One of the joys of having a collection of consoles, and of the prevalence of second-hand shops and similar, is buying games at the lowest price possible with no regard for quality or reputation, and seeing what they are like. In this series of articles, I will offer as balanced an opinion as possible on these games – be they bad or good.
The first title for consideration is the 2001 PS2 game Jet Ion GP, a clear derivative of the Playstation’s popular Wipeout games. The premise is a simple one – a 3D flight racing game focused around high speed and detailed futuristic courses – and the execution is capable but heavily flawed. The actual implementation of the game mechanics is very unremarkable, with standard racing modes and stock-in-trade weapons to be deployed during races. Furthermore, there are very few courses – five basic themed areas and three variations on each course. Jet Ion GP is a barebones game, yet it makes few actual mistakes in its core areas. The courses are well-designed in gameplay terms, the vehicles are largely responsive and feel different to handle from each other, and the core selling point of the game – that the player has greater freedom of movement than competitors – is mostly well-managed, albeit with some limitations.
The course in Jet Ion GP is marked out as a coloured band along the optimum racing line, although players are encouraged to deviate from it to avoid obstacles or overtake. Leaving the racing line starts a timer after which the player’s vehicle slows down and stops until they drift back onto the track. While the implementation of this is sometimes inconsistent, the idea is a good one compared to the more rigid course-following of a game like Wipeout or F-Zero X. The ability to move up and down with this freedom allows for three-dimensional course design beyond the simple “rollercoaster” model of similar games, and one feels it is only technical limitations that prevent more being made of this gimmick.
So, if the gameplay is distinctly average albeit with a notable gimmick, and the courses on offer limited in number, what makes Jet Ion GP interesting? The answer is also its greatest failing; its graphical ambition. The game pushes the PS2’s graphical capacity to the absolute limit, with detailed textures and reflective surfaces on the aircraft, a very impressive draw distance with no fog, detailed skyboxes and geometrically intense courses – the fifth course theme, a mining complex, is particularly impressive with pipes and outbuildings to dodge, narrow canyons and an epic drop from the mountaintop to the bottom of the map. The weakest course visually is a nighttime cityscape, but that conversely uses the 3D movement most impressively.
However, with this detail comes a wildly inconsistent framerate; the console’s hardware cannot render more than one ship simultaneously without significant slowdown and so the beginning of a race, until the pack spreads out, is a stuttery and awkward affair. As a result the game is at its best when played in time trial mode, where the graphical demands of the ship textures are minimised and the framerate remains far smoother. When it works, the ambition of the graphical design becomes clear; despite some poor texturing on some “organic” sections (a problem of many early 3D games, largely avoided by more stylised ones by using flat colours for floor textures or limiting draw distance), the game fills its landscapes with buildings, trees and cliffs many of which become course obstacles. Were Jet Ion GP made on a higher-spec console and thus avoid the ground- and foliage-texture issues and framerate drops, it would be very graphically impressive and the ability, even though it is only at times when there is one ship on screen, to render large sections of the course without pop-in or fog and at a steady framerate on a game of its era is notable.
So to conclude, there is little to actively dislike about Jet Ion GP; its failings largely stem from hardware inadequacies and an attempt to be technically ambitious which is reflected in high-quality visuals (for it appears the same models, textures and levels of detail are used in-game and during replays and cutscenes) at the expense of consistent performance and any significant gameplay innovation. As a game it will never be more than an intriguing curiosity which leaves me wondering how it would have been done differently on the PS3 – a console with the processing power to run with the ambitious course design, the hardware to allow more consistent performance and control and the storage space for more courses and content. Perhaps the result would simply have been Wipeout Fusion – but nevertheless, Jet Ion GP tries with its racing line gimmick and freedom of movement to stand out and cannot be faulted for doing so.