up. That's it; no explanation; nothing. Just accept the fact that in some parallel universe racing is a little more dangerous than we're used to.
In the absence of a story of any kind, the game plays out remarkably similarly to Project Gotham Racing 3. Your goal is to work through a number of race series, with each series containing upwards of three themed races. These series cover just about every possible way you could combine racing with combat. You'll have to finish races in a set position while causing a certain amount of damage, take down a certain number of road vehicles and finish within the time limit, hunt down rival racers and more. Winning a gold, silver or bronze medal in each race will complete the series and open up further events for you to take on.
The cars themselves aren't licensed, but they bear the resemblance of many real-world road cars. Each class (C to A, plus S) features a nice selection of vehicles to suit your needs need. The more durable vehicles are great for long, endurance races, while sports cars are best used in short, snappy circuit races. While you are often given a choice, certain races force you to use a certain car, and don't expect it to be the best choice for the job. Early race series limit your choice of weapons somewhat, but by the end you'll be able to choose from numerous weapon combos. However, this is an area that isn't as customisable as you might think.
Each car can be fitted with two weapons. This is usually a front firing weapon and a defensive rear weapon, but you can choose to use two front-mounted weapons if that combination is available. This is the problem: you can't choose exactly what combination you want to fit to your car. The game has a number of predefined combinations, limiting your tinkering to the combo chosen and the power level of each weapon. Every weapon comes in three types. If you grade each weapon from one to three, your combination must add up to make four. Increasing one weapon to level 3 will lower the other to level 1, so you must decide which is going to be more important in the race. If you want to play it safe you can go into the race with two level 2 powered weapons.
For a game so obviously full of excitement, the weapons on offer are a little disappointing. Twin machine guns, a mini-rocket pod, missiles and a tank cannon make up the front-mounted weapons; mines and a smoke screen are the two exclusive rear-mounted weapons; and a shotgun and grenade launcher can be mounted on the front or rear. A number of front-mounted weapons can be aimed using the right analogue stick, and fired by clicking it. It takes some getting used to, but it's a skill you'll have to master to succeed later in the game and online. The weapons on offer are great and cause plenty of destruction, but there could have been so many more. Where's the flamethrower, tyre spikes, oil slick etc? It could have been a veritable orgy of weapons of mass destruction, but it isn't.
When you actually get into the action it's pretty unrelenting. With eight cars racing within close proximity to each other the on-screen destruction is an awesome sight. Bullets are flying, missiles scream past you, rocks falls onto the road, petrol stations explode, gas cylinders ignite and shoot across the track in front of you, rival cars flip and spiral uncontrollably in the air, debris flies from buildings and your jaw hits the floor while you simultaneously hit the replay button to get a better look at what has just happened. In the circuit races (there are also point to point stages), by the time you're on the final lap it looks like a full-scale war has been fought.
To counter the destructive nature of the game you have an Unwreck meter. By causing damage (blowing stuff up) this meter increases, allowing you to rewind out of fatal crashes, missile attacks and other costly situations. This not only looks great, but becomes a vital feature when you're up against tricky opponents or racing on a particularly challenging section of track. Aside from certain races that impose restrictions on its use, it can be used as many times as you like during each race, assuming you have caused enough destruction, which you will almost certainly have done. A boost also comes in handy when being pursued by missile wielding maniacs, but this can only be used once your boost meter is full. Sliding around corners and pulling off big jumps fills this up. You just have to be extra careful not to boost into a tanker parked at the side of the road.
Towards the latter half of the game's Career mode the tracks and environments will start to feel a little over familiar, but random traffic and obstacles keeps things as fresh as possible. It's always a shock to see a load of smoke surrounded by fire engines and flashing lights as you approach that section of track at 130 mph, with no idea of what lies behind the smoke. Clever shortcuts are also a feature of most tracks, rewarding those who master the courses. The Career mode can be completed in six to seven hours, but it's unlikely you'll have achieved gold in every race. This is one of the game's trickiest achievement tasks and will keep completists playing for a long time. The Arcade mode allows you to race whichever courses you like using custom settings and Head to Head lets you race against a second player in split-screen.
Given the ultra competitive nature of the game, the Xbox Live play is where most multiplayer fun will be had. Right from the off it's worth noting that races with a small number of people just aren't fun. With fewer than four people there simply aren't enough cars on the track to put pressure on each other, so the poor sole who's in the lead is invariably taken out near the finish line, resulting in the two or three cars behind to plough through. Get in a game with decent numbers and things get really fun. The civilian vehicles that pepper the roads in the single-player modes aren't there while playing online, so it's just you and the other online racers, but it's still utter devastation. It's also worth noting that Unwreck isn't available online, for pretty obvious reasons.
The host can tweak various settings, limiting car class, and setting the number of laps etc, but you can't tailor games to meet your exact needs. While a group of people can stick together in unranked matches, after a ranked match has finished everyone is thrown back to the main menu, meaning you have to go back and set up a new game and find new people to play with. This is understandable, implemented to prevent players from deliberately losing against friends to boost rankings, but I can't see any reason to disconnect the host as well. Some lag was noticeable in the more packed races, but as long as you race in games hosted by a player with a good connection, you shouldn't run into too many problems. Stats for each course and race type can be tracked, and while it's nowhere near as well implemented as some other Xbox 360 titles, it's there if you're into that sort of thing.
Sadly, for everything that Full Auto does well, it's hard not to think of all the things that could have been included to make for a better game. The lack of story is first to mind and is a real missed opportunity. A proper campaign, with vehicle and weapon upgrades would have been great. Throw in a story that explains exactly why you're taking part in such dangerous races and include a few larger than life boss characters and you'd have a really enjoyable game mode. In the online space, where are the combat arenas? Racing around circuits and the like is great fun, but would a few Twisted Metal inspired arenas been totally out of the question? Visually, things aren't all dandy either, with a fog being used in an attempt to hide some rather ugly pop-up.
The biggest problem of all, though, is the frame rate. It's no secret that early adopters to new hardware come from the more 'hardcore' end of the videogame audience, and it's these very same people (myself included) that really appreciate a nice smooth frame rate. 60 fps is great, but a solid 30 fps is acceptable in most cases. Sadly, if you're somewhat of a frame rate snob, Full Auto will severely disappoint. For 95 percent of the time the game simply doesn't run smoothly, and the frame rate seems to drop into single figures on occasion. It's not good, not by any means, but at the same time, it's bearable. There's so much going on at all times that the frame rate is often your last concern, and apart from the aforementioned single-figure situations, it never adversely affects gameplay. A silky smooth frame rate to accompany the wanton destruction would have been quite a sight to behold, but it simply wasn't to be.
Coming a few months after the Xbox 360's launch and having February more or less to itself, Full Auto was under plenty of pressure to deliver on early promise. From a gameplay perspective it does, offering more bang for your buck than any racing game that's gone before it, and a solid single-player and online experience. Visually, and from a next-gen perspective, it has stumbled somewhat. All the explosions and crazy physics going on in each race are great, but the slowdown and fogging are almost unforgivable. If you can look past these technical problems - and most people will after an hour or so with the game - you'll find the disappointed grimace on your face will turn into a huge grin.