GRIP (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £24.99 (Assorted team unlock DLC totalling around £6)
Where To Get It: Steam

GRIP, spiritual successor to Rollcage and future racing game about cars that work equally well (or poorly) both ways up, remains a game where when it goes well, it goes very well, and when it goes poorly, you say rude words and hit the “RESTART” button. It also remains a game where the line between the two can be quite thin. As thin as a single ramp, or some inconsiderate driver you’ve just shot with a gatling deciding to get in your way after several high caliber reminders not to.

Pictured: Poor combat-racer etiquette, as demonstrated by a robot.

You’d think they’d learn after the fifth missile for getting ahead of me in a row. But such is life in the world of GRIP. C’est la guerre, as they say.

The thing with GRIP is that, although it’s undeniably cool, it is also harder and a little less accessible than other Future Racers. Breakneck speed, combined with the ability to launch yourself into the air, combined with less than stellar track signposting and some nasty corners… This is before we get into things like the entire HUD going screwy when you’re heavily damaged, or the less than friendly multiplayer interface (and odd segregation of race types.)

Does that, necessarily, make it bad? Well, no. It’s aiming for barely controlled chaos, and it gets barely controlled chaos. It’s also one of the first future racers where I felt obligated to use the brakes. And, to its credit, it does mention the difficulty of the tracks, and it’s not joking when it says “Hard.” To take one example, the aptly named Acrophobia (A mountain track set above some deadly drops) finishes with perhaps the nastiest brake trick I’ve seen, a leap from one track to another vertically opposite, then… Ah, then, if you don’t immediately slow down, you’ll careen off the side of a 90 degree hard turn, rather than quickly braking (or at least, taking your finger off accelerate) dropping from the second track, slowed down, but able to take that sharply angled corner. That one caught me out more times than I care to count.

I can’t deny, however, that it looks *awesome* when you pull it off.

On the plus side, beyond the track design, and the usual Future Racer tricks (Such as only hitting the accelerator on “GO!” to get a boost-start… Itself mainly useful if you don’t have a conga line of racers in front to ruin said boost), difficulty can be set in a moderately granular fashion. Don’t like blowing up mid-race? GRIP feels you, and lets you turn that option off. Want packs to be more cohesive, and to never feel truly safe in a race? Rubber-banding can be turned on and off. Don’t like Blue Shells (the Hunter missile)? You can turn that off in pickups. Well, in single player and online, anyway. In Campaign, the rules are mostly set.

Speaking of weapons, the game seems to be at its best when it’s sticking to traditional models. There, any flaws in the bots seem more natural. In Arena mode, for example, I never really felt challenged by the bots, only by other players, while in Ultimate race mode (which adds a stunt and combat scoring mechanism, as well as racing points), it felt like the more cohesive the pack was, the harder the time I had racking up those points. After all, you don’t get points for fucking up and losing seven places… Speaking of… A reset remains punishing in most cases, so occasionally, there’s the frustration of a second placer knocking you off the track (or going off the track due to a moment’s inattention), and… All of a sudden, you’ve lost several places, and, if this is anything after the 2nd lap, good luck clawing your place back. Combat is nearly all frontal, with some clever exceptions like the EMP field (also known as “Punish anyone coming close”) and the time slow powerup (Which slows everyone except you… Normally quite powerful, it can, however, aid some players through the more difficult sections, which makes it a bit of a gamble. But a clever one, as some distance is always gained.)

The Hydra Missile. Poor lock-on range, situational… Still like it because it’s a swarm missile.

Overall, GRIP is something I personally enjoy, while acknowledging it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The menu accessibility varies, the track signposting is iffy, the tracks can get hard pretty quick. But the powerups are pretty balanced, the granular difficulty is a good choice, the music and visuals overall are pretty, and the feeling of big, chunky jet-propelled cars careening around their chosen track or arena is pretty good, right up until it suddenly feels a bit frustrating. Probably not best for first time future racers, but at least alright overall.

The Mad Welshman will always, when customisation options are available, go for the most garish car imaginable. It’s basically like using missiles, but for the eyes.

