I’m kind of glad that even though the XGRA series is still around (it started on the N64 and has touched most platforms over the last few years), it doesn’t get the Madden treatment, with obligatory yearly releases even if there’s really no new content. The problem is that there apparently isn’t much you can do with this franchise, as its core game play has changed very little over the years.
The basic concept is to take the style of the original Wipeout, a PSone launch title that impressed at the time, and replace the hovercrafts with supercharged motorcycles. The bikes certainly look good and have more tangible physics than the cool-but-floaty hovercrafts. It’s just that this and loop-de-loops are basically the only differences.
In XGRA, you are pitted against a field of seven other racers in a race of speed and survival on some of the craziest track designs you’ll ever see. If nothing else, XGRA gets major props for having some cool tracks, set everywhere from Earth to outer space. Weather effects, time of day, and the other racers will all make your task of getting around the track that much more difficult. The visual effects are impressive and do their job. Dust storms blinded me just enough in the game that I caught myself squinting in real life. Rain pours down in sheets and affects bike handling to some degree. The other racers will throw any weapons they have at you and each other in the hopes of taking the checkered flag ? and perhaps achieving a secondary race-specific goal?more on that in a minute. It all looks good?when you can actually see it, that is.
One of the biggest problems of the track designs is also one of its greatest strengths ? drastic changes in altitude. Peaking a hill and shooting hundreds of feet down a sheer cliff face at 700mph feels pretty cool, but it’s often short-lived, for when the track levels off at the bottom of the drop, there’s no way to see what’s more than two feet in front of your rims. This also happens going uphill and into tight turns. Some of the S-curve segments feel more like ping pong as you careen out of control from one trackside barrier to the other, hoping that maybe in your reckless abandon you’ll collide with some other racers and slow them down. This is another problem in itself ? hitting the wall and other racers doesn’t really slow you (or them) down; it just depletes your shield a little. While I remembered hating the mail-hook effect from the Wipeout games, where if you even scrape the track barrier you grind to a halt, this no-speed-lost approach taken in XGRA seems like it was only designed to keep you from noticing how irritating it is when you can’t see where you’re going.
The problem further debilitates any sense of skill in that not only does it always point you in the right direction, you can drive terribly and still win most of the time. Just hold down the gas and go more or less in a straight line and you should finish adequately enough advancing in the game. The handling is sometimes so sensitive that you can’t help but T-bone a wall you were just running parallel to with just a minor nudge to one side or another. There was a lot of potential here, and the feel of rocketing down the road on a crotch-rocket can be awesome (as demonstrated in Midnight Club II), but it just didn’t capitalize here.
Many of the weapons in the game aren’t terribly original, especially when compared to earlier XG games, but they do the job. The way in which you access them is pretty cool, though. Instead of having to aim for specific icons on the track or hoping you get what you want from a random power-up panel on the track, you simply pick up scattered green orbs. Each one moves the selector up a notch in your on-board weapons inventory, which also expands as you win more races. Pick up one orb and you can use the Vampyr weapon to replenish your shields by leeching off other racers’ energy supplies. Do nothing and pick up another orb and you gain access to Mines that will obliterate anyone behind you foolish enough to hit them, and at several hundred miles per hour, it can be hard to dodge. Keep picking up orbs without using them and you reach more powerful weapons. Even if you accidentally select the wrong weapon or pick up too many orbs, just hit the Dump Weapon button to go back one click. Nice job on the weapon selection!
Another nice feature that keeps the game from getting dull is that in addition to winning the race, you’re often given another objective for that particular race, like destroy X-number of trackside signs, beat X-number of other racers, set a new lap record, reach a certain top speed, destroy a particular racer, and so on. It adds some variety and is one of the redeeming qualities of the game.
The game’s sound averages out. There are no real low points in the audio department, and no high points. In the Options Menu, you can select Rock, Dance, or a mix of the two for a soundtrack. The announcers have scripted things to say about each track before the race (that you can skip), in which the voice acting is okay, but some of their jokes are a little lame. The other racers will taunt you throughout the race, including a pop-up window showing the face of the racer in question. However, it’s hard to know who’s who as you approach breaking the sound barrier. You just know somebody’s talking smack to you. The rest of the sound effects are a pretty good mix and rate above average overall. Some things are particularly cool, like when racing on and off of an asteroid orbiting Saturn, everything but the music will fade out as you leave the atmosphere of the asteroid and suck vacuum. Overall, the soundtrack isn’t very memorable, but the other effects are pretty good, if not as good as the visuals and other aesthetic elements.
Each bike can also be customized to handle differently depending on factors like downforce, brake bias, and ride height. In the end, though, I found one setting that seemed to work pretty well all the time and stuck with it, meaning I never saw this screen again. These settings do affect how the bike handles and feels on the track, and it can be disorienting if you mess with it too often or too much.
The arcade race options are fairly decent, allowing you to play up to two players (but no online play, sadly), choose the number of rivals (up to 7), determine weather and time of day, race type (Extreme Weather, Burn Off, Speed Limited), and class. At the end of the day, though, there’s not much else to do besides beat the opposition. A Chase or Tag type game would be cool, as well as a multiplayer Season mode or four-player split screen. As it is, it’s pretty straightforward, so once you’re good enough to beat the bots and all your friends on every track, there’s not much to do. Unlockables in the game consist of concept art for the characters, tracks, and other “additional” art. If you’re into that sort of thing, go for it. I’m not, so it doesn’t compel me to play the game any more or less.
This point needs to stand on its own. I don’t know why, but seemingly at random I encountered some horrendous slowdown. It wasn’t always in the same places, so it’s still a mystery to me what caused it and when to expect it. Just be warned. The game mostly moves at a breakneck pace that’s too fast to control skillfully, but there are some instances of severe slowdown.
All in all, this game sticks tightly to the established futuristic racing formula. If you dig that, or if you enjoyed previous games in the XG series, this game’s for you. However, aside from the unique weapons system, interesting track designs, and sci-fi atmosphere, it’s hard to recommend this game to racing fans over anything in the Burnout, Midnight Club, or Need for Speed series, largely due to the awkward control and camera. Those issues have plagued the series before, and while I hate to see the developers flatten out the tracks, something has to be done with this series to make the player feel more skilled and less clumsy.