A frozen reception.
Being a corn-fed country boy from Indiana, I can tell you from experience that snow and snowmobiles are a hell of a lot of fun. It's one of many things I miss about living in the flat, mountainless Midwest. We'd get a few inches of snow and, like magic, no school, since it's too dangerous to drive. It was the greatest thing in the world for a kid. We lit fires, sang songs and offered Rainbow Brite toys as sacrifices to a snowman. Ah, those were great times.
But the days of fresh air, Feldenkrais hysteria, yellow snow and snowmobiling are long gone (at least until my next Xmas visit home). Here in the Bay Area, where snow never falls unless a celebrity drops one of their "special" vials, I get to play video games that occasionally remind me of my frigid Midwestern childhood.
Midway's new snowmobile race-and-battle game Arctic Thunder has hit store shelves and the GR mailbox. And as the resident GR snowmobiler, it's up to me to see if it captures the magic, or at least is entertaining.
After spending some time with this thing, I have reached two conclusions. No, it doesn't, and no, it isn't.
Arctic Thunder is a port of the arcade game of the same name. But while the arcade version was a success due to a big dorky snowmobile controller and an equally dorky fan that blows cold air in your face while you play, the home versions contains neither gimmick.
Oddly, Arctic Thunder has not a hint of a story anywhere in the game, on the package or in the instruction manual. On one hand, this is great - you know they're not trying to fool you into believing someone intentionally let a group of young teenage speed freaks loose with a bunch of modified snowmobiles equipped with missiles, grappling hooks, and invisibility devices.
But on the other hand, WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON? I mean, give me something to work with. Exactly why am I supposed to shoot this Atomic Snowball at the cute female rider instead of, say, asking her out for a cup of hot chocolate or something? Sure, it isn't Velvet Jones Kart Racer or anything, but I don't see why I have to be so violent to the ladies. There's just no background at all, and it makes for a kind of weird experience.
Boys and girls, Arctic Thunder isn't winning any beauty contests, trust me on that. Snow that's kicked up is heavily pixelated and the background textures lack a great deal of detail. There are no cuts and grooves, the lines carved in the snow can't hold a candle to those in SSX and many of the weapon effects just suck. This barely passes as being a next-generation game. Twisted Metal: Black, we love you!
But what the game lacks in eye-candy it makes up for in sheer speed. The levels literally blaze by, making it very hard to figure out where you're going. Though there's no noticeable slowdown, the framerate is rickety and it seems like there are some frames missing from the animations.
At the very least, I promise everything will feel very comfortable and familiar. You race around tracks with about 7 other riders picking up power-ups and generally trying to blow the other guy off the track.
The control is fine. Weapons are easy to use, though their icons on the track are a little hard to make out when traveling well over 100 mph, and I swear I have no idea who my weapons are hitting - the graphics are that bad. Still, the snowmobiles are responsive and handle very well. Plus, you get to upgrade your snowmobile and rider as you progress. They don't really make much of a difference and a friend can't load his upgraded snowmobile for the 2-player mode, but it does add to the depth a bit.
Upgrades are purchased with points you earn from placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd on one or more of the courses. You can also earn points by doing different tricks (performed by hitting different button combos) or knocking riders off their snowmobiles.
Unfortunately, the graphics are much too poor for you to really see a character fall and eat snow. And if you haven't picked up any power-ups, you're left with your puny fists of fury. Try punching a guy while you're both on snowmobiles in real life and the result is about the same…a severe wipeout!
In addition to the bad graphics, lack of story and the elusive fun factor, the arctic motif is often lost. Somehow, and more often than it should be, you'll find yourself racing in heavy industrial areas. The level design is disjointed and bizarre.
Multiplayer is a total wash. You get all the same graphical lameness, but now the screen is split, making it even harder to see what the hell is happening. You are offered two modes: Battle or Race. The Race mode is easily the better of the two, as Battle is more boring than counting snowflakes with Bob Saget.
Arctic Thunder is simply not a good game and can't be recommended. You'll find more arctic thunder around an outhouse in Antarctica than you will in this entire game. Don't bother to thaw.