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DISTANCE (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.49
Where To Get It: Steam

2018 continues to be a year of firsts for me saying words I never thought I’d say. In the case of Distance, spiritual successor to Nitronic Rush, those words are “Wow, I never thought I’d see a good horror game in the Future Racing genre.”

Grain, spooky thing in the distance, ambience? Yup, that’s… Waaaaaait…

And yet… Here we are. A Future Racing game involving a car that can fly, tumble, and make sharp turns without braking… Also being a game with horror stylings, unsettling the player with strange vistas of a world gone horribly wrong, shining hope transmuted to despair. Without a single human character, only a car, a road that inexplicably seems to want you dead, a teleporter, and a rogue machine… OR IS IT?

Okay, so it gets a little odd and ambiguous at times, and I’m not 100% sure I can give the game props for horror writing when I haven’t completely played through the second campaign, but moodwise, it definitely creates feelings I’d associate with horror: Uneasiness and dissociation, asking myself… What’s really going on?

It also helps that it’s a smooth game. While I would recommend controller over keyboard for Distance, if only because the control scheme is a little odd, the keyboard controls are, nonetheless, quite smooth, and I only ever felt a little put out during the quicker, more difficult segments by the aforementioned control scheme (Quickly hitting SPACE, A/D, and SHIFT in the right timings was a little bit frustrating. Only needed late in the main campaign, and I’m sure rearranging keybinds could help.)

While flying is relatively rare, the cold, deep depths of space aren’t. They’re breathtaking. Well, they would be if cars had lungs, anyway…

Aesthetically, the game is on point pretty much throughout. Good signposting, clear visuals, and a dystopian retrofuturist aesthetic that works well whether it’s ruined or not, I never felt distracted. Musically, it switches well from pumping electronic beats to more ambient, horror styled soundscapes, and the sound effects and voice work well.

So… So far, I’ve been pretty glowing about Distance. And it is a good game. It helps that it also has a track editor and Workshop support, but one thing I will say is that I don’t really feel like the campaign added a whole lot to flying before it’s taken away from you for the majority of the rest. Part of that, I get, flying is hard, and inverting the vertical controls is a bit of a shock if you aren’t prepared for it (My exact words were, as I recall “Friends don’t let friends invert on you.”), but it was somewhat disappointing to see flying under-represented. But other changes from the original formula, such as a “down” thrust (that’s “down relative to your car”) are definitely welcomed, and I did, overall, find enjoyment in doing some of the silly things you can do with your jumping, thrusting, tumbling electronic car before the end of its main campaign.

And that, honestly, is about all I can say, because the game is simple and tight, elegantly tutorialises, and is fairly accessible to boot. It’s got some interesting horror elements that feel natural, and is well worth a look from the Future Racing crowd.

Another improvement over Nitronic Rush… These spikes didn’t want to make me throw my control-device out of a window.

No, for reference, Twisted Metal doesn’t count, because it’s a Combat Racer. Small diff.

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Antigraviator (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £19.49
Where To Get It: Steam

As Future Racers go, Antigraviator is an interesting, but slightly flawed one. It’s trying something different, and I appreciate that, but that doesn’t really change that it doesn’t, entirely at least, work well.

I would like to apologise for being good enough at Future Racing games that this is the only mid-pack screenshot I have.

So, it’s a Future Racer, so there’s gravity hovercraft wot go fast, a lot of tracks in varying locales in tournaments of increasing difficulty, a boost start (Gotten by holding accelerate just as 2 vanishes and 1 is about to count), and… No context for any of this. Nope, this is a racing tournament, just a racing tournament, and that’s all good, with no in-game lore. Interesting move.

But, make no mistake, the tracks are very pretty. Even in the first tourney, you go from a “standard” city setting, to racing over the ocean, through a canyon system, and in orbit. It’s lush, and it’s fast, and it’s here we start to see this minimalist future racing game fight with itself, design wise.

