April 23, 2007 - There's a reason Calling All Cars! has forum users up and down the internet slathering like slack-jawed vegetables - and that's God of War. Or, more accurately, the dependably outspoken man behind PS2's astonishing god-rocker, David Jaffe, who's on design duties for Sony's latest PlayStation Network title. So, with a near-final build at our fingertips, we thought we'd take one last thorough look at the game before the world goes review crazy. Jaffe fans should prepare themselves though - there ain't no interactive sex-scene in this one.
Essentially, Calling All Cars is a straightforward - if impressively entertaining - mix of tag and Capture the Flag, albeit on wheels. Your goal is simple: snag the escaped convict on the map and drive him as fast as you can to jail, avoiding the onslaught of rampaging vehicles determined to capture your cargo for themselves. Points are awarded depending on you method of delivery and the car with the most points at the end of a round wins.
You see, each jail has numerous drop-off points - some are easily accessible ground-level gates and others might require high-flying ramp-leaping to reach, while the hardest of all might necessitate a daredevil climb up a precariously winding path. Go for the easy option and, provided you don't lose your prisoner, you've a guaranteed one point. Aim for two or three point gates to wrack up your score though and you'll need some serious car control for success. It's all about strategy and risk-taking.
The trickier the jail entrance you use, the more points you earn. Magic!
Thankfully, steering your vehicle is simple enough - using either the analogue stick or D-pad - and is utterly responsive, as it should be. So your biggest concern is the other cars desperate to snag your stash for themselves. Obviously, in single-player, that means you're up against the game's surprisingly mean-spirited AI, even on the easiest difficulty setting. You'll barely get a couple of yards before one of your opponents charges in for a smash, sending your prisoner flying through the air. Whoever positions their car beneath the target as he plummets back to earth gets to smack on the siren and race for the goal.
It's a ludicrously tight fight though, with cars almost permanently bunched together, constantly shunting and ramming to make for some ridiculously frenzied action as the poor old robber changes hands on a second-by-second basis at times. It doesn't help that courses are strewn with power-ups, swiped by running through a question mark icon. These consist of either a heat-seeking missile, hammer or magnet. Needless to say, the key to Calling All Cars all is getting the unfair advantage in amongst all the mayhem - whether you're shooting a rocket up the criminal carrier's arse, thwacking them over the head when they stray inside your hammer's reach or sucking the crook right out from under them with the magnet, it's all about playing as dirty as possible.
With up to three cars all baying for blood, odds always seem stacked against you, meaning pinpoint driving and judicious use of your nitro boost and jump - perfect for dodging hammer swings and rockets - are instrumental if you're going to reach the jail and rack up the points. Obviously, with some disturbingly dedicated contenders constantly on your tail, actually managing to grab yourself a single point - let alone three - is properly punch-the-air satisfying. Particular so against fallible human foes, be it in two-to-four player split-screen (requiring a fairly massive TV if you don't want to spend the entire game squinting, it has to be said) or online via the PlayStation Network.
You'll learn to loathe the hammer power-up. Until you get one yourself.
Best of all, each of Calling All Cars' four levels switch things up enough to add a welcome degree of depth to the relatively simple - if frenzied - action. While 'City' offers the most basic challenge, smashing through buildings and careening round corners to wrestle up crooks, 'Trainyards' sends an endless stream of locomotives chugging across your path. While you can plow through at top speed, anything less requires impeccable timing - or, more likely, good old-fashioned luck - if you're going to race back to jail before your opponents catch up. Meanwhile, 'Alpine' features slippery, snowy hilltops and a jail that periodically freezes over - it's a mad chase to the back of the circling paddy wagon if you want to keep the points climbing in these cases. Finally, 'Burbs' completely abandons the jail concept. Instead points are earned exclusively by taking your charges to roving police cars or loitering beneath circling helicopters for a set number of seconds until you're spotted and your cargo's whisked away.
All this is yet another example - alongside the gorgeous visuals and manic gameplay - of the care and attention that's gone into really fine-tuning what is, at heart, an incredibly simple concept. From what we've seen though, it's certainly hard to fault the game's simplicity when it makes for such hysterically tense arcade action. Ultimately, this is exactly what Sony's fledgling PlayStation Network download service should be about - forget glorified tech demos like Super Rub 'a' Dub and flOw, there's tremendous scope for focussed and fun titles that'd mightn't quite be substantial enough for a retail release.
Based on this near-final build of Calling All Cars, it looks like SCEA's Santa Monica studio's really nailed it too. Admittedly, AI opponents, most noticeably in single-player tournaments, are a little too proficient for their own good right now - and some of the criteria for unlocking new cars seem a bit, well, steep. Still, even if these things don't get some last-minute tweaking the chaotic multiplayer is supremely balanced, offering some fast, fun and genuinely enjoyable pick-up-and-play entertainment. Chuck online play into the mix - and all for the price of a couple of beers - and Calling All Cars might well be PSN's first must-have party game on release.
Thanks to IGN.com for sharing the news with us!