Review: High Voltage Hot Rod Show (WiiWare)

Will this highly anticipated WiiWare racer take pole position, or will it merely drive us to distraction?

High Voltage Hot Rod Show is all about taking control of large trucks and racing them against each other, which is all well and good. However, because of certain game design choices, the trucks themselves handle more like a cross between an R/C car and a skateboard. In real life, not too many trucks can perform a "hop" (at least that was true last time we checked). Fewer still can hop and then flip over end to end in mid-air and land on their wheels, miraculously gaining a speed boost from doing so. Suffice it to say that realism is obviously not what the designers were going for here, so let’s just play along and see how WiiWare’s latest hi-octane racer turns out.

The gameplay is actually quite engaging. It’s your typical top-down view in which you race to complete a set number of laps faster than the other drivers, which are played by either the computer or up to three other humans (local play only). Each of the six courses is littered with twists, turns, and obstacles that can either slow your progress or help you depending on your skill. Even though the trucks handle nothing like one would expect, for what it is the game is still a joy to play.

As with most racers, the driving skills you develop as you become more experienced with the controls will play a large part in determining whether or not you win. Most of your challenge comes not from driving or steering. Rather, the primary focus of the game is to perform mid-air stunts after jumping off a ramp. These stunts provide you with a speed boost upon landing. The more stunts you perform in a jump, the greater your speed boost. However, performing a stunt too late will result in your truck toppling and costing you speed; the key to winning the game is to get good at performing these stunts and to do them as often as possible.

There are other secondary considerations to driving. The ever-popular speed boost arrow is present here. Also you can ram enemy trucks causing them to lose control. There is a powerslide feature for rounding corners, but we found this to be far less convenient or advantageous than simply rounding the corner at full speed. But these other considerations pale in comparison to performing mid-air stunts. The game is sort of a one-trick pony in that respect and may look somewhat silly to an outsider catching his first glimpse of a screen full of trucks hopping and spinning around a race track. Those concerns aside, these mechanics are still fun and rewarding for at least a little while.

Where the game really shines is in its control options. Every controller option is available for you to choose from, including the steering wheel and the Gamecube controller. This is great for racing game fans as it means you can continue to use your controller of choice. However, we found that the difficulty of the game fluctuates dramatically depending on the controller you use. This is especially true of the steering wheel. In Mario Kart, the steering wheel is slightly more difficult to use than the other options, but here the tracks are much narrower and the steering much more sensitive. This results in very over responsive steering making the steering wheel considerably more challenging. Obviously, practice makes perfect and some players will enjoy this added challenge, but their friends playing with the other controller options will find the game to be a breeze by comparison.

The game features three difficulty levels in the single player campaign. However, all three are pretty easy and most veterans of Mario Kart, F-Zero or other racers will likely win the first place trophy on their first attempt. There are only six courses, so they will be reused throughout the campaign. After you have played them a few times, you will be able to improve your score through memorization. However, this is not necessary in the single player game as the computer players will not be much of a challenge.

One of the game's weaknesses is the challenge level. Other racing games have been accused of "rubber-banding" (the technique of adjusting the skills of computer players in game to ensure that every race is close). That does not seem to be in effect here as players will either win or lose to the computer entirely based on their own driving skills. There are no items to help you catch up when you are behind, you’re just stuck there unless you start to drive better. Similarly, once you take the lead, nothing is likely to take that lead away from you unless you make some mistakes. The result is a game that is admittedly more skill oriented, but also more boring as players are unlikely to interact with one another very much during a race.

When players venture over to the time trial mode they will find both local and online leaderboards to compare top finishing times with others. This might sound like not much of a big deal, but it is surprisingly rare for such a feature to be included in a Wiiware game and, with only six courses, should help provide some lasting entertainment for those looking for an excuse to keep playing the same tracks over and over.

For a game that features truck racing, one would expect the trucks to be featured more prominently. You can unlock additional skins by beating each skill level, but aside from an initial view at the start of a race, all of the trucks are viewed from the top down during a race and so do not really look all that different, regardless of which truck or skin you choose. Worse, all of the trucks race the same. There are no individual characteristics like engine power, sharp cornering or any of the sort typically found in racing games. The lack of such may make the game fairer as it puts all of the players on a level playing field, but it wastes an opportunity for a lot of the fun that comes from experimenting and trying different vehicles and only contributes to the overall lack of longevity in the game.

Conclusion

High Voltage Hot Rod Show is lots of fun to play. With its emphasis on stunts rather than items or vehicle tweaking the game carves out a niche seen more often in snowboarding games than in vehicle racing. Although the game is catchy and unique, players should not expect it to live up to the standards set by the big names in videogame racing. Its short course list, lack of online play, and easy computer opponents mean that the game will have a short lifespan unless you bring some friends over to play it with you. Even so, with its amusing and easy to pick up and play mechanics, multiple controller options, and easy-on-the-eyes graphics, this is a solid WiiWare release worth investigating.