The PS2 has a (well-earned) reputation as a licensed game garbage dump, and you'd expect a game like this to follow suit: a Cartoon Network game, dumped out with little fanfare following its attendant series biting the dust, that looks barely better than some PS1 titles. Upon booting the game, however, you discover the game was developed by none other than Sting, a cult favorite company known for quirky RPGs like Riviera, Dokapon Kingdom, and Knights in the Nightmare! Heaven only knows what compelled Namco Bandai to pick these guys to make a combat racing game. But once you start playing, the quirky mechanics and sheer insanity of the concept makes it clear: This was definitely the right team to make this game.
The cartoon series, by Production I.G, the team behind Ghost in the Shell and Attack on Titan, ran for two seasons (the game covers both), and was notable for being the first anime specifically commissioned by Cartoon Network. The year is 2049, and the world's most popular motorsport is the Immortal Grand Prix, a race between two teams of three at speeds reaching and exceeding 350mph, where outright attacking the opposing team is both legal and expected. The racers pilot enormous humanoid battle robots (dubbed "IG Machines") along a 180-mile course, working together to defeat the opposing team, both in hand to hand combat and in the race proper. Team Satomi, a team of rookies big on talent but short on teamwork, fresh off of a lucky victory that cemented them as IG-2 champions, have been promoted to the IG-1, the most prestigious league in the IGPX. What follows is their quest to take the championship, while working out their own struggles both on and off the track. If you haven't seen the series before playing this game, you'll likely be left in the dark as to the motivations and background of the myriad racers you'll meet. In contrast to the character-driven show, the game keeps the focus squarely on the racing, with the entirety of the game's "plot" as it were being simply summed up: You are Team Satomi. Become IG-1 champions. Although the game bombards you with character names, banter, and portraits, if you haven't seen the series you're going to be pretty lost as to who any of these people are and why you should care.
The rules of racing from the anime were both complex and nuanced. Each team has three machines: a Forward (usually the lightest and fastest to take first place), a Midfielder (generally a balanced design), and a Defender (often the heaviest machine, built for brawling). Races take place over the course of three laps, with the first lap being little more than a 'setup' phase, where the teams get a preview of the course conditions, confirm their strategy, and can troubleshoot any problems with their robots. The second lap, dubbed the 'Battle Lap', allows the teams to begin hand-to-hand combat with one another as the race truly begins. During this lap, pit machines known as 'running skeletons' are employed to make mid-race repairs, but only once per team. Finally, in the third lap, teams are permitted to engage their machine's "Speed Mode", transforming them into something more akin to an F1 racecar to increase speed in exchange for losing all means of defense. Each team's racers are given points based on their finishing position, with first place getting fifteen points, second earning seven points, third earning five points, and the bottom three receiving three, two, and one point each, respectively. Racers who don't finish get nothing. While a less ambitious game might simply have ignored these rules and made a simple Mario Kart knockoff with a punch button and a three-on-three format, the rules of the show are faithfully translated to the video game adaptation, with the exception of the Running Skeletons (and it wouldn't be surprising if there's some esoteric button combination for the player to discover to call one).
In the game, the first lap allows you to preview the course (although this is rarely helpful given the lack of camera control) and set each pilot's strategy balance between Attack and Race. Effectively, this tells their AI to either get into combat or avoid it, to varying degrees. How much your team leans to Attack or Race also affects the speed at which your Team Combo gauge and Super Boost gauge charge.
Once this is done, you proceed to the second lap, where the game reveals itself to be much less of a racer and more of a brawler. All machines are locked to be within a certain distance of each other via rubberbanding, so like it or not, you're going to have to duke it out. You have basic attacks, grappling attacks, and team attacks, as well as the ability to block opponents as you skate around one another. Most attacks work on something of a weapons triangle (a common feature of Sting titles), where blocking nullifies standard attacks (assuming you're facing them), grabs get through blocks, and standard attacks will disrupt grab attempts. There are also various special abilities that vary depending on your IG machine's arms and legs. Some of the most infuriating races come from facing opponents with these special techniques, like EDGERAID, Valshtein, and White Snow, whose special techniques are replicated as well as the medium will allow. Even besides the special attacks, the arms and legs you use influence your machine's moveset. For instance, pressing the grab button after you've grabbed an opponent allows you to slam them to the track and grind them along face-first (brutal!), but often times this will cause both of your machines to go tumbling as the opponent forces themselves up. Slap on a pair of heavy legs though, and you'll automatically kick them forward at the skid's conclusion, doing extra damage as they tumble along the track. Some arms even forbid you from grappling entirely, while others let you toss other 'mechs down the track, off edges, or into each other like a roller-skating Hulk.
