It used to be Sega’s remit to regularly provide us with ridiculously shiny cars flying around tracks basking in the sunlight streaming out of an azure blue sky, but those days seem to be long behind us. In that vacuum a few other developers have seen their chance, and Soedesco’s futuristic Xenon Racer is the latest. For all that it might seem like a forgotten Dreamcast title, it owes as much to Namco’s Ridge Racer as anything else, but no matter where its inspirations lie, it’s fair to say that it’s more old school than Will Ferrell.
The XRC Hybrid Prototype Tournament takes place in 2030 and serves as an interim year between what has gone before and the introduction of magnetic levitation vehicles in 2031. So it’s basically what’ll happen to F1 when we find out Wipeout is coming. As is tradition in arcade racers, you’ll be taking in tracks in Japan, Canada, UAE, America and Europe as you attempt to take home the trophy in your exceedingly shiny vehicle. Perhaps the most surprising thing really is how little is made of the future setting, as you could well believe that the majority of the tracks exist in the here and now. So could the racing itself, really.
Racing is straightforward, with an ERS turbo system being charged by drifting through corners or by passing over the limited recharge points around the tracks. You can hold up to three boosts in reserve, and once you activate one you can start earning back the energy straight away if you can control a drift at top speed.
Beyond your standard racing controls, the main thing you need to know is that, as in Ridge Racer, a tap of the brakes sees you enter a controlled drift. There is a damage meter in the bottom left hand corner, but there’s little here to worry about which is pretty refreshing in the future racing stakes. There aren’t many arcade racing games that let the game itself do the talking, but while Xenon Racer certainly has some positives going for it, they’re caught up in what is otherwise something of a mess.
The cars handle more like boats, for one thing, and wide unwieldy ones at that. You’ll probably find yourself crashing into the side of the tracks pretty often, though if it’s any consolation you’ll watch the computer do the same thing, which speaks volumes to the standard of the game’s AI. Those crashes mean that you’ll suddenly find that the damage meter is incredibly important, and you can forget winning any races if you’ve had to reset even once. The track design seems to favour multiple corners as well, which when your cars struggle to take even a single corner seems like a pretty major problem.
Winning races unlocks new customisation options for your cars, but it doesn’t give you any indication as to what category they’re for, forcing you to scroll through each of the sections in the hope that you might recognise a new option for the Middle Wing or something. It’s crazy how little thought seems to have gone into it – I mean, a yellow exclamation mark isn’t too much to ask for is it?
Once you’ve upgraded your car you might hope to recognise all the changes that have been made, but since the difficulty is so hit and miss, you probably won’t be able to tell. You’ll still lose a race by a ridiculous amount while doing nothing wrong, or drive flawlessly with someone overtaking you on the final lap after you’ve had a huge lead.
That inconsistency extends to everything within the central tournament mode. There are races early in the campaign tree that you literally can’t win without a more powerful car, and while we’ve undoubtedly seen that in racing games before, not generally in the sixth race. It soon tasks you with coming first to advance in every race, but even dropping the difficulty down to easy I found myself struggling to make it to the head of the pack.
It literally took me two hours to get past the fourth tier of races on easy difficulty, which in itself is only seven races into the tournament. It feels as though it’s not even worth trying to use any car that has a lower handling rating – they’re virtually impossible to get around the track while maintaining any sort of speed. The difficulty is off the charts for an arcade racer, and thanks to that it soon stops being fun. I’ve just reviewed Dirt Rally 2.0, and that was easier.
It’s a shame, not least because once you get used to the heavier handling and the balance between drifting and boosting there’s flashes of a really good racing game here. The visuals evoke that arcade racing vibe extremely well, and the cars themselves look very cool with plenty of different paint options to make them truly your own. The performance at 60fps is also rock solid – on PS4 Pro at least – which given how good it looks is quite the achievement for a smaller studio. It also sounds like a racing game, with decent engine sounds, an enthusiastic announcer and pumping dance tracks that frame the action to good effect. There’s actually a few truly great songs as well, like FWLR’s How We Win, though sadly there’s no way of creating a custom playlist from the ones available.
It’s not short on content either, and besides the ridiculously challenging championship mode you’ll find single race and time trial options, as well as a very welcome split-screen offering for two players which at least lets you can race against a friend on a level playing field. Online lets you set up a lobby, queue a selection of races up, etc., but they’re reliant on your progression through the championship as to how many you’ve unlocked, which could neuter any plans of just taking the game online. Unfortunately, a couple of days after launch, nobody is available to race against anyway.