The PlayStation 2 may be last in terms of this console generations' raw power, but nobody can touch its software diversity. For gamers like me who crave the offbeat and unique, the choices available on Sony machines have spanned an incredible range; everything from the most standard genre offerings to games that are so deeply niche that you can hardly believe someone invested enough time and money to create them. They may not all be good, but I'm glad that they're there. Variety is indeed the spice of gaming, and going strictly by that criteria, nothing's spicier than Lowrider.
A perfect example of the kind of oddity that tickles my fancy, Lowrider, published by Jaleco, has got to be one of the most out-there games I've seen in a while. Partially sponsored by the magazine of the same name, Lowrider is, of course, all about the tricked-out urban vehicles associated with cement scraping and high-heeled hotties. I have to admit that I have only the most casual knowledge of the cars and the culture, but I was more than willing to leave my everyday wheels behind and see what the game could offer.
Sadly, it wasn't much.
Starting off with a beat-down and sagging hooptie, the goal of the game is to become the most respected cruiser out there, strutting your stuff and being the envy or every onlooker in sight. On your home turf, you take your car out to the strip to show off the built-in hydraulic systems that raise and lower the car, making it hop and jump. If you can squeeze out moves the passersby call out, you earn some props along with a bit of cash. Get enough of both, and you'll soon move on to more economically-challenged inner-city areas, and tougher challenges. (And please don't mistake that comment for any sort of reviewer bias. The game is rife with stereotypes and the final level actually takes place in a rough, gang-ridden slum.)
The game's controls are extremely simple. Each of the four main face buttons bounces one side of your car, (triangle handles front, circle handles right, etc) and with a press, the corresponding part will hop. Time your next input at the moment the wheels touch the ground, and the following hop will be even higher. You'll eventually have to use the shoulder buttons which control two sides at a time, and after installing some of the really fancy optional parts, handling the sticks gets a bit of play.
The events for the player to perform in are as simple as the controls. As I mentioned earlier, you can drive down a long stretch of road to impress pedestrians and win some new fans. That event is called Street. The Hop event is a competitive one measuring the maximum height your car's front axle can reach compared to a rival's. Dance is another 1-on-1, with certain moves being called out in a semi-random fashion. Perform the request better than your competitor for points, and the car with the highest total takes home the trophy. The Event option is the same as Dance, except that you have to defeat three opponents in a row.
I'm hard pressed to think of more things to do with one of these cars besides some kind of racing or girl-attracting minigame, but the challenges in Lowrider are utterly dull, and not nearly enough to base a full-priced game around. It takes about 30 seconds to get the hang of timing the jumps, bumps, and juggles, and after you've got that down, it's all about buying better equipment to increase your vehicle's power. Once the oddity factor of a game that's about these specialty cars wears off, (say, fifteen minutes at most) the game devolves into a tepid pattern of "collect cash, upgrade, repeat."
At this point, I do want to put out the disclaimer that I didn't complete the entire story mode. But, that was more due to the artificial intelligence's inhuman level of scoring rather than a lack of effort on my part. The final "battle" of the game pits you against a car that seems to somehow magically earn more points than seems possible. After my 30th or 40th defeat, I decided to call it quits since there are human limits to the amount of time you can spend watching two cars bounce up and down before losing consciousness and risking brain cells.
Besides the less-than-thrilling tap-tap-tap play events, a large part of the game is customizing your ride. After doing a little research, I was shocked to see how far some people have taken their vehicles, and Lowrider gives a little taste of these extremes. I had never before seen a car hood that splits into four pieces, raises each in the air like flags, and then proceeds to twirl them on separate axes. I've gotta admit, some of this stuff is pretty damned impressive, if not entirely logical. However, this is a part of the game I was very disappointed in. For a hobby, or even a lifestyle that seems to be all about expressing individuality through your vehicle, Lowrider doesn't offer nearly enough variety to satisfy.
There are an array of graphics to add to your hood, trunk, and side panels, mostly consisting of bikini girls in suggestive poses or various evil skull and death images. You can also do different things like add multiple antennae and body kit parts, or chop the roof down to a sleek, almost nonexistent profile. For performance, you can add multiple car batteries for increased jump power (up to 24!), more potent hydraulics, and longer suspension rods that add to your hop height. There are, sadly, just a few freaky moving hoods and trunks like the one I mentioned earlier. The biggest letdown? No customizable horn tunes. Any dreams you might have of rolling "la Cucaracha" style must be shelved.
Altogether, there are eighteen different categories to fiddle with, but because most of the categories only offer a small handful of choices, I felt like I was following a pre-determined template for my car instead of tricking it out the way I wanted to. I kept hoping that more things would open up or be offered in the shop, but it just didn't happen. There might possibly be a wider selection locked away until the end of story mode, but I doubt many people will stick around through the deadly-dull gameplay long enough to find out.
I'm all in favor of weird games that try out new ideas or content, but it takes more than just being offbeat to be worth anything—there also has to be a substantial core upon which to base it. As the subject of this review so deftly proves, a whipped-together concept by itself is not enough. I may spend a few minutes flipping through Lowrider magazine the next time I'm at the newsstand, but I'm not going to be spending any more time on the game.