As you batter your opponents, the Team Combo gauge will fill up you will be able to active team attacks, where you pinball another mech between your teammates for enormous damage. Of course, your opponents are aggressively trying to do the same to you. Get knocked around, hit an obstacle, or get grappled by an enemy, and you'll wind up tumbling along the track, which can lead to pileups if you run into other racers. Getting usually necessitates button mashing, but a skilled player can 'bounce back' and prevent a crash with a single perfectly timed press, which is the key to avoiding damage against some of the nastier opponents. In addition to fighting, you can also issue commands to your teammates, like "defend" or "rally", as well as switch between your three machines at pretty much any time. Each machine has its own lifebar, and in most of the later races it isn't uncommon to lose a third or more of the racers before the race's end. Altogether, IGPX boasts a frentic, chaotic fighting system that's a lot of fun once you get past the initial learning curve (the tutorial's no help, being a series of blurry videos that explain little).
The final lap is the same as the second, until the final third of the course, where the Super Boost (Speed Mode from the show) is activated and everyone makes a mad dash for the finish line. Here, unfortunately, lies the fatal flaw of the actual 'racing'. The scoring system means that even getting a single 'Mech over the finish line in first will result in a draw (and a victory if one more of your team's machines survive the race), and the AI's own Super Boost is so weak that unless you took a lot more damage than they did, you will finish first every single time. As a result, the optimum strategy against many tougher opponents is to simply hold down the block button and command your teammates to do the same, and then Super Boost to victory. In a game so focused on combat, it is disappointing that avoiding it is the easiest way to win.
'"Easiest" doesn't necessarily mean "best" though, and you'll need to play much more agressively if you want to unlock any of the game's impressive array of extra parts, racers, and tracks. However, this is where the game's fatal flaw rears its head. Following all races you'll be graded on your performance based on factors like your total points, how many enemies you eliminated, and how much health you had left. The best way to get high ratings, in theory, is to eliminate all three enemy machines from the field with as little damage as possible. In practice, what constitutes an elimination is vague at best, and the game seems to assign bonus points for KOs based on metrics no one's seemed to figure out. Throwing an enemy down the track for a KO won't count. Knocking an enemy into another for a KO won't count. Heck, just straight out punching them for a KO sometimes doesn't count. The only way to unlock new machine parts or racers for Versus is to complete the races with near-perfect ratings. This necessitates repeating races in the faint hope that maybe, just maybe, the game will register your KOs this time and you'll get a high rating. Given that "GP Mode" is the sole single-player mode, where upgrading and tweaking Team Satomi's machines while fighting increasingly better teams is a necessity, you'll find yourself repeating races for higher ratings if you want any of the fancy equipment. It's an utterly infuriating time sink in a game that already has a serious issue with repetition, even if the customization itself has plenty of depth and adds a bunch of replayability.
Fans of the show of the show are in for another letdown in "GP Mode", since the first three to four hours are something of a prequel to the series, taking you from Team Satomi's first races in IG-3 through IG-2, before allowing you to enter the IG-1 where the show kicked off proper. This means that for the first half of the 'story mode', you're stuck mostly racing teams made specifically for the game (a few of these teams appeared in the show briefly, albeit unnamed), who have none of the familiar characters or personality of the IG-1 teams. Compounding the problem is that the beginning of each and every league requiring you to go through a series of "simulator" races before you're even allowed to race in the new league. For the first league, this is understandable, and the character banter fluffs these as training for their debut in the IG-3. Being able to practice against easy opponents gives you a chance to get a grip on the controls before you get thrown into the deep end. It starts to get ridiculous when you're forced to complete five "simulator races" (each piling on maddening disadvantages, like racing solo against three nasty AI opponents) when there's only five 'main event' races in a given season! Admittedly, there are plenty of extra races to complete besides the main events, like one-on-one duels with other pilots, and IGPX Festival races, which all employ interesting twists on the standard race formula. Still, unless you're enamored with the game's mechanics, you'll likely find the whole thing repetitive by the time you hit the IG-1, especially if you're religiously going for unlockable parts and racers.
