Friday, 13 October 2017

The fall of futuristic racing

Retroactive review(s): Four futuristic, generation six, racers


The futuristic racing genre was beyond doubt at it's most popular peak in the fifth generation of consoles. The popular wipEout games by Psygnosis inspired many other developers to jump on the bandwagon, with various results. WipEout lead the way as it focused on a more mature age group, blending in the music and visual style from the rave culture, with a dark and gloomy futuristic vision of racing.

The true beginning of the genres popularity though, began a whole generation before on the 16-bit Super Nintendo with F-Zero. A technical showcase for the SNES' Mode 7 pseudo 3D graphics and an incredibly solid anti-gravity racer to boot. With it's fast pace, catchy music and fun, but unforgiving gameplay, it inspired titles like wipEout and the racing genre in general, immensely.



While the 32/64-bit consoles in the fifth generation offered a F-Zero sequel, four individual wipEout games and other classic series like Rollcage and Extreme-G. The rumours of a new generation of consoles built excitement for how the next step in the genre would be. How would these fast futuristic racers look on far superior hardware and with developers being far more familiar with 3D games? One could only imagine.

Yet, when they arrived something happened, while some failed to deliver good quality in general and others were highly praised titles, they failed to create a huge impact. The commercial success of the genre fell from grace. Gone were the system sellers, launch day specials and technical marvels that were F-Zero for the SNES and wipEout for the PS1.

This write-up is about four of the main titles in this time period, that grew out of the rise and craze of the 90's. Wishing to build the popularity and push the technical envelope further into the early 2000's, but ultimately sparked the fall of that very genre they wanted to progress. While there are other examples in the sixth generation, I've picked out four I feel represent the genre the strongest in their own ways. Spanning across the three main consoles from that generation.


The bargain bin gem: XGIII: Extreme G Racing



Platform tested: Sony PlayStation 2
Release year: 2001

Beating all the other three titles I feature in this article to the finishing line; XGIII: Extreme G Racing was the first released. WipEout Fusion had been postponed a year after an intended PlayStation 2 launch game schedule, opening up an opportunity for this fairly popular Acclaim racing series from the Nintendo 64, to slip in and take it's throne as the first true futuristic racer on the PS2.

The two previous Extreme G titles had risen as competitors to F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64 during the huge wipEout craze on the PS1. They featured futuristic motorbikes rather than anti-gravity ships like the competition. The first game even predates wipEout 64 and as such became N64 players alternative option to the genre and with a wide range of titles in it, made the N64 a fine futuristic racing home if you didn't own a PS1. While the Extreme G games received fairly positive reviews, they were always looked on as slightly b-list third party titles.

XG3 delved onto the PS2 early on then, most likely aiming at capturing all those early console buyers seeking for a similar experience on new hardware. XG3 would later see a release on the GameCube too, keeping to it's Nintendo roots. This early PS2 release was a smart move, and one that I would miss entirely as I waited for my wipEout fix. As such, I played this game for the first time recently, without those thick, rose tinted, nostalgia glasses on.

I found the game visually appealing from the get go, especially considering it's such an early PS2 release. It has a sharp picture quality and what seems like a fairly okay 60fps framerate. The tracks are large and scale into huge bends far into an impressive draw distance. There's this orange and purple colour scheme with a neon-lit city going on in the first track, which pulled my attention in quickly. really like the flame and heat effects behind the motorbikes as you race too! Since XG3 is based on motorbikes, the camera tilts a lot in first person view, working much like how most motorbike racers do. I found the outside camera more appealing though and easier to race with, especially when the motorbikes and their flame effects look so cool!

Accompanying the pleasing graphics are probably the best designed menues of the bunch of games I'm reviewing here. They look stylish, are easy to navigate and read, plus they have some of that flair games like this need. Although they don't quite hit the design highlights of The Designers Republic's WipEout 2097/3 menues, but then again they were in a league of their own. Hired in for the soundtrack are the electronic music gurus of the time; British record label Ministry Of Sound. Sporting a thumping techno soundtrack to accompany the fast gameplay, rivalling one of wipEout's most prominent features: quality licensed electronic music.

