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Monday, May 12, 2008

Game Review: Speed Racer

Alas! A movie license game that is recommendable to all!

It may be time to surrender the old cliché that movie license games would never be good away. Thanks to developers who have finally woken up to the idea of actually putting in effort in producing a movie tie-in rather than hiring some pubescent adolescents from a game development beginner’s class and shoving them up to the developmental seats, we have here a movie-based game that is very much enjoyable. For gamers who have been taking umbrage at the offensively bad movie tie-ins in recent years, Speed Racer will come as a relief. This may yet be a positive sign that more quality movie license games are to come.

At first glance, Speed Racer may come across as another oh-so-terrible Hot Wheels: Beat That!, what with its various preposterously colorful tracks, environs donned in equally blinding colors and somewhat ‘cheap plasticky feel’ of the vehicles. However, the game is anything but. In Speed Racer, you have a game that not only captures the atmosphere and intensity of the film, but also one that implements refreshing game mechanics of its own to shake things up.

The most cardinal rule to producing a good racer is to have tracks that are in equal parts creative and challenging. Speed Racer nails that hands down, sporting a rooster that boasts a respectable mix of tracks from 7 environments, each with their own eclectic range of unpredictable elements that range from ramps that launch your vehicles into death-defying jumps to corkscrews and vertical loops. Coupled with a healthy mélange of straight paths, smooth turns and sharp turns (the drift function ain’t there for nothing!), Speed Racer has inarguably some of the best designed tracks in any racer. What fun are these tracks if they aren’t accompanied by vehicles that cannot take advantage of them?

In comes vehicle acrobatics, a new term which Speed Racer may have inadvertently introduced. For a game that is supposed to represent a film and possibly the entire franchise that is famed for its exhilarating vehicle crashes and tricks, Speed Racer certainly stays true to its roots. While engaged in racing, you can pull off any of the vehicle acrobatics with amazing ease, ranging from car-fu, spin attacks, “zone hits” to flip jumps. Car-fu, or car kungfu (no pun intended), can be activated when you near your opponent and hit the B button, after which a mini-game occurs. If you win that mini-game, you will land a jump on your opponent and cripple him or her momentarily. Or when your vehicle is next to your opponent’s, a spin attack would do the job. No fancy missiles or lasers, or power-ups, but I have to admit that being able to battle your opponents away in the midst of a race is incredibly fun and satisfying. Performing flip jumps and turns has never been easier thanks to the ramps and corkscrews on each track. But instead of performing such tricks for the sake of performing them, the game rewards you with opportunities to fill your boost bar. Activating a full boost bar will see you entering a “zone” temporarily, where your vehicle becomes faster and invincible, crippling any opponent that you hit while engaged in a “zone”. In fact, there is never a dull moment in a race and that it is one of the most salient features in the game.

The fantastic car acrobatics are further complemented by the A.I. in this game. You start out with Easy and Medium modes available, but complete either of these modes and you would be able to unlock Hard mode. That is when the real challenge comes in. The A.I. is clever – and I mean really clever. Think you are the only one who can perform car-fu in the game? That is definitely not true as the A.I. would constantly harass you aggressively by launching car-fus on you at every chance it has got. As if that is not bad enough, the A.I. would also not hesitate to spin attack you. What this means is a tight race on every track and an equally thrilling nail-biting finish each time. Don’t be surprised too if an opponent’s car pulls away from yours gradually in a race or if an opponent catches up with you even after you have activated your boost earlier for a few good seconds and distanced away from the competition. No, it’s not cheap A.I. at work, but rather, the realistic car statistics, which are making sure logic counts in this game. Each vehicle does have distinct performance differences and it is commendable that the developer has actually put that into consideration.

The game isn’t perfect, though. The biggest culprit is the WRL mode, which is your typical career mode in any racer. The WRL mode consists of many cups that would be unlocked progressively. As you progress, you can be forgiven for thinking that there are more new tracks to be unlocked as you win more cups. Well, if only that was true, but no, you get a severe repetition of tracks as you unlock more cups – the tracks get repeated over and over – and over again as you progress through the WRL mode. That is the truth, a disturbing one no less, and one that suppresses any interest in continuing with the game if not for the extra unlockable vehicles and designs. Fortunately, 3 new modes, namely the Time Attack mode, Stunts mode and Battle mode would be unlocked as well after you complete the WRL mode and these help in providing enough incentives to pull through it.

Final Comments
Move over, movie license games rebels! Speed Racer is entertaining and this fact alone makes it easy enough for the game to be recommended to all DS owners. The game offers easily some the best designed tracks in any racer, which is only impeded by their severe repetition in WRL mode. That is not to say there isn’t enough variety of tracks because there is – 19 tracks in total, but perhaps the WRL mode is just too long for its own good. While the game doesn’t have any power-ups or weapons that have upped the fun factor in some of the DS racing games like Mario Kart DS and Diddy Kong Racing DS, Speed Racer has an answer to that in what I will call ‘vehicle acrobatics’, which includes both the ability to perform tricks and attack opponents via various fancy car jumps and spins. Hard mode arms itself with an intelligent A.I. that will push you to the limit in every race and the game ensures that the individual vehicle statistics aren’t there for nothing. I have some minor gripes, though. The outdated interface feels amateurish, the music is forgettable at best, and there is only local wireless play for multiplayer, but these quirks don’t derail the experience of the game.

TOTAL SCORE: 8.6/10

The Good:
- Fantastic track designs
- Performing tricks with your vehicles
- Hey, I can attack opponents!
- The A.I. in hard mode is exceptionally good, providing a nail-biting experience for each race
- The individual vehicle statistics aren’t there for nothing!
- Unlockable modes, vehicles and vehicle designs

The Bad:
- Severe repetition of tracks in WRL mode
- Amateurish, outdated interface
- Forgettable music
- Only local wireless play for multiplayer

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