GripShift (X360) Hands-on Preview

It's hard to blame most gamers for not being able to play Sidhe (pronounced "she") Interactive's refreshingly innovative racer/platformer/puzzler GripShift (PS3, PSP, X360). Playing the upcoming Xbox 360 version of the game with Sidhe's Mario Wynands and Jos Ruffel was, sadly, my introduction to the game as well. The Wellington, New Zealand-based studio's product has seen a release on the two least popular platforms--first the PSP soon after its launch and then the PlayStation 3 via Sony's PlayStation Network. With the game's arrival on Xbox Live Arcade, the title will hopefully earn the recognition it most certainly deserves.

For those unfamiliar with GripShift's amalgamation of gameplay genres, it's probably most similar to Nadeo's TrackMania series of PC games. A more appropriate parallel can be drawn between GripShift and Sega's Super Monkey Ball series, replacing the sphere-encased simians with floaty, nitrous-equipped cars. Each of the 120 main Challenge levels starts with a camera flyover, showing you the layout and letting you plan your route. Each stage also has multiple objectives, with the first requiring the player to simply reach the gate at the end of the course. Other objectives include collecting a certain number of stars or finding a hidden GripShift token.

What gives the game an undeniable attraction is GripShift's abstract approach to physics and its gleeful neglect of standard racing paradigms. Given the puzzle-like nature of the game, it would be impossible to navigate the title's tricky tracks if your vehicle had authentic car physics. As it is, your car handles somewhat unrealistically, but the amount of control you have over your vehicle is fantastic. Collectible nitrous can be used to boost your car off jumps and essentially grants you the power of flight once your vehicle is launched. A handbrake allows for 180-degree turns--even in mid-air--allowing you to save yourself in many situations or finish a stage in a number of creative ways.

You'll be required to drive in the wrong direction to complete objectives. For some levels, getting the fastest time will mean driving off the track at the very beginning, skipping the stage proper and quickly falling to the finish gate at the end of the course below. One level had a GripShift icon sitting on a floating platform on the interior of a loop-de-loop. To get it, you're required to come to a complete stop at the peak of loop--your car unrealistically grips the road until you actually lose all forward momentum--and fall to the floating platform below.

It wasn't the studio's choice to release the game on PSN before Xbox Live, as Sidhe managing director Mario Wynands said the developer actually wanted to bring the game to Microsoft's system before Sony's. "It was only really after we intended to produce a Live Arcade version that we became aware that the PSN was going to be available on PlayStation 3 because they only announced that at E3 last year," he told me.

Sidhe's preexisting relationship with Sony as a publisher of the PSP version of GripShift in North America allowed them to get the title certified for a PSN release in a matter of weeks. Conversely, a far slower than anticipated approval process with Microsoft has made the Xbox Live Arcade version the hindmost Gripshift iteration by far. But it's also the ultimate version of the game in terms of content and polish.

"That's what we're labeling it--the definitive version," said Wynands. "It's really the culmination of taking those previous iterations' feedback, layering that back into tweaking the controls, the levels, adding the weapons, adding those leaderboards across all the modes, adding in the additional deathmatch mode. It really is trying to take the game as far as it can go in its current form."

The 149MB Live version of the game comes in right under Microsoft's 150MB limit, despite having all the content of the 332MB PSN version (save a few music tracks) and more--most notably the new deathmatch battle mode with 20 arenas. "The PSN version was developed in a very short timeframe, so there wasn't as much time or as much need to reduce the footprint because Sony doesn't really have a limit," Wynands said.

Although the 25-track Race mode was in the PSN version of the game, Sidhe beefed up the weapon loadout for this game type on Live, bringing the weapon total from three to 12 and letting four players battle it out online with goo guns, triple-missile shots, and death rays. Compared the the Challenge mode levels, the race mode tracks have pretty defined boundaries, making the gameplay more like a berserker Mario Kart race.

But entirely new in the Xbox Live version is the 20-arena, 13-weapon battle mode. These areas have even more loosely defined, open stages than the Challenge mode levels, giving players lots of freedom in ways they can zip around the level and blast opponents. I had a cross-hemisphere battle against some of Sidhe's employees in New Zealand and found it to be a frenzied, highly enjoyable experience--though I was destroyed pretty quickly by my skilled opponents. It actually felt more like a frantic first-person shooter's deathmatch than your typical vehicular combat game. One missile shot or hit from another car's flame shield will do you in, and Jump platforms and ramps abound, making insane aerial combat possible.

Wynand told me that a lot of the 120 Challenge mode tracks have actually been changed for the Xbox Live version, based on user feedback. Extra platforms were added in some stages to make even more crazy time-slashing stunts possible. And an extra hard difficulty level, Evil, has been added, increasing your car's speed and adding enhanced challenges to the levels--like car-frying electric barriers that must be avoided.

As an added bonus, the Xbox Live version also sports enhanced visuals when compared to the PSN version, with the addition of full-screen anti-aliasing among other tweaks. "The casual observer may not notice the difference, but certainly there's some tweaks and improvements that people will spot," Wynands said. The game is certainly one of the best-looking titles on Xbox Live Arcade. The game's stages all have either a desert, ice, jungle, or horror theme. From the satisfying sheen on your vehicle's smooth finish to the textured, cobbled track of the horror stages to the realistic lighting and shadows visible on a series of connected loop-de-loops, GripShift has a commendably pleasing look.

Even based on my short time with GripShift, I can tell it's going to be a more than worthy Xbox Live purchase. Hell, anyone who's played the PSP or PS3 version will tell you that. The addition of a battle mode, enhanced visuals, refined levels, and a ridiculous amount of content will make it arguably the best value on Xbox Live when it debuts on the platform.

GripShift (PS3, PSP, X360) is already available on PSP and PS3, and the Xbox Live version will arrive very, very soon.