It’s fast, and there’s a lot, I mean a lot, of blind jumps and turns, sometimes quite hard ones, sometimes in quick succession. But don’t worry, because only grievous collisions slow you down more than a tadge, and, unless you’ve gone for a low armour craft (more on that later), getting blown up by anything short of leaving the track (an instant explosion if you don’t land on the track, followed, in most cases, by respawn and loss of all speed you’ve built up) is quite tough. Okay, cool, these design decisions appear to have cancelled each other out for an alright, if odd baseline. But then we hit the Deathmatch mode of races, and they’re longer, and harder to lose, precisely because you have so much armour (and so do some of the other racers.) So, how do you blow people up?

Well, instead of weapon pickups, you have, at pre-determined points of the track, traps. Some are near-certain killers (like the reverse controls/magnet trap) , some are, basically, weapons (the missile), and the rest vary between fitting and slightly silly, deadly and slowing. Most require someone to be in front of you to trigger, give you a temporary immunity that usually gets you through the trap yourself, and have the good feature of telling you whether they caught somebody.

The first time playing, it goes straight to the mandatory tutorial. Not sure how I feel about that.

Unfortunately, they also require you and the other racer to be in a specific set of ranges to trigger, which conflicts, somewhat, with the other main mechanic, boost energy. See, going fast by collecting boost cylinders, and then boosting with the up arrow (2 cylinders per boost, and you can chain them pretty quickly) means that, funnily enough, you can end up first very quickly, so most of these traps… No longer mean much to you, especially if you stay far ahead enough that traps mean nothing. Even if, due to the fact the AI racers are fairly good, you’re not in first, you’re going quickly enough that, by the time the icon on the back of your ship lights up to show a trap has gone off, by the time it tells you a trap is ready, and by the time you look away from your real visual focal point of the track ahead of the ship (because you’re going very fast) … You miss your chance. The better a racer you are, the less you get to see or use a feature.

I’m not going to lie, I don’t have good answers for alternatives beyond the traditional, and I can also see why the traditional is being turned down here: It democratises things, to an extent, as the traps are track dependent, not based on loadout, or pre-genned track items, or a semi-random weapon pickup. The higher armour definitely helps ensure you can keep your speed (mostly) in track design that just wouldn’t work if, for example, wall and other ship collisions seriously hurt you, so the developers can use all those blind, sharp corners and jumps that normally, I would be crying hatred for, from the word go… Indeed, the final track of the second tournament, Michael’s Bay, earns my ire for being more hostile than the tracks bracketing it on either side, a solid and frustrating difficulty spike in a game otherwise able to mitigate that.

Finally, we get to the customisation options, and my greatest mystification. Scaling costs, I somewhat understand, but they’re applied inconsistently. Non-body parts, for example, don’t have nearly the steep cost rises that the two other body types (one tankier, one the “hard mode” craft that’s supremely fast, but has far inferior handling and shields), and… The colour schemes?

Accessibility note: The cost of the item should not be below the stat bar, and should be bigger than it is. The cost is 100,000.

No, really… The final colour scheme costs almost as much as the hard mode body part, and each colour scheme is more expensive than the last, because… I genuinely couldn’t tell you. I have no answer here, and it both confuses and annoys.

In the end, with the odder exceptions aside, Antigraviator is actually fun. It manages to be fun despite its design decisions fighting each other like design decisions were a cage match. Its online play has rankings, but remains fun, and the quick race mode means, unless you want to buy from the somewhat limited part set, you don’t have to engage with the tournament structure, just… To have a good time. Doesn’t change the fact it confuses me greatly, but it does make recommending it for what it is slightly easier. Worth a go to see something different being done in Future Racing, a genre that, amusingly enough, has been highly resistant to formula changes.

Spaaaaace. <3

The Mad Welshman likes walls, so he’s glad he’s been given so much leeway to grind against them in racing.

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BallisticNG (Early Access Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £3.99 (Soundtrack £5.19)
Where To Get It: Steam
Version: 0.94

Those who’ve been keeping track of my future racing endeavours may have noted that I’d had my eye on BallisticNG for quite some time, but, for one reason or another, I’d never actually gotten round to a review. So you can perhaps imagine my surprise when, after a break, I’d taken a look at this Wipeout fangame, and found… A lot of polish. The game’s come a long way from its early roots.