The only other gameplay option besides "GP Mode" is "Versus", which is rather threadbare for a racing title. "Versus" has some promise at first, offering the ability to go head-to-head on any track against a local player or the AI, with a custom lineup made up of any of the 50+ racers in the game, allowing for players to build their own dream teams from the racers on offer. Of course, you'd need to have unlocked these racers first through the "GP Mode", and after my play-through I had a mere eight with no inclination to go and unlock the rest. I doubt there's been any re-balancing done, either, so teams from the later leagues, with their enhanced speed, armor, and specials would likely be game breakers. You can also load in your own Team Satomi from your campaign save, which is a great concept if you somehow find another person who plays this. Playing against the AI is the same as in "GP Mode", but going against another player will throw you for a loop: The game isn't split-screen, like basically every other racing game, ever. Instead, it employs a zoomed out perspective to show all the racers on screen at once, which throws off the timings you've honed from the single player, and makes dodging and blocking even more of a pain. Prompts for combos are also absent. It's unlikely that IGPX's "Versus" will remain a staple in your multiplayer repertoire.
In most of the reviews for IGPX at launch, many complaints were levied at the game's presentation, which is probably the first big letdown the game has for prospective players. The show's races were gorgeous cel-shaded wonders, with smooth, curvy machines moving and flowing as if performing kinetic, high impact ballet. The races in the game look like blocky toys beating each other up over grey pixel land. The game boasts 70 courses, and frankly they have enough assets and original ideas to fill maybe five. Track layouts are repeated with obstacles added and removed, and a scant few pixellated images are used as the backdrop for every single one. For a game released three years after F-Zero GX, it kinda looks embarassing. The machines fare a little better, being immediately recognizable with animations being near-perfect in their accuracy to the show. They're still marred, sadly, by ugly, blurry textures and decals. On top of the poor graphics, the aural presentation is nothing particularly special either.
The music is typical thumping electronica that you've heard in pretty much every racing game, a bit of a disappointment coming from Basiscape veterans like Masaharu Iwata and Kimihiro Abe. Although this is close enough to the Cartoon Network version of the show, fans of the much better Japanese orchestral soundtrack will be disappointed. The crash and roar of the machines brawling sounds good enough, but it gets repeated a lot, which means you'll be hearing the same scrapes and crunches whenever you do certain moves many times in each race. The biggest offender, though, has to be the voice acting. It sounds fine, and is taken straight from the show's cast, but it seems they didn't have the budget to get more than one or two lines for most of the characters besides the main ones, excepting some screams and grunts. As a result, the characters will repeat lines over and over on the menu screens of the game. Hearing your forward's little sister insist he not embarrass her is cute the first couple times, less so when you've heard it two or three times while flipping through the menus before a race. Although some of them are context sensitive (after getting a poor rating on a race, your midfielder might ask if you're feeling okay), the ones you'll hear constantly aren't. This problem extends to the pre-race dialogue, where you'll have such gems as your forward insisting "if we work together we can win!" while racing solo in the simulator, or another racer saying "you two can't protect me forever!" to two completely different sets of teammates in different races (only one of which makes any sense given context). A full two thirds of the teams don't even have voice lines. The announcer, also, has a very limited repertoire of lines for a select few events, so much of the racing is done in silence.
Taken as a whole and given the inevitable limitations of being a licensed product, there's still reason to give Immortal Grand Prix a look. A blend of combat and racing hasn't been done like this anywhere else, and barring flaws with balance, it's still a riot to smash your rivals around like toys as you master its systems, at least for a few hours. It's clear Sting really did their homework on the show, with the dedication to translating the rules and combat style of the robots being a real treat for series fans. With perhaps another year in development, this could have been a fantastic game, a gem to hold up when someone dismisses licensed games as junk, alongside titles like Alien: Isolation or Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Instead, what we have is a game with many great concepts derailed by an equal number of major flaws.