The popularity of the Twisted Metal series in the late 90s spurred developers into coming up with their own brand of explosive car-combat mayhem. The Luxoflux-developed Vigilante 8, released on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 in 1998, managed to make quite a splash and crafted a solid fan base that still fondly remembers the game. It is with this legacy tucked firmly in its belt that Isopod Labs, made up of several original team members from Luxoflux, has released a remake of the original Vigilante 8 on Xbox Live Arcade.
V8 seems to be feature-loaded on paper, but these features are slightly less impressive when played. The main single player mode is called Quest, and it’s nothing more than a set of 3 bot-matches for you to take on with each character. After beating all of a character’s challenges, you will face a boss and unlock a bonus item if you win. The characters do have backstories, but these are told through lazily written text on the character select screen. Each character does feel and play differently, but instead of making each character fun to play for their own unique reasons, this instead makes some characters more annoying to utilize.
The gameplay of Vigilante 8: Arcade revolves around the simple concept of vehicular deathmatches. You choose from one of 8 stylish characters — each with their own strengths, weakness, and special abilities — and are thrown into one of 5 creative arenas where you are tasked with taking out every other vehicle that is moving. You start with only one ranged attack: a weak machine gun with unlimited ammo that overheats easily. You can also damage and attempt to flip enemy vehicles by slamming into them as hard as you can, which can lead to some very fun moments.
To gain new weapons and defensive items, you must drive around and run into the pick-up icons littered throughout the map. The pick-up weapons include lock-on missiles, shotgun-like burst blasts, and a laser attack that reigns down from the sky. You have 3 empty slots at your disposal for pick-up weapons, one assigned to each of the X, Y, and B buttons. Each weapon that you grab mid-battle gets auto-assigned to one of these slots. Each car also has a unique special attack that can also be picked up to take one of your slots, and these attacks include a sound wave that sends cars flying and a mini-tornado that whips assailants away from your car as you speed by.
The effectiveness of these attacks varies wildly, but they are added upon by the main twist on the standard car-combat formula that V8 brings to the table: the ability to charge your attacks. Instead of pressing one of your three attack buttons, holding the button down charges a meter in your weapons HUD. Each weapon has 3 levels of attack, and you choose which variation of the attack you wish to fire by releasing the button when the meter lines up to the level of power that you want. This innovation adds a lot of strategy, and some much needed variety to the otherwise limited number of attacks.
8: Arcade has a quirky ‘70s vibe to it, from the menus and music to the character designs, and it works well to differentiate this from all of the other car-combat titles. While a good idea, this vibe doesn’t lend itself to good in-game graphics. While a marked improvement over the original titles, the visuals in Vigilante 8: Arcade leaves a lot to be desired. The game runs somewhere near the 60fps benchmark, but the framerate constantly dips as any on-screen action is taking place, and has even dropped to the high teens during a few particularly explosive moments of my playing time. Another problem with the visuals is that the weapon effects are downright lazy in execution. The game represents your attacks with bright blobs of color highlighting the missiles and bullets that go flying. While this makes the attacks easier to see during battle, it also looks amateurish and takes away any of the visual impact that these weapons should have on the player when they are incoming. The sound is equally mediocre, offering a handful of generic tunes that are disco-ish in nature and some functional yet plain sound effects. The character voices are entertaining but are only heard on menus and after matches.
There are 5 maps in V8: Arcade, and their design might be the high point in the title. You get to brawl through a farm, a crashed meteor site, an oil-field, a ski mountain, and the Hoover Dam. While the levels are not too interesting visually, the abundance of destructible objects as well as some funny hidden bonuses — like the ability to cause an avalanche or ride the ski lift in the mountain level — add some unpredictability to the otherwise staid gameplay.
The Multiplayer mode of Vigilante 8: Arcade is definitely the high point of this package. You can choose from Deathmatch or Team Coop, which is Team Deathmatch with the ability to turn on bots. You can play with up to a 4 players locally via split screen, and the game runs surprisingly well during this. The online play for up to 8 players is solid and really brings out the point that most the gameplay could have been a lot of fun if they fixed the physics and camera issues. There isn’t a large community playing online, as it took me 10-15 minutes to get into a nearly full game in most cases. I also have to note that I ran into consistent problems joining games using both Quick Match and Custom Match options, and that the game did freeze on me twice during online play.
Another point worth mentioning is that there is no rematch option, as the game boots everyone back to the main multiplayer menu after the game. A key problem with the game design that comes out during online play is that the weapons are not distributed well on maps during 8 player matches. I often had to drive around for a while before finding any available weapon pickups, and frequently had to defend myself using only the standard ineffective machine gun and ramming technique. This problem really only exists in multiplayer, leading me to believe that the weapons were balanced with 4 players in mind instead of the 8 it supports.
While the multiplayer has a few problems, the key issues in Vigilante 8 come solely from the physics engine. For starters, none of the cars in the game feel like they have any weight to them at all. While less-than-realistic physics are always used in car-combat games to allow you to make some sweet jumps and grab some out-of-reach items, the physics in V8 only hinder your ability to play this game well. Whenever your car leaves the ground, it will start to float and there is no way to predict how it will land. I have jumped over tiny platforms that were merely a few feet off the ground, and my car would be in a completely different direction by time it landed seconds later. To make this even worse, the camera doesn’t know how to keep up with a car once it takes flight. In some cases, the camera starts flailing around wildly, sometimes even ending up beneath the car or zoomed in to the point where all you can see is the car’s tail. The inconsistencies with the camera and the physics are a nonstop issue, as every time your car is hit with a weapon, flies off of a ledge, or even drives near a wall, your vision and control are severely hammered to the point where it makes the game no longer fun.
Another problem occurs when your car flips over, which happens frequently. The mechanic to flip yourself back does not always work as advertised. Your car will sometimes be stuck upside down on the ground while your enemies pummel you with missiles, and by time you are able to flip back over, half of your health may be gone. I have also seen enemy cars get stuck in walls and fall through floors, which is hilarious, but not so beneficial for the gameplay.
Single player matches in V8 tend to be 4 player free for alls. However, you will quickly realize that, in most cases, all 3 of the enemy cars will gun solely for you. Unless you can divide and conquer, you will find that your health will be gone fairly quickly, leading to needless frustration and constant restarting. What makes this even worse is that there are health pick-ups available on all of the maps, but you will barely get to take advantage of them. Unlike the weapons, which respawn quickly and frequently, the health pick-ups sometimes vanish for minutes at a time, and your AI enemies tend to gun straight for them leaving nothing for you. This is especially frustrating in the single player campaign, where you only have one life and have to take down 3-4 foes per match with little aid.
In the end, Vigilante 8: Arcade just has way too many core problems standing in its way. The Quest mode is monotonous and uninteresting, the online play has balance and gameplay issues as well as a lack of players, the graphics and sound are underwhelming, and the gameplay, while fun, is crushed by the constant physics and camera issues. If you are desperate for vehicular deathmatch on Xbox 360 or were a fan of the series in the 90s, the demo might be worth a look, but Vigilante 8: Arcade proves that most relics are best left in the past.