XG3 controls nicely with the analogue stick on PS2, letting you lean the motorbike at various angles into the corners. I tried the d-pad but found it too twitchy and less precise, so extra points for the developers making those loose PS2 analogue sticks work well. Turning in XG3 is unforgiving to begin with, requiring you to hit some air brakes to tackle the more challenging bends of the later race courses. Yes, there are air brakes here, something that seemed to become a genre standard since the first F-Zero. Rather than pulling the craft in a direction though, they send the bikes into a sliding motion. A tricky manoeuvre to perfect.

Racing rules reminds me somewhat of F-Zero; there's a sort of recharge lane with a glowing colour at various points of the track. You must drive over it to regenerate the motorbikes shield, and in a typical dilemma of usage; it's also your boost meter. Boost is needed to tackle those steep hills in each track, otherwise you'll slow down considerably. However, XG3 offers weapons too, so along a typical course there's at least one recharge lane with weapons aswell as the shield recharge. Shield lanes are green, weapon ones are purple. The tracks are incredibly long, so using boost and weapons tactically is advised.

Speaking of the games premise, here's the more interesting part though; money earned in races can be used for upgrading motorbike parts and weapon systems! A nice touch and it's quite well made, offering a lot of items in the shop to purchase.

To my surprise I quite liked XG3. I regret not picking it up back in the day. For the best futuristic racer option on PS2, this is it in my opinion. It takes a lot of lessons from what made the original wipEout trilogy great, understands them and takes it's own style on them based on the Extreme G series own style. The use of flashy visuals, stylish artstyle in the scenery, modern menues and licensed music makes XG3 one of the stronger contenders in the genre for the sixth generation. A solid game to play if you're into the genre.

Rating


★★★★

The last-gen king: WipEout Fusion



Platform tested: Sony PlayStation 2
Release year: 2002


My expectations after the ever-improving and fantastic WipEout trilogy on the PS1 was sky high for it's debut on the PlayStation 2 system; WipEout Fusion. Such a crushing realisation then, when Fusion turned out to be a sloppy and broken title. While it indeed on paper brought a healthy amount of new ideas to the table; larger and wider tracks, loops, ship upgrades and three track layouts for every location. It seemed to be the game WipEout fans had long been waiting for on paper. The problems however, lay waiting for the release day. Blind as fanboy, I instantly went to buy it on day one.

I still fondly remember the longest track of the first location in WF, I specifically remember this one because it was featured in a screenshot from a gaming magazine prior to release; it depicts a large mountain with the track climbing steep up it, then the track drops down into a foggy dip in the middle, out of sight and then up again from the fog far away into the distance. I was blown away by the immense draw distance, rounded edges of the track and mountainsides, plus the sheer scale of the screenshot. This particular environment and it's tracks, turn out to be alongside the orange and purple coloured ones with the underwater tunnel, the best the game has to offer. But that's about it, the problems lay plenty ahead.

Firstly, the issue of making wide tracks with open areas; it simply takes away the intense and claustrophobic feeling of passing other opponents in tight spots from the earlier WipEouts. The open sections are particularly badly made; like a comical scene of letting twelve Bambi's out on plain ice. Instantly the ships are just all over the place, ramming into terribly placed obstacles and hitting the edges. They quickly become the dreaded and hated parts of each track.

There's a sensation that the sides of the tracks seem covered in magnets, the nice side scraping from WipEout 2097/3 nowhere to be found; many races simply lead to ripping your ship apart as your are crushed against the sides, desperately trying to manoeuvre into the middle of the road. The horrible open area design truly highlights the lack of precise ship control, as if the physics engine is immediately broken in these sections. In generalm the controls feel extremely floaty and become evidently more so in the fast classes.

Secondly, it's all the small issues; the loops feel nothing like being on a roller coaster of any sort and are just visually bland to race through. The ship upgrading system is a meaningless affair, the controls areso floaty the upgrades mean nothing. The super sharp, air brake control from the old WipEout games are completely altered for a slower and much looser control scheme. Going straight from any of the PS1 WipEout games to this just immediately strikes you as a inferior controlled game with loose controls and odd physics.

The visuals, while far more detailed than before and running closely to 60fps, suffer from slowdowns and look muddy on a lot of the later and ugly designed track environments. All in all though, Fusion is ambitious in it's visuals, especially with it's huge draw distance and scale to tracks, but at what cost? Often I would encounter game breaking bugs too, like the ship falling through the track into oblivion or suddenly speeding off the track as it gains some weird momentum bug.

