Iridium Runners Review
As the PS2 enters its golden years, the number of $20 titles are increasing at a rapid rate, but that doesn't mean such titles aren't worthy of your attention. Granted, the new generation has shown us just how amazing software on the PS3 will be, but there's no need to abandon the past generation just yet. If you're saving your bucks for the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and don't want to drop another $60 on more games, you may want to consider budget-priced titles like Iridium Runners. Recently released by Playstos and SouthPeak, this is one racing game that boasts quite a bit of originality fused with a mostly appealing futuristic/techno setting. Believe it or not, you won't be racing around in the fastest, most technologically advanced flying machines man has ever seen...nope, you'll be using your own two feet. They don't call it Iridium Runners for nothing; the fastest runner will claim ultimate victory!
The graphics certainly aren't the strong part of the game, as we get some decently designed racetracks, but nothing that makes the visuals pop with appeal and panache. The character design is generic and lacking in overall detail, there's a lack of clarity in some spots, and for the most part, the game is too dark. Several of the futuristic-themed tracks are brighter than others, but even the ones painted with lighter shades feel bland and even foreboding. All we're doing is running around with our chosen character, so we can't talk about any super-special racing machines, so there isn't much else to say. Perhaps we're just getting too used to next-generation software, but there are more than a few PS2 games that look better than Iridium Runners. This title may be budget-priced and operate on old-fashioned hardware, but it's still a recent game, so we had expected better graphics. On the bright side, the frame rate remains solid throughout, and a few of the later tracks really are quite intriguing. Racing fans will get a unique gameplay concept and while the technicals are far from astounding, the visuals do match that concept quite nicely. And in the end, we're looking for a visual presentation that meets the goal of the overall vision, so we're gonna cut this category some slack.
The sound revolves around a hectic, fast-moving soundtrack that one might find at a rave and a set of effects that simply serve their purpose. Much like the graphics, that's exactly what the sound does: it fits the environment and remains functional in almost all respects, but it never really impresses the player. That techno music definitely lends the races a sense of futuristic intensity, but they do get repetitive after a while, and you'll soon notice there isn't a great deal of variety with those effects, either. On the other hand, you shouldn't be too disappointed with the sound, which means you can focus on the gameplay without being distracted by mediocre sound and graphics. We always wonder how difficult it would be to include a larger array of soundtracks, because variety is almost always a major obstacle for developers...and we're not really sure why. But anyway, the sound is good enough to keep players from altering the volume (turning it down or off is never a good sign), and even the brief voice acting works to add to the entire atmosphere. Not great, but...okay.
It may sound a touch strange to say that we're actually running on a racetrack, but make no mistake: Iridium Runners isn't a track-and-field game operating under a disguise that would fit something like Wipeout. No, Playstos makes this one their own, even though a few of the characters often feel like a Buick that's in dire need of a realignment. The control isn't bad, though, as the developers make several good decisions. First, they allow you to select your own buttons; if you're not happy with the R1 button for jumping, pick the Circle button (worked well for us). Secondly, they keep the control scheme both accessible and responsive - despite the aforementioned Buick problem, which did become more evident later on - and institute a few interesting ideas. For example, you hold down the X button to run, but in order to execute an Iridium boost, you have to tap the button like a madman. The more Iridium crystals you pick up on the track, the more you can boost, and it starts to feel a lot like an old-school, button-mashing fighter. Yeah, probably not what you were expecting, huh?
Well, that's kinda the name of the game, here. You probably noticed earlier that we said you can jump, and you can; there will be gaps in the racetrack, and you'll have to clear that gap if you wish to continue. If you fall, or fly off a portion of the track that doesn't boast walls, you'll lose a whole lot of time. Furthermore, you can attack and defend yourself by picking up any one of a variety of items in the game, which are scattered throughout each track. You pick them up in much the same way you do in Wipeout, and you can use them whenever you wish. Some provide you with a helpful shield, others shrink opponents down to bite-size little characters or send out a blast radius that levels any racers unfortunate enough to be in the blast zone. But here's where our first complaint comes in- it can be very difficult early to tell which weapon you picked up, and furthermore, your opponents always seem to have a never-ending supply. Remember in Super Mario Kart, whenever you approached Luigi, he'd magically have the Star and go invincible? Yeah, that same form of...er...cheating, seems to be on display in Iridium Runners.
This makes much of the game more challenging than it needs to be, and it can be immensely frustrating when you can't figure out the tracks. You need to race each a few times before you can be competitive, and even then, you have to master the following secret for success: run like normal through tight turns (and try desperately not to smack into the wall; it slows you down something fierce) while utilizing the Iridium boost on the straightaways. That means mashing on the X button at just the right time, and while it's an interesting little strategic aspect, it still gets pretty annoying after a while. If you can get good at the process, though, victory will be yours. The challenge is a little high, but you'd be surprised how much fun this game can be with a few open-minded friends. Once you're done toying around with the Cup, Championship and Survival gameplay modes, you really need a few pals around to help flesh out the rest of your purchase. The multiplayer is probably the biggest draw, especially because the single-player tournaments get both tiresome and frustrating at times.
Iridium Runners implements a few very cool gameplay mechanics and is actually worth the price of admission. If it were a penny more, we probably wouldn't recommend it, but given the originality and general entertainment factor, it's worth a look for only twenty bucks. You can unlock more characters the longer you play, and because each one has their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, there's good reason to experiment. Just don't expect too much from the technicals, and the repetitive nature of the single-player campaign means you really should have a friend or two to race around with. It'd get far too frustrating and tedious if you don't.
3/11/2008 Ben Dutka