Regular Vita Player readers will know that I’m a fan of PlayStation Mobile… a massive fan of PlayStation Mobile. So much in fact that I have taken it upon myself to attempt to amass a complete collection of every title released for the EU market so I’d like to think that I have a fairly good knowledge of games released for the format and that has enabled me to compile the Top 10 and Top 25 PlayStation Mobile Games we have here on the website.
But why am I talking about PSM when I’m reviewing a PS Vita game? Well it’s testament to the hard work of the developers Atomicom when the PlayStation Mobile update of their original Android game, Switch Galaxy made it into both of these lists. Now, after a wait that has seemed like an eternity the game has finally been released in an updated form for the PS Vita and PS4 but has it been worth the wait?
As with the original release, at the very heart of Switch Galaxy Ultra is quite a simple concept harking back to the 8-bit era. The basic gameplay from the PSM original remains the same so I won’t dwell on that too much (just read my other review if you want to know more information!) but briefly it’s a rail-based racer – just think a futuristic Scalextric where you can swap tracks. Your craft flies along these space lanes between planets dodging oncoming obstacles and all you can do to survive is switch your craft from one lane to the next. Barriers appear in your path that will slow down your speed, gaps appear that need to be avoided by switching lanes, cash can be collected en-route to allow you to upgrade your ship, and there are boosts and other powerups to be collected on the track to help you on the way. Pretty simple stuff and easy to get into and grasp the basics in mere minutes.
Just like its predecessor, there’s a story behind the racing (please don’t ask why – personally I’d rather get straight into the game itself) but this time it’s accompanied by a fully voiced digital comic. Regardless of your view on having storylines behind games of this ilk, you take on the role of one of the Galaxy’s last surviving humans, Vince Vance. Regarded as being one of the best pilots in Dakur, you’ve been asked by Amur Ness – the Head of Dakur Technology – to explore the galaxy to find as much tantalum as possible – one of the most scarce elements known to mankind (or should that be alienkind?).
If you’ve played the original (and if you haven’t then shame on you!), the core game remains the same but understandably has been refined and expanded upon for this new version as you would expect for a higher profile release. The first most noticeable change in the game is the format for collecting tantalum itself. In the original version, this was obtained based on your performance in each race, and the faster you reached the end of each stage the more you earned but it wasn’t actually needed other than to earn more coins to spend on upgrades. In Switch Galaxy Ultra however, tantalum plays a more critical role in the game. The races themselves are split into two main elements – the track based segments and a more open area that you reach after flying through a portal that is more than a little reminiscent of Stargate. On flying through this portal, the controls shift from the standard left/right navigation of your craft to having full directional control as your ship flies freely through this galactic “tunnel”. In here you will find the all-important tantalum that you need to fly into to collect so precision navigation is needed to collect as much as possible before returning to the track.
At this point you have to ensure that you don’t collide with anything on your way to the end of the level as each collision not only loses momentum but tantalum as well. Why is the tantalum so important? Well this is where the game differs so much from Switch Galaxy as no longer do you have to reach the end of each track in a set time limit but instead you need to collect enough tantalum to unlock further stages. If you haven’t got sufficient tantalum then it’s a case of going back to replay earlier levels to try to get as many of the ten pieces up for grabs on each.
Back to the track sections and the speed boosts are the other real change and while at first this may not seem like a major element, it does add a new strategic twist to the game. Previously flying over a speed boost part of the track simply accelerated your craft. Now you charge up your boost which you can then activate at will and use it until your boost is drained and it can be used in short bursts or in one go and replenished every time you fly over the speed boosts. It may not seem like a major change at first but having total control of when you boost really gives you that extra feeling of being in control and makes the game seem that bit more fluid.
In total there are 55 tracks to race over increasing in difficulty as you progress through the game, adding additional hazards to overcome as you play ranging from barriers blocking your path that you need to avoid (or pass through if you have collected pass tokens along your travels), gaps in the track to jump over, and enemy ships hell bent on stopping your progress. To help you along the way, the cash that you collect can be spent in the shop between stages to upgrade your ship, tweak it’s appearance with new skins or even buy a brand new craft from the six on offer… and fully customise those as well!
The one real difference to the game from Switch Galaxy, which will really put your piloting skills to the test, is how you progress through the levels and is something that could potentially extend the game’s lifespan considerably. In the original, each race had a set time limit in which it needed to be completed and if you managed to accomplish this, the next track was unlocked. This time, each track requires you to have amassed a certain amount of tantalum before you can move on. Fortunately you can go back and replay levels at any time to try to try to collect the maximum in each area. While this method of rewarding players and locking off game progress can be a good thing, if you’re not quite as good on the tunnel sections as you are in the main race sections then you could ultimately reach a point where you won’t be able to continue in the game and I am a little wary of games that do prevent progress for gamers in this way.
Saying that, it doesn’t spoil the game itself and it’s still a fun racer and has managed to retail all of the playability of the original, not slowing down for a second. Despite not being a racing game in the traditional sense and having most of the controls, bar the steering and boost taken out of your control, there’s still an amazing adrenaline rush to be had while playing. At the same time as that, the game is stepping things up a gear visually. It’s no longer just a case of the tracks looking good… now they look fantastic – smooth, detailed, with a fully populated space environment surrounding you. While you don’t necessarily notice as you race, the asteroids flying past as you pilot your ship really do add a great deal to what is already a stunning looking title. Things then look even more astounding when you fly through the tunnels before ending in the WipEout-influenced cities and it really adds up to a game that is incredibly polished.