I could literally have bled disappointment way back in 2002 as the dark realisation quickly sank in; this WipEout was a broken mess of it's former self.

How is it to revisit now? Well let me just get it out of the way and say that it's as terrible as ever. If not worse. Even more apparent are WF's problems when compared to more refined control schemes through the years gone by and better performance in general among console games. The floaty ship handling and annoying track layouts bother me just as much. There's no nostalgic love covering over it's flaws either, and that's from a person who still loves playing the original WipEout trilogy to death on the PS1. Hell, even the less impressive Wipeout 64 offers far more fun, but Fusion? Fusion is just a mess and feels like someone tried to make a cheap WipEout game clone and failed miserably. It's definitely the one to skip if you plan on revisiting the entire series.

This might be a slight stretch; but I still believe Fusion is one of the main reasons the futuristic racing genre began it's downfall. It promised so much, it became a delayed development hell and held the dangerous torch of being best at what it did prior to it's release; ultimately revealing itself as a badly controlled, buggy and just broken sequel in general. It disappointed so many fans and for whatever reason, I can only imagine was too little playtime by reviewers back then, actually managed to get a bit of unworthy praise. Only Edge Magazine coming to mind as being the more sceptical one, and good thing that was; because this is WipEout's darkest hour and just plain bad.


Rating


★★


The expensive newcomer: Quantum Redshift



Platform tested: Microsoft Xbox
Release year: 2002


New to the console wars in the sixth generation was the Xbox console, filling the vacuum left by Sega as it's Dreamcast crashed and burned. Microsoft realised the popular futuristic racing demand of the late 90's and set off to create it's very own, expensively so, title. Though it would end up only being this one release, as it failed commercially, it's a forgotten title nowadays. Built by a newly hired team from many of the old WipEout series veterans, it set off to bring anti-gravity racing home to the Xbox as the better alternative to PS2's WipEout Fusion. Is it a hidden gem though?

I had never played QR previously, or heard of it for that matter, discovering it by accident on a Twitter post. As a huge fan of the genre I immediately bought a used copy to run on my Xbox 360, as it's backwards compatible with that console. It's a fairly easy title to get hold of on Ebay and a cheap one at that. Just look past it's horrendous box art though!

Much like WF, QR also offers a more wide track approach and boasts some great looking visuals that only the Xbox could deliver in it's generation; being the far more powerful console. It looks like a game built on a large budget graphically, while the overall artstyle, game layout, menus and racing ships lack a design flair that do the visual quality of the graphics justice. The game looks great and the tracks are spectacular, but the art design is bland.

So with it's wide tracks one could imagine we would be looking at WFs similar problems, but QR actually seems to succeed where WF did not. It's the one game of the four represented here that doesn't rely on airbrakes, but a standard brake button. That may sound like a negative, however for QR it actually helps the anti-gravity ships navigate the open tracks more easily and precise. It's nice to see the open approach actually work if the controls are right. The ships feel distinctly like their floating above the ground even with normal braking, giving it the right sensation of a anti-gravity racer.

As I mentioned, QR has some fantastic looking tracks, and it's visually where it perhaps takes the throne here. The textures on track surfaces are bump-mapped and look very impressive for their time. There's a lot of visual diversity for each track and the lighting is well done. Tracks range from dark and neon lit cities to orange clad sunsets in industrial areas. They're huge, often with multiple routes throughout.

Weapons are featured in QR too, being large energy balls in blue, yellow and red spread around each track to pick up. Blue gives energy to your front firing lasers, red energy lets you fire up to two heat seeking missiles. The yellow energy will power a temporary shield. It's a simple weapon system, that can offer you are large advantage if used right. However it feels a little sparse with only three types of pickups, and there's perhaps a tad too many energy orbs lying around to make any tactical use of them. Their design sadly have this early 2000's cheapness. I found the whole weapon system a bland and forgettable affair.

QR came out of the unknown for me and delivered a solid experience, in some areas it excels the competition. But the overall gameplay, especially the weaponry, and design is a little stale. It would have been nice to see a sequel fixing these issues, but as it stands it's just a generic game with nothing really standing out as remarkable or memorable. I do recommend people that like this genre to check QR out though, if only to see how they visually pushed the genre of the time and have a few hours of fun with. The faster racing classes, coupled with learning and obtaining a nice flow to racing around the pretty tracks, gave me at least a pleasurable adrenaline kick when playing it.

