If there's one genre that the PSP is in no shortage of, it would definitely be racing games. From Burnout and Midnight Club to Ridge Racer, Need for Speed and Wipeout, there's something for everyone. In the heap of racing titles then, it would be easy for another title like GripShift to go unnoticed. The cover features some blond surfer dude in a flame painted dune-buggy-type car with a missile on the left of him and a swooping track behind him with another vehicle close on his tail. Wow, nothing says mind-boggling racing game like some surfer dude in a dune-buggy! But thankfully, and unfortunately for those who don't take the time to inform themselves, GripShift is more of a platformer than a racing game. And what the PSP really needs is a lot more quality platformers, just like GripShift.
Truly explaining GripShift's gameplay and Raison D'Etre is like trying to explain the color "lilac-indigo-mauve" to a blind person. It "may" happen, but it won't be easy. The developers call it an "insane stunt driving" game with puzzle, platform, driving and action elements. I say Balderdash! If I had to put that into real words, I'd say it's about 10% Burnout, 40% Diddy Kong Racing, 40% Super Monkey Ball and 10% Super Mario World all wrapped up in a hip/cool shell. If pressed I'd also say that for a portable game, the developers sure did pack a whole lot of quick-fix gameplay into this one, and for that, all PSP owners should take note and be thankful.
You will initially have 4 characters to pick from (2 more can be unlocked later) and 4 vehicles (2 more can also be unlocked). While the different drivers weren't a necessity, it's nice to be given such diverse choices. The characters all have their own personality and pros and cons to them. The vehicles may all look like beach-bumming sand-dusters but their attributes are quite varied. What's really nice is that GripShift also allows you an incredible amount of customization on your vehicles which caught me off guard (in a platformer) but which I truly appreciated.
The main gameplay mode is simply called Challenge Mode. In this mode you will play certain levels with various "challenge" objectives and "race" objectives. In the Challenge levels, you will be trying to complete a checklist of sub-goals (time limit finish, star collection and combinations thereof) in the hopes of collecting medals which in turn lead to credits which in turn lead to more levels unlocked, more difficulties unlocked and more mini-games unlocked. Once in a while you will also have Race levels which are "armed" races against various opponents, again trying to win various medals and collecting stars. Within Challenge mode, levels that prove a pain can be skipped and levels that have multiple goals can be replayed over and over until all medals have been collected. If there's one thing that GripShift offers is diversity. I personally spent time with each level trying to collect all the medals before moving on while I can also picture others racing through all the levels once trying to finish under the time limit and then going through all the levels over to collect specific goals one at a time.
If there is one facet of GripShift that will definitely catch "racing" enthusiasts by surprise it's the handling and controls. As a racing game, GripShift suffers from numerous "racing" issues, but as a platformer/racing/hybrid, GripShift feels just right in all aspects. The first thing to note is the gravity involved; when a car leaves the track it can still be controlled (accelerated, slowed down, turned) to a certain degree (and it will leave the track often). The left and right directional buttons steer the car, while the up and down directional buttons control the pitch of your car while airborne. The X button accelerates and the square controls the brake/reverse. The circle button controls your weapons (when applicable), the left trigger is your handbrake (which will be much needed) and your right trigger is your Nitrous. While this may sound like a reasonable setup (which it is, and works very well) you have to remember that you'll be using your car to jump from platform to platform, collect stars, find hidden bonus credits and in mini-games: play soccer, ice hockey, pool and penguin bowling. Yes, penguin bowling! The controls are very precise, but unlike a true-blue racer, they have a lot of "give" to them and would be considered "floaty" by car-aficionados. Luckily, in GripShift they become second-nature early on and seem a perfect match to the gameplay at hand.
For the single player, besides the 5 difficulty levels in Challenge Mode, there is also the Race Mode which features single races, time challenges, practice races and championships (which unlock once you've unlocked all racetracks from a certain difficulty level). As with most Championship Modes, you are now racing for cumulative points in a series of races (again within various difficulty levels). And while there are no stars or secret bonus credits to find, you will still earn credits which will help you unlock music tracks, concept art, mini-games, more difficulties, etc. There are also the mini-games to play as a single player. Six in all, they range from Playground (in which you simply drive/jump around collecting stars, etc) to Soccer/Ice Hockey to Snaker (in which you steer around collecting stars all the while your car is accelerating and must avoid crashing). There is also Penguin Bowling and Bomb Pool. All mini-games are well done and while not completely innovative, they still provide quite a diversion on long bus rides when you're sick of racing or going through the levels collecting stars.
GripShift also supports Ad Hoc WiFi multiplayer games in which you can play against three other friends. Here you will be able to play races (single races or even championship mode) or mini-games. While you won't be able to play Playground or Penguin Bowling (which is a shame) you will have access to Deathmatch (which plays a lot like Twisted Metal-type games) and Reverse Tag (in which you will actually try to remain "it" for the longest time). The multiplayer modes are all great fun and while you'll need to unlock them all before playing, it isn't a very hard task.
If GripShift didn't already have enough content, it also includes one of the best track editors I've ever seen (and on a handheld no less). Here you'll be able to create your own Challenge Levels and racetracks. The editor is easy to use but at the same time, very deep with lots of options and items to include. You can shape roads any which way you want and also add pickups, traps and scenery to your hearts content (until you've emptied your Allowance anyways). At any point, you can also test your track and set records on it. And if this weren't enough, you can share tracks with other players over a network.
Graphically, GripShift comes as a surprise. While not the most texture-rich game out there, the levels and menus load quickly and have an amazing amount of polish to them. Just navigating the menus and seeing the shire on all the various modes is incredible. The levels are all fairly large and you can always clearly see where you've going. The characters are all fun to watch and the cars (with all their decals and paint jobs) are well rendered and animated. While in the editor, the ability to quickly pan around, zoom in/out and select/drop pieces is a joy as well.
In the audio department, while the in-game noises and sound effects are strictly "platform" based and nothing out of the ordinary, they are well done. The music is a treat however. Not only do we have a good number of tracks to look forward to, but they capture the feel of the game perfectly and are quite memorable.
In the end, while GripShift may have a hard time truly representing itself, any gamer who takes the time to play it for what it really is will walk away quite pleased with the overall experience. It may take gamers a few minutes to get a true feel for the controls and feel of the game, but with numerous goals, mini-games, multiplayer modes and track editor, GripShift will keep any fan interested and busy for a long time to come.