It must be difficult trying to create a futuristic racing game. You’re always going to be facing two main problems. First of all, the fact that the majority of gamers prefer to race a Fiat Punto around the streets of Tokyo than a turbo powered rocket sled around a made up track. Secondly, for those who do enjoy futuristic racing games, they are always going to be comparing your product to the two genre leaders, Wipeout on the Sony systems and F-Zero on Nintendo’s consoles.
So it is to the credit of Acclaim that with XGRA (or X-Treme Gravity Racing Association to give it its full and rather unwieldy title), they have managed to create a game that is different enough not to be simply dismissed as a Wipeout clone, while still containing all the elements needed to appeal to fans of the genre. The X-Treme series does have some history prior to this game, but the fact I had never heard of any of the prior titles is probably a good indication of the mountain they have to climb to get into the popular consciousness in the same way the big two have.
XGRA takes place in a dystopian future. Instead of hovering rocket sleds, you are firmly stuck to the track on a low slung, high-speed motorcycle. Your job is to join a team, pick a lowly bike and gradually make your way though a career mode, winning new bikes as you win the races. Although you have to win races to qualify, you also get secondary goals to complete, such as shooting certain targets as you race.
The racing takes place across roller coaster type tracks with various powerups to collect. These either boost your bike’s protective shielding or give you temporary access to better weaponry. Using a standard machine gun, mines, rockets and the like you can blast away at your opponents in a bid to slow them down as you frantically speed around the track. As well as Career mode, there are also the usual Time Trial, Multiplayer and Arcade modes to pick from and these do exactly what they say on the tin. As with most games, progression in the main career mode unlocks more tracks and bikes in the other modes.
Approached to review this game – one that sits in a genre I am not usually very interested in – I decided that a fair way to assess the game would be to canvas opinions from my fellow gamers while I tried out the multi-player mode. Hearing that I was reviewing the game, they offered up assessments as we played and we formed an impromptu “review panel” of four people all in our mid to late twenties, two of whom were Wipeout fans, two of whom (including myself!) were not. This is what we came up with:
Things That Are Great About XGRA: The graphics impressed us hardened cynics very much. Slick and crisp, the draw distance is superb, with no scenery suddenly popping up out of nowhere. Lighting effects are well executed with lovely touches such as the way machine gun fire whips past you with purplish trails really adding to the atmosphere. The tracks are also well designed, with the darkly grim future earth giving the game a unified feel.
There is also a nice variety of tracks on offer from a simple rectangular track with which to get to grips with the controls on, to a marvellous track suspended in space which is like racing around a giant corkscrew. The display as you race is also simple and uncluttered; the R1 button is used to accelerate with the fascia buttons used to control the weapons and shields etc. Switching from primary to secondary weapons is easily done and at no point do you find yourself distracted from steering to do this. Good stuff.
The game has an amusing sense of humour with the flypasts at the start of each race giving some history on the tracks and the racing Association’s history. A chirpy commentator explains what hideous environmental disaster caused this track to come about and the whole event is played out as if it is being televised. You can also allow incoming taunts from the AI racers to flicker up on screen as they whiz past mocking your pathetic ability.
The fact that the vehicles are bikes means they don’t swoop and spin in quite the same way as the hover vehicles of other games. The weapons are also fairly subdued certainly until you have made some progression into career mode. For those of us who find the ridiculous speed of Wipeout et al to be nausea inducing and who become frustrated at a race lost at the last minute by a getting a nuclear warhead up the jacksie, this was rather refreshing and made the game a much more enjoyable experience.
Things That Are Not So Great About XGRA: The dark and gritty nature of the game setting does become a bit samey after a while and some more vibrant colours might not have gone amiss. The bikes themselves are all rather similar to look at and handle likewise. Even after some radical upgrades you never feel like you have made a great leap forward, which hurts the appeal of Career Mode somewhat. The rather dull brown bikes on offer in the beginning are also disappointing; a greater variety from the start especially in Arcade and multiplayer would have been nicer.
The soundtrack was also a letdown. On the menu screens you can pick a Rock or Dance orientated soundtrack, but the rather generic tunes don’t enhance the feel of the action in the same way the Prodigy or Orbital made Wipeout so distinctive. The dance selection is definitely superior, and I thought I recognised some tracks, though while I was play-testing it with the reviewer panel, there was so much shouting and taunting going on it was pretty hard to hear anything over it! The slower speed of the racing, while appealing to half of us, was criticised by those who were fans of Wipeout. They were also the ones who also lamented the lack of turbo-bastard weaponry available from the start.
The single player mode also failed to grip, the limited customisation of bikes on offer and the repetitiveness (which in fairness is a complaint that can be levelled at a lot of Career Modes in a lot of games), meant that it quickly became a chore to play through. The fact that you have spend quite a while on a really poor browny white bike with no weapons to speak of hurts it. Although after a while you can spiff your bike up and add much nastier guns etc many people may have lost interest by then.
So that was the result of the reviewers panel. We found the game to be above average, but lacking that certain “something” that would have pushed it into the higher echelons of marking. The biggest difference of opinion came between those who find Wipeout to be virtually unplayable and enjoyed the tighter and more controlled racing of XGRA and those who preferred the high octane, all guns blazing approach. I am afraid that for the makers of XGRA, it is the latter types who are likely to be drawn to this game in the first place.
We all did agree that it really came alive in multiplayer, which is two-player only. The Wipeout fans also conceded that it was a much more beginner friendly to the inexperienced wannabe future-racer, with the AI less inclined to lap you twice on your first few outings and to grind your face into the dust as you begin on your XGRA career.
So XGRA is easy on the eye, quick to get into, fun for a quick blast in Arcade Mode and in multiplayer, but lacks the depth needed to keep you glued to single-player for weeks on end. For good or bad, it offers enough that is different from the “W-word”, to make it worth checking out for fans and interested casual gamers a like. The PS2 version (of which this a review of) certainly deserves to do well. Personally I enjoyed it much more than the vastly overrated Wipeout games. But with the massively hyped Nintendo’s F-Zero X just out and Wipeout available on a budget, I fear this is one game that will end up unjustly sidelined. A real pity.