Thursday, April 01, 2010

GearGrinder Review

GearGrinder, developed by Targem Games and published by Buka Entertainment and Headup Games on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Twelve distinct race types, racing and combat truck modes, weapons and vehicle upgrades
The Not So Good: LAN-only multiplayer, very inconsistent difficulty, push-over AI produces bland repetitive racing, essentially unlimited ammunition makes for dull destruction, obvious weapon upgrade choices, terrible cut scenes
What say you? An impressive array of racing modes is hindered by boring AI, shallow gameplay, and limited multiplayer in this arcade combat racing game: 5/8

Now that NASCAR has thankfully filled the void between the end of football season and the beginning of football season, we can turn our attention to the five-month diversion that is auto racing. And what better way to kick off the start of the racing calendar than with a racing game? I surely can’t think of a better way! GearGrinder realistically depicts the exciting and competitive world of truck racing, by placing weapons on semis. That’s how it’s done in real life, right? Let’s blow up some trucks and check out this diesel-fueled take on combat racing games like Death Track.

GearGrinder certainly looks and sounds like a budget game, or at least a racing title from, say, 12 years ago. The trucks models are the best aspect of the graphics, consisting of a nice amount of detail, especially when it comes up the various upgrades you can equip on your vehicle. The other cars: not so much. In fact, the explosions are downright disappointing and the repetitive sedans that populate the roadways are, well, repetitive. The default third-person view is terrible, as you can't see over the cab of the truck! The in-cab first-person perspective fares much better, and has the added benefit of a realistic implementation of the user interface on the dash. The circuits are generic caricatures of the U.S., with urban and rural settings with a low amount of detail. GearGrinder also has some shockingly terrible cut scenes with laughably bad voice acting; luckily, you can skip these with a quick press of the escape button. The music can also be bypassed, as you can import your own MP3 to rock out to during your dance of destruction. Overall, I was disappointed in the presentation, considering what competing budget racing games have mustered up.

GearGrinder is a combat racing game where you hop in a truck and shoot and run into other trucks and innocent passers-by. Good family fun! The single player “story” mode involves something about gangs and cops and vehicular homicide; like I stated earlier, I made a conscious effort to skip past all of the cut scenes. Taking place over forty levels spread across six episodes, the highlight of GearGrinder is the numerous racing events you will encounter along the way. In addition to “normal” races where the objective is to finish in first place, there are survival races where the last place driver is eliminated each lap, timed missions where you must destroy enemies or neutral cars for more time, arena missions where you must survive an enemy onslaught in an enclosed space, slalom races with pick-ups on the track (like the gatecrasher mode in DiRT 2), bowling events where you crash into a set of vehicles (eerily similar to FlatOut), times where you control a remote control car equipped with a bomb (eerily similar to Grand Theft Auto), rail shooting events where you control a turret instead of the truck, transporting events where you do not control the speed, destruction events where you inflict damage, protection missions where you protect a friendly vehicle, and boss battles. Impressive, no? Some races begin with a “hot start” timing mini-game, which is conducted like kicking in Madden, adding some more diversity. This variety saves GearGrinder from being complete drudgery.

While the races are organized in a tree, you will only encounter the occasional choice in the next level: a disappointing limitation that becomes an issue when you come across a very difficult level and subsequently get stuck (as I did). You don’t have to win to progress through the campaign, but you do need to at least get the bronze medal; this is sometimes difficult, especially in the timed game modes. You can go back and replay earlier levels using a better-equipped truck to place higher and unlock better parts to make a better-equipped truck. It’s a vicious cycle. Racing games are always fertile ground for multiplayer, and GearGrinder surprisingly has very limited options at your disposal. You can only play over a LAN. Yeah, I know. In addition, you can only enjoy circuit races or arena destruction derbies, limited options considering how many event types are available in the single player campaign. I realize that, in all likelihood, there wouldn’t actually be anyone playing GearGrinder online anyway, but you should still have the option. You can add bots to fill out the field, but then it’s no different than advancing your way through the campaign.

Unlike other combat racing games, GearGrinder has two distinct modes for your vehicle: racing and combat. You can switch between the two during a race: racing mode makes you move faster, while combat modes lets you shoot things at a decreased driving speed. There really is not enough of a transition delay to really make a tactical difference in your approach to a race, but it’s an interesting concept nonetheless. You are given a primary and secondary weapon (which are fired simultaneously with the same button) in which to dispose of those pesky competitors, in addition to spikes for ramming and mines for mining (I assume). Weapons are given essentially unlimited ammunition in the form of rage, accumulated by smashing other cars or just driving along. This really reduces the interest of GearGrinder, as you can just hold down the trigger while in combat mode and then transition back to racing mode when everyone done got blowed up. Upgrades to these weapons and other truck attributes (acceleration, engine, transmission, control, brakes, armor) are earned with gold medals in the events. The upgrades are very obvious choices: they are always positive, increasing the stats of your truck without any tradeoffs. The physics of the game are firmly entrenched in the “arcade” zone: trucks are easy to control and braking never becomes an issue except during hairpin turns. The AI competition is not good, easily beaten in racing events with little effort. Strangely, the requirements for timed missions are disproportionally hard, producing some questionably unpredictable difficulty. Some simple tweaks in the timed mission limits would greatly reduce the annoyance in the game.

GearGrinder takes a really fascinating assortment of racing modes, the likes of which we have not seen since FlatOut, and almost completely ruins them. Why, you ask? GearGrinder is plagued by very erratic difficulty: the AI in racing events is not competitive, but the timed events border on impossible. It's hard to get the difficulty right in an arcade racing game like this, so GearGrinder goes for the manic-depressive angle to annoy everyone. That’s too bad, because I was well prepared to give this game a higher score based on the variety of race types, from straight-up races to more destruction-oriented events. The fun stops there, however, as the campaign unfolds in a very linear fashion (despite the presence of a mission tree) and weapon upgrades are no-brainers, as each increases the capabilities of your vehicle with no real drawbacks. I do like the strategic decision of utilizing racing and combat transformations during an event, but this is the only unique aspect of the gameplay. The infinite ammunition causes the shooting in GearGrinder to be quite dull (just spray and pray) and removes any inherent strategy or skill. The final nail in the coffin is LAN-only multiplayer; because of this, GearGrinder must rely on the quality of its single player mode, which unfortunately is too inconsistent to be enjoyable.