Xenon Racer Review
As a young lad I spent almost every Saturday down at the local arcades. Growing up in the nineties, if you wanted to witness the cutting edge in gaming this was the place to be. As a racing fan, I remember watching classics such as Virtua Racer and Daytona USA hit the arcades and have queues of people waiting to play them. One of the most popular games was NAMCO’s Ridge Racer. Something about its sense of speed and flow as your car drifted around this beautiful seaside city was, at the time, something to behold. So when I first laid eyes on Xenon Racer, memories of these halcyon days came flooding back.
At almost every turn you can feel the influences, from the drift-centric handling model to the crazy tracks and the commentator who occasionally quips in and reminds you that it’s the last lap. Hearing those words back in the arcade signalled two things: one was that your go was almost over and the second was that, in front of all your mates, you were cool because you were skilful enough to complete the race. Unfortunately for Xenon Racer, after the excitement and thrill of the first races had passed, it was a sound of relief.
It took a good number of races to figure out why because, in a way, we were having fun. It suddenly dawned on us though that, in reality, the races and tracks all merge into one. Visually they're different, with the forest-clad roads of Canada looking distinct from the tech-laden streets of Tokyo. Mechanically though they all seem to follow a familiar pattern of gentle corners followed by dramatic right-angled turns. The latter became seemingly more prevalent as we moved up through the divisions in the Xenon Racing Championship as a quick way to make things tougher. It feels lazy, and worse still, after a couple of laps to get your eye in they stop presenting much of a challenge.
That's not to say Xenon Racer isn't good, but it's not great either. What it does get right in its homage to Ridge Racer is the handling. Each of the rather crazy yet gorgeous looking cars handles differently with a satisfying weight to them. Some are great at drifting the corners but lack punch in a straight line and are easy to drift too much and lose speed. Others drift like boats requiring you to judge upcoming corners quickly and turn in far earlier than others. Like with Ridge Racer there's a sense of satisfaction when you pull off a drift that makes a complex set of turns look easy. Drifting in Xenon Racer also charges your car’s boost system, so if you want to beat the woefully erratic AI then you’ll need to find the right balance between drifting and straight up racing. There are boost pads around the circuits but some are so far off the racing line you’re better off drifting for boost more than anything else.
As you start to progress through the Xenon Racing Championship unlocking cars and upgrades as you go, you start to notice just how sparse the offerings are insofar as tracks are concerned. At the moment there are six countries — USA, France, Canada, Dubai, China and Japan — and they only have variations of the same track, with the exception of the USA which has two track locations in Miami and Boston respectively. Slowly but surely the Championship becomes a grind as you see the same tracks and locations again and again with additional crazy turns being the only difference in a bid to keep things fresh.
The same can't be said for Xenon Racer's car customisation options. With the ability to change the colour of almost everything, you can easily lose yourself in an attempt to create the most affronting and garish racing car possible. It's almost its own mini-game and some of the creations we came up with ranged from vomit-inducing to something so bright we're fairly sure some of the crashes we witnessed were a direct cause of our dayglow pink paint job distracting the AI. You can also change some of the aero parts on each vehicle once you've unlocked them which can turn an undriftable boat into the car equivalent of a ballet dancer.
Unfortunately, the act of unlocking parts isn't limited to the Xenon Racing Championship. Normally this wouldn't be a problem and often is a great way to encourage players to explore and complete other aspects of a game. However, finding anyone around to play and complete the online portion of Xenon Racer is nigh impossible unless you can convince some of your friends to join in. This is all down to the fact that online races are self-hosted so unless someone has created a lobby there's no way to play an online game. We tried creating our own but no matter how long we waited no-one cared to join us. There is local split-screen thankfully, as well as time attack modes along with a free-play option allowing you to hone your skills should you find a certain track layout tricky.
There are other little niggles too that hold back Xenon Racer from being the fun and frenetic game it wants to be. Chief among them is a damage system that seems to be overly harsh considering some of the tracks you meet later on. It's almost impossible to go an entire race without hitting something whether it be an AI racer or a wall. The latter, once hit, sucks you in and it can be very difficult to break free and so your damage ramps up exponentially as you wallride your way to freedom. Generally, at this point, it's rarely worth continuing as once you've taken 100% damage your car is reset and you lose a heap of time to the cars behind. With most races lasting only two to three laps, the time lost is often insurmountable therefore making it quicker to restart rather than plodding on.
The mini-map is another area that could do with some work. Learning a new layout or course isn't easy and usually the mini-map is a saving grace that can help you judge upcoming corners. Unfortunately, in Xenon Racer, it doesn't do a good job of relaying the type of upcoming corner. We lost count of the number of times we thought we were about to hit a must-drift corner only to find it could be taken flat out and therefore we lost time and speed. Other times it looked like a gentle curve only to turn into a dramatic right-angled turn which, because we hadn't initiated a drift, saw us plough into the wall and take a lot of damage.
Xenon Racer has a decent amount of potential and there is a roadmap that looks to add seven courses by the end of July. This could potentially solve the problem of track variation but there’s more to resolve here than just a lack of tracks. The lack of any meaningful online play and a single-player campaign that feels like a slog really takes the shine off a game that could be a lot more fun. Whilst the buttery smooth visuals and crazy looking cars pay a wonderful homage to Ridge Racer the tracks and the game itself lack the graceful ebb and flow that made its spiritual forebear such fun to play.
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