Thursday, November 4, 2010

At Random: Polaris Snocross (PSX)

Time to pull something out of the acquired-in-the-past-to-be-played-someday pile -- it's Polaris Snocross, released by Vatical Entertainment in the year 2000 for the original Sony Playstation.  The publisher is no longer in business, it appears; trying to visit today produces a generic page with links to rosary suppliers and tours of Rome, reality thereby preempting any jokes I might be tempted to make about Vatical being the Pope's videogame publishing arm.  The game was also released for the N-64 and PC, to middling reviews, and came to the Playstation as a budget title.

I grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and carried newspapers through many a winter storm (though not uphill both ways in bare feet -- such hyperbole will have to wait until this becomes the Gaming After 80 blog.)   And the first truly 3-D game I ever owned was Radio Shack's Skiing cartridge for the TRS-80 Color Computer, which rendered a hilly downhill course and slalom flags fairly realistically against a white background.  So it's not surprising that I have a soft spot for snow-covered landscapes -- Val D'Isere Skiing and Snowboarding was one of my favorite Jaguar games, and so I was looking forward to trying out Polaris Snocross.

The Playstation was capable of rendering decent full-motion video, so of course this game has to feature a live-action intro set to generic hard rock music, showing off the officially-licensed Polaris snowmobiles:

This footage is fine in real-world terms, but as an exciting intro to a game it's rather generic.  We don't get to see the actual game engine in action until we reach the main menu, which offers a number of options for solo or split-screen multiplayer action.  (Note that these screenshots were captured using a PSX emulator, so the rendering resolution may appear higher than the original hardware could muster.)

The arrival of true 3-D hardware made racing games a no-brainer for the PSX generation.  A racetrack environment can get by with repetitive textures and simple polygonal models, because the real attraction is always the sheer sense of speed.  In this case, unsullied expanses of snow allow for a technical shortcut, as gouraud shading of simple white surfaces looks quite nice in motion, allowing the designers to devote the console's texture memory to areas of the landscape most likely to benefit.

From a gameplay perspective, it's nice to see that Polaris Snocross recognizes that snowmobile racing is a very different experience from automobile racing.  The game does a nice job of capturing the slushiness of cornering, the uncertainty of traction and the teeth-chattering whump of an awkward jump -- the pace isn't as fast as something like Jet Moto, but the game provides a solid sense of intimacy with the track (at least, I presume that the controls are accurately simulated and not just poor.)  The game includes 3-D snowmobile and driver models -- no sprite-based rendering cheats here -- but it does make the collision detection a little iffy, especially in terms of the physics; sometimes a collision just stops us dead in our tracks for no apparent reason.  And the modeling doesn't really affect the presentation much until we wipe out and lie helpless in the snow, waiting for medical attention to arrive from Marquette before we freeze to death:

Decent track variety is on offer here -- all are outdoors and snow-covered, but within those broad boundaries we find a mixture of formal snocross tracks and some attractive cross-country terrain, like this lovely canyon course:

The game is also big on product placement, with enough commercial banners spread around the snocross tracks to virtually guarantee texture substitutions in any future official re-release.  Even beyond the plentiful Polaris sponsorship, we see ads for Lifesavers candy and, in a nice sport-relevant touch, bearing manufacturer NTN:

There's also a competent split-screen mode for two-player racing -- the frame rate takes a slight hit but it's not bad at all:

Polaris Snocross is ultimately still just a racing game -- fun, especially with two players, but ultimately limited in scope.  The tournament mode provides a story of sorts, I supposed, but in general racing games are meant for a quick go when nothing more engrossing appeals.  And equipment upgrades can be earned just by slogging through the races, so it's not hard to beat the AI opponents just by grinding.

There are definitely better racing games, even snowmobile racing games, out there.  Still, I enjoyed spending a few hours racing wildly through the countryside.

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