I Feel The Need
Ballistics is the latest addition to the high octane futuristic racing genre, and it is not a subtle game. It's all about raw, unadulterated speed, and holding your finger on the accelerator until the screen becomes one vast motion blur. It's a game that makes Wipeout look like Driving Miss Daisy. Astride your precarious looking hoverbike you will reach the kind of speeds which are normally reserved for astronauts and fighter pilots, thanks to an ingenious system of winding magnetic tubes which act as race tracks. Most of the time you will be locked to the inner surface of the tube with your finger glued to the acceleration key, able to swing left and right to position your bike on the wall and .. that's about it really. There are no brakes; brakes are for wimps. Instead you have a cooling system strapped to your supercharged engine which slows you down a bit whenever you use it. Your engine temperature slowly rises as you speed along and run into things, with a display box in the bottom left corner of the screen indicating how hot things are getting under the hood, eventually flashing warning lights at you if the bike gets too warm for comfort. If you push too hard and then hit something your engine may explode entirely, putting you out of the race, so it pays to keep an eye on the cooling situation.
Use The Force
You can also detach yourself from the wall of the tube, although this slows you down to a crawl. The one real use for detaching is to grab the power-ups which appear floating in the middle of the tube at certain points, as these can improve your turbo boost or cooling systems, or simply provide you with a nice juicy cash bonus at the end of the race. Bonus strips are also scattered liberally along the length and circumference of the track, coming in blue and yellow varieties. Riding over blue ones will cool your engine without slowing you down, while yellow ones provide you with several seconds worth of turbo power, allowing you to accelerate rapidly to supersonic speeds, assuming you don't hit something first. Lap times and maximum speeds are stored in a good old fashioned high score table, and my personal land speed record currently stands at a mind-blowing 1625mph, more than twice the speed of sound. No doubt you can go much faster with practice. It's not all plain sailing though. There are obstacles to watch out for, mostly consisting of nasty looking red spikes that knock you off the magnetic surface of the tube and giant metal crosses that straddle the track and can bring your bike to an abrupt halt if you hit them. Some tracks also include walls which sprout from the sides of the tube and block off part of the surface, and laser beams which slow down anything passing through them. All of this makes races fast and furious. Travelling at over 300mph even without your turbo, avoiding obstacles is more a matter of instinct than reactions, and you will need to memorise every twist and turn of the tracks to beat the game on its hardest setting.
Don't Blink Or You'll Miss It
There are only seven tracks for you to master, and although they are each several miles long you will be averaging over 400mph by the end of the game, bringing lap times down to under a minute. On the bright side there is plenty of variety amongst this scant selection, and once you have unlocked a track you can race on it in any of three difficulty modes. At first you have access to a handful of tracks in Rookie mode, which lulls you into a false sense of security by making it almost impossible for you to come unstuck from the inside of the tube, and rapidly latching you back on again automatically if you do hit something hard enough to dislodge your bike. Once you have won the Rookie championship you can progress to the Pro mode, which unlocks a couple more tracks and forces you to reattach yourself manually if you lose contact with the tube. This is perhaps the most enjoyable of the three modes, with a good balance of speed and challenge. Finally there is the Ballistics mode, which is downright insane. The slightest collision will leave you flailing around desperately trying to fix yourself back on to the magnetic track, and the other riders seem to travel with their fingers permanently clutching the turbo boost button. Throughout these championships you will earn yourself valuable dollars which can then be spent in the shop on upgrades for your bike. New engines, cooling systems, noses and even seats can be bought, all effecting the performance of your bike. It's not just a case of buying the best one you can afford either - several stats govern how your bike handles in a race, ranging from obvious things like top speed and acceleration to mass and heat output. Getting the fastest bike money can buy may result in a vehicle that gently boils its rider over the course of a race and breaks up into little pieces when you breath on it, and you will need to find the right balance to match your playing style.
Although every track is basically a long contorted tube, the walls are highly detailed and beautifully textured, while occasional transparent sections give you glimpses of spectacular scenery flashing past outside. Settings vary from the jungles of Belize to the icy wastelands of Siberia, along with futuristic cities and stunning canyons. The result is gorgeous, but not quite perfect. Some of the tracks suffer from scenery pop-up in the far distance, which is common enough in racing games. In Ballistics though the sheer speed at which you are travelling means that most of the time you will be focusing on the horizon, looking as far down the track as possible to give yourself more time to avoid any obstacles. Sadly this means that any pop-up is more distracting than it would normally be, especially when you are looping the loop and the track has a disconcerting habit of appearing out of thin air above your head. The game could really have afforded to sacrifice some of the stunning detail, which you can barely notice when you're travelling at twice the speed of sound, to increase the draw distance. You will also need a powerful PC to get the most out of the game, and if you don't have enough memory you may experience some stuttering as data is pulled from the hard drive half way through a race. While the graphics are generally very good, multiplayer support is a little disappointing. The network code is rock solid and works amazingly well given the high speeds involved, even over a 56k modem, but there is no in-game server browser or lobby system. Instead you are reduced to hunting for opponents on messageboards and IRC channels, firing up the game and then typing in the server's IP address by hand. This might have been acceptable five years ago, but today it's a bit primitive.
Ballistics is probably the fastest motor racing game ever made, and also one of the best looking. It's more about lightning reactions and blind faith than finesse though, and you will rarely take your finger off the accelerator. It can be frustrating at times, with obstacles appearing in front of you faster than you can react, but when you get "in the zone" and find yourself flashing around a track at twice the speed of sound with the game's pumping electronic soundtrack ringing in your ears, the sheer adrenaline rush is unbeatable.