Rating


★★★

The classic old timer: F-Zero GX



Platform tested: Nintendo Gamecube
Release year: 2003


The latest release of the games I feature here is of course Nintendo's answer to the genre; a new F-Zero, titled GX. Built from the new software focused Sega, showcasing how fast Sega switched away from it's failed hardware attempt at the beginning of the six generation to being a software-only company delivering a ton of titles to both PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox.

GX boasts a solid and sharp 60fps, unlike the other games featured here. Running at high speed with impressively styled tracks. Visuals that finally gives an F-Zero game the edge to stand out. While it's not technically as advanced with textures and visual effects like QR, or as large scaled, it has a more well rounded graphical approach focusing on speed and an overall more consistent design. The environment detail is on the sparse side, feeling more like a backdrop to a floating track than actually being connected with it. This isn't half as bad as the previous F-Zero games, but it still separates the actual track from the backdrops. The design of the tracks however, is varied enough and look flashy when you're speeding along.

Right from the bat the controls are the least daunting of all the games mentioned here, instantly you realise there's a far more solid feel altogether. Combined with superior quality and stiffness of the GameCube analogue stick compared to PS2's cheap ones. You can move the stick quite a ways with a more weighty sensation to the racing craft. It's a nice break from the twitchy controls in the other games mentioned here. Don't get me wrong here though, the ships move super fast and sharp, but the controls feel solid and precise.

Much like XG3, F-Zero holds back the use of boost until one round has passed of the race. For me it's a strange decision. Perhaps it's meant to create a more stable race start and remove some of the randomness that occurs in WF and QR as weapons are fired immediately. Removing any advantages in the first lap helps avoiding running into a terrible accident that puts you in an unfair disadvantage right from the very first seconds of a race.

FZGX has in fact no weapons, much like the SNES original, though it has a ramming move which was introduced in FZX on the N64. I mostly used my shield energy for boost personally and never really utilised the ramming. Boost can be restocked at certain refuelling strips lighting up in neon pink strips along each course. The strategy, much like how XG3 and the third WipEout game on PS1 did; lies in utilising the energy at the right moments to gain speed ahead of your opponents. Using it too much puts you in a dangerous position of emptying your shield and exploding when rammed by competitors or crashing into the track's sides.

There are negative issues in FZGX too though, the difficulty level is insane. I only managed to even complete the lowest Grand Prix types, never mind the story mode which was just impossible in my opinion. It's beyond the point of entertaining and challenging difficult, it's just dialled too high. The extremely high number of vehicles on track is somewhat questionable at times too. 40 racers seems like a over-crowded number, especially when failing to get anything but 1, 2 or 3 place just seem pointless as you badly need the points to win the Grand Prix in total.

All in all, F-Zero GX is probably the best game of the four here, the solid ship feeling and the precise controls combined with fast and pretty visuals make the game stand out as the one with the most polish. While the brutal difficulty really pulls down most players from enjoying all it's features, the amount of modes and content should keep you coming back. I just wish I could play it with a super easy setting!


Rating


★★★★

Summary


I'm kind of glad that F-Zero GX became that last major release of futuristic racers in the main waves of the craze, it's deserving of it's praise and makes the genre go out with a fairly large bang. While I may not quite understand the huge hype GX has since recieved, it's still a solid title.

We have later seen efforts of games like Konami's mediocre Fatal Inertia and the attempt at return to 90's glory with the PSP wipEout games and wipEout HD, Fury and 2048 of more recent years. Though, I find they've all belonged more in a more niché market, with only the latest wipEout releases making any sales impact worth noticing and even then it's nothing spectacular. The glory days  of futuristic racers being on top is well and truly over.

I'd recommend going back and checking out some of these games out if the genre interests you, they're all fairly common games to find for a low price. F-Zero GX is the best one to check out, it'll run on a Gamecube or the first Wii model. if you really want to see it shine though, you could always check it out in Dolphin emulator for a PC, running it at high resolution to really bring out it's best side!

Until a futuristic racer ones again thrones the top of the charts; have fun playing the good old ones!

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