As well as the main story mode, the game offers several additional modes to provide additional longevity and variety for players. In a continuation from the PSM release, the Survival Mode makes its way over to the PS Vita. Taking its cue from the myriad of endless runner games on the market, it’s just you and a never-ending track set out in front of you. The game mode is simple enough – all you have to do is fly for as long as possible, avoiding the oncoming barriers as your ship gets progressively faster. Collide with a barrier and it’s game over and you’re presented with your score representing your total distance travelled. Beat your personal best score and you’re awarded with credits to spend in the store. It’s all about quick reactions and hand-eye coordination and as every game plays using a default ship, no player has an advantage over any other when it comes to the global leaderboards.
In addition, there are also two online multiplayer modes available as well – Survival and Barrier. Now I’d love to be able to talk more about both of these but sadly I can’t or give any judgement or opinion on them but no matter how hard I tried, I simply wasn’t able to experience them. It didn’t matter what time of day I attempted to play them or which of the two modes I tried to play or whether I was looking to join an existing game or act as host for a new game, I simply didn’t encounter any other players online. It’s a shame because it’s one new feature of the game that I’d love to experience and this was a major disappointment. Being a significant new feature added to the game from the PlayStation Mobile version it’s quite a let-down that I wasn’t able to play this, even once, and it’s the first time I’ve been unable to play a multiplayer game on the PS Vita for lack of any other players. I do hope that this situation will change in the future and should this happen I’ll certainly return to the review and expand upon this aspect of it but for now it’s something of a mystery to me.
I can’t finish talking about the game itself without mentioning two other elements missing from the original PSM release – Trophies and Leaderboards. As much as I loathe Trophies personally, these are a much-welcome addition for many gamers as are Leaderboards although these are a little odd. They allow you to compare scores in the multiplayer modes as well as your performance in the main game itself, but there is no way to scroll through the list beyond the Top 10 in each nor can you look at how you stack up against your friends, something that seems to be a standard feature for most Leaderboards these days. While I’m not generally too concerned about Trophies or Leaderboards, for some games I have felt that the Leaderboards have extended the longevity of the games and kept me returning far longer than I would have normally just so I can try to stay one step ahead of people on my friends list so this is a wasted opportunity here.
Now onto the comic that I mentioned earlier… I really have mixed feelings here. I thought the artwork itself was great although that didn’t really come as a surprise considering the source – Darren Douglas, the original concept artist for WipEout – but I did feel that it dragged on and the voiceover left something to be desired. I will be honest and say that voice work is an area where I have come to get very picky over and I am probably a lot less forgiving than others. Having spent over a decade running sci-fi conventions and working closely with animation voice actors, most of whom are veterans of the video games industry, it’s something I’ve found that I pay a lot more attention to than I used to and it is a weakness compared to the artwork.
Additionally the way the comic is presented does cause problems. There is a lot of text on screen in many of the panels in the comic and with the nature of the Vita’s screen and its screen resolution, comics need to be presented in a way to make things easy to read, either keeping text to a minimum or zooming in to text and moving between characters speaking when multiple speech bubbles are in a single comic panel. What I found with Switch Galaxy Ultra was that the text was incredibly difficult to read throughout. At first this was something that I attributed to my eyesight (I’m not getting any younger!) but the text is rather dense and it is an issue that a lot of other players have had problems with as well.
To their credit, this IS something that Atomicom are aware of and they are addressing in a forthcoming patch but at the moment it spoiled what had the potential to be a great opener to the game. Naturally, I will come back to this review and revise it once the patch has been released and hopefully the multiplayer modes will see some improvement as well.
One thing that I have to make special mention of is Atomicom’s well-known charitable work. This has been extended to Switch Galaxy Ultra and it’s first DLC pack released simultaneously with the game. Aiming to raise money for Caudwell Children, this Charity DLC Pack available from the PSN Store adds additional music to the game licensed from a range of artists with all of Atomicom’s proceeds going to the charity. There’s always talk online about fundraisers from the PC games industry but it’s great to see a PS Vita game being able to support charity in this way and I hope that they’re not the last.
For those of you fortunate enough to own a PS4 as well as the PS Vita you’re well looked after here. As well as being a Cross Buy title, the game also supports Cross Save and Cross Play for its online multiplayer modes, something that I’d like to see more of from other developers of Cross Buy releases and where many could learn a lesson or two from Atomicom.
As an update to a previous release, Atomicom have managed to produce a more than worthy tribute to their original futuristic racer. It’s managed to keep the same frenetic gameplay of the original, looks a LOT better as you would expect for a native PS Vita release but has managed to add plenty of new twists to keep the game fresh and offer something new for those who have managed to master the original release. As I said, it’s not without its flaws and does have areas where it needs some work but it is still a fun and challenging game. My only reservation is the price which is expensive for what it offers right now and the multiplayer mode but despite that it’s an update that has successfully managed to improve on the original without taking away what made the first game fun in the first place.
At A Glance
- Title: Switch Galaxy Ultra
- Publisher: Atomicom
- System: PS Vita
- Format: PSN Download
- Cross Buy: Yes (PS4)
- Cross Save: Yes (PS4)
- Cross Play: Yes (PS4)
- Online Multiplayer: Yes
- Local Multiplayer: No
- PlayStation TV Compatible: No (patch will be released)
- Memory Card Space Needed: 192Mb