In 1999, Midway struck gold with its arcade-style boat-racing game Hydro Thunder. Though not the deepest of racing games, Hydro Thunder had its merits. The control was tight and responsive, and the graphics really made the then-new Dreamcast shine. Now, Midway has brought its snowmobile version of Hydro Thunder, Arctic Thunder, to the Xbox. It's noticeably better looking than the lackluster PlayStation 2 version, but it still has its fair share of problems.
At its core, Arctic Thunder is a simple racing game--get to the finish line first, and you are rewarded. To try and spice things up, the levels have multiple paths and the courses are littered with a variety of defensive and offensive power-ups--such as land mines, heat-seeking missiles, shields, and speed boosts--that you and your competitors will use to gain an advantage. Along with these standard power-ups, you'll find trick power-ups at the end of the ramps scattered throughout the levels that will trigger a trick animation for your rider and scatter more power-ups across the level. The power-ups aren't the most inventive, but they are entirely necessary, as the game would be powerfully dull if the gameplay were left to straight racing. Even as it stands, Arctic Thunder is not terribly engaging, as the races ultimately boil down to either focusing on defensive weapons and avoiding your competitors or staying in the thick of it and dealing out as much damage as you can, depending on which gameplay mode you're in.
Though it sports four different gameplay modes, the differences between them are limited. The race mode will reward a gold medal with secret unlock codes, giving you the ability to modify attributes like the game's difficulty or which power-ups will be available in a race. The arcade mode is nearly identical to the race mode, minus the courses and riders that have been added exclusively for the console version of Arctic Thunder. The points mode rewards you with points for picking up power-ups, doing tricks, attacking competitors, and finishing in a high position. These points can be used to unlock new riders, snowmobiles, and courses. The battle mode throws up to four competitors into an icy arena, where the goal is to simply knock the other rider off his or her sled. The race, point, and arcade modes can be played with up to four players as well.
The PlayStation 2 version of Arctic Thunder looked simply awful. Midway has made some use of the power of Microsoft's console, as the Xbox version looks significantly better. All the frame rate problems that plagued the PS2 version are gone, and the game generally looks sharper, with cleaner, brighter textures and a heaping helping of lighting and particle effects. Unfortunately, most of the core geometry remains the same, and the game looks pretty dated when compared with most Xbox games. The levels themselves, which range from the Swiss Alps to the Great Wall of China, do a fair job of representing their respective themes, but they're pretty stingy with the polygons and lack any level of finesse. The rider animation is clunky, though the rider and sled models are passable.
When you get down to brass tacks, Arctic Thunder is not fun. The gameplay is repetitive, and the graphics, while an improvement on those of the PS2 version, still don't even begin to make use of the Xbox's potential. Unless you're a developer taking notes on how not to make a snowmobile racing game, there's simply no reason to play Arctic Thunder.