Yup, this is a fitting opening. The only way is indeed up… 😀

So, yes, BallisticNG is a future racing game heavily inspired by the earlier Wipeout games (1, 2097/XL, and 3) , and the usual rules apply: Several craft, each with their own quirks, pros, and cons (such as the Scorpio, which steers awfully, but goes like brown things flung from a stick), undertaking tournaments at various speed classes, with time trials, races (with and without weapons), survival mode (where you speed up regardless, and merely control steering), airbraking for harder turns, and a low poly aesthetic. To say this is extremely my jam on many levels is an understatement along the lines of “The Atlantic’s a bit damp” , and, funnily enough, this led to a lot of early criticism from me during the Early Access process, mostly to do with track design and time trial times.

Thankfully, that critique, and that of other folks, seems to have been taken on board, and the track design and difficulty curve is quite pleasant. A low pressure series of tutorials, the easier tracks in various modes… It handles pretty well. In fact, a nice touch I’ve not seen elsewhere is arranging tournaments, not by difficulty class overall, but by track groupings, so the introduction to each track is on the easier speed classes. The higher speed classes are as twitchy and nightmarish as you’d expect (Spectre and above requiring good track memorisation), and the lower speed classes feel fair, yet frisky. Good!

A beautiful place to live, ruined only by the noise of AG racers certain times of the year…

Aesthetically, the game is very much on point, with a variety of environments, craft, and tunes, all feeling good and looking fine. Add in some modding ability, with the power to import craft, create track layouts, and the like, and, honestly? There’s not a lot I can say that’s more than a niggle on the negative side, such as the base sound balance needing work.

BallisticNG, it seems, has finally achieved its potential. One set of updates before release. And that actually makes me somewhat happy.

Fly me to the moon, and let me raaaace among the space debri- ah, wait, doesn’t scan quite the same. The sentiment’s there, though!

I mean, if I wasn’t after some of the moaning I did, there’d be no pleasing me… Ehehe.

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Cologne (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

Cologne is an interesting idea: A tunnel racer, where the races determine sovereign ownership of planets. Okay, not a bad way to go about things, tunnel racers are relatively rare, and there’s a potentially interesting universe.

Many worlds, many tubes to race through to conquer them peacefully.

There are, however, several problems, all of which add up. Some are quality of life stuff: Yes, I would like to see my controls in the options menu, and, heaven forfend, maybe even change them. I would (BEEP) like to (BEEP BEEP) turn off that (BEEP BEEP) godawful alert (BEEP) noise for the (BEEP BEEP) fuel and coolant levels being low, a (BEEP BEEP DAMMIT) common occurrence until you level up your fuel meters (or collect enough fuel to shut it up for a good five or ten seconds), and remember that you have to manually apply coolant. What kind of race are we running, in any case, where nobody has enough fuel or coolant to finish the race? Baffling. Similarly baffling is the jump, which very briefly goes straight up. I’ve mostly opted to avoid jump loops as best I can, because the timing is pretty tight.

I’d like to skip the tutorials on first load, if at all possible, and definitely skip seeing the entire track every single time. Oh, and turn off the shattered glass effect when I’m damaged, that would be good too.

Can you tell how well I’m doing here? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not a 3.

It’s unfortunate, really… There’s the kernel of a simple, possibly quite addictive tunnel racer in here, but it’s bafflingly undermined at every turn by its design decisions. When even racing on Easy tracks is an exercise in frustration, the world building isn’t really used to any great degree, and when common quality of life features are just plain missing, it’s extremely hard to find the niceness beyond “Well, it’s a good core idea.” Oh, wait, the pacifist element: You’ve no weapons, and are relying on skill. That’s something I like, but alas, it just isn’t enough.

Cologne, unfortunately, gets no recommendation here at TMW. Which is a shame, because I do like my Future Racing games.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

So many worlds, so little time.

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