Gentlemen, start your rockets!
Are PC gamers forever destined to be shut away in their dingy corners playing RPG's and first-person shooters for the rest of gaming eternity? Time after time it has been proven that the PC doesn't really stand out as a bastion of varied thrills, despite the hapless efforts of many (I'm still trying to recover from Toon Car). Arcade racers on the home computer, especially, haven't exactly been known to push the envelope in terms of innovation, production values or, indeed, gameplay quality, not since Wipeout and its sibling arrived on the scene anyway. French developers Kalisto have set out to redress the balance with their Fifth Element-inspired racer, New York Race. It's important to take note of that word "inspired". Kalisto have taken the first few minutes of the film and managed to expand that into an entire game, which is quite a feat when you think about it, however this is where the similarities end. NY Race takes the form of a standard-fare futuristic racing game, and the options on offer from the start indicate that the game is disappointingly shallow. You can choose from championship, single race, multiplayer or time attack modes, all of which are pretty self-explanatory. The core of the game lies in the championship mode, and when you start out only the beginner portion of the game is unlocked for playing, along with one vehicle. This seemed like a rather steep level of limitation for a new player, forcing you to compete in the championship before you can enjoy the luxury of driving a decent vehicle on an interesting course. First impressions aren't terribly promising, as you slouch around the track in last place, bouncing off the walls of buildings and tunnels and wonder why everyone else is moving twice as fast as you. Eventually, however, you begin to get to grips with the nuances of controlling your free-floating car; you have the ability to strafe in all directions, as well as perform speed-building nose-dives and powerslide around sharp corners. The unpredictable nature of many of the tracks demand that you make the most of your control set, as opposed to holding down "accelerate" and turning every once in a while. Aiding in your progress during your races are the obligatory powerups of varying types, including fireballs to shoot up the behinds of your competitors, and huge blobs of weird glue stuff to slow down hapless tailgaters. The handling of your vehicle soon becomes second nature, and it's then that you can begin to appreciate the impressive amount of attention applied to the racing environments.
Just A Pretty Face?
While a little too cartoon-like to draw comparisons with the visual stylisation of the movie, New York Race is nonetheless graphically splendid, and occasionally you really do get the feeling of swooping around a bustling, future city in a cool Back To The Future 2 stylee. Weaving in and out of skyscrapers, through railway tunnels, through an aquarium and even an amusement park, you rarely get the chance to stop and take in your surroundings, but there's always something going on. Cargo trains whir along their spaghetti-junction track networks, lanes of traffic obstruct your progression and honk their horns as you hurtle past, and lifts and pedestrian walkways seem to do their best to jump in your path. This all adds up to an experience that is surprisingly exhilarating, though slightly frustrating on occasion. Your success in a race can be startlingly random, and it's here that the game falters quite badly. If you mess up the method of getting a boost when the race begins, for example, you may as well press escape there and then, since the opponents never get it wrong. Ever. Even if you do manage fairly well for your first lap or so, if you hit one single obstacle you can usually wave goodbye to your pole position as the flawless AI opponents deftly shoot past your struggling car and round the corner. This annoyance becomes particularly evident in the later tracks, when the level design becomes ridiculously random and obstacles seem to appear from nowhere, leaving you to stop-start hopelessly towards your inevitable finish in 8th place. Aside from the championship, which you can breeze through once you've memorised the tracks after enough retries, the rest of the game is a shallow rehash of the simple racing formula. There is simply nothing here to warrant subsequent replays when the championship is over with and you've unlocked all the vehicles. The whole game actually reminded me somewhat of the equally unfulfilling Star Wars Racer; while initially charming, the appeal soon gives way to mounting frustration and eventually boredom. When the production values are so obviously high in other areas of the game, it's a shame Kalisto couldn't have spent more time thinking of something more fun to do with it all.
New York Race is a fun little arcade racer which oozes style, but it's something you'll grow tired of extremely quickly and as such remains fun only in short bursts. While the tracks are pleasantly varied, the game dynamic grows stale before the impressive visuals, and you're soon left with an empty experience devoid of any replay value.