On my first FF3000 class tournament in Pacer, on a sweltering red desert track named Fiyah, suddenly things go sideways. Literally.
The road pitches 90 degrees and my brain can’t adjust, a bad experience when you’re going 500 km/h. I instantly drift into a side rail and ping pong my way along a serpentine stretch of neon raceway, while my onboard AI warns “HEALTH CRITICAL.” Sparks and smoke are flying, but I steady once the road is no longer perpendicular. Now that I know what’s coming, I recover over the next two laps. I finish with a heart-pounding first-place victory winning by less than ⅓ of a second.
It’s official; I’m hooked.
Who needs lore?
If you’ve heard of Pacer it’s likely in the context of it being a “love letter” or “spiritual successor” to F-Zero and Wipeout. It certainly skews more towards the latter (developer R8 Games even has some WipeOut alumnus on the team) so if you’ve been clamoring for a return to high-octane zoomy hovercar racing, you’ve got your game.
It’s set in a near-future something or other where these insane tracks have been built across the world. You don’t get any narrative in-game, but some cool racer bios can be found on the official site. Instead, you select a team based on a New World Order style lineup of nation-states like Eurorussia and the Australasian Pan Pacific Union, so fill in the blanks yourself. Three classes of vehicles all perform more or less the same at first, but a deep customization system quickly highlights the differences. Unlike a lot of racing titles I’ve played, the small tweaks to my vehicle were noticeable.
Also noticeable was the massive gauss cannon for shooting at my rivals. Although the combat elements are not the focus of Pacer’s single-player campaign, they add a bit more strategy at higher levels where dragging your battered vehicle across the finish line with a sliver of health is a common occurrence. This is unlike the racing games I’ve typically enjoyed - Need For Speed, Smuggler’s Run and Mario Kart - but a balanced difficulty curve made it easy to transition into something new.
Slow and steady
That’s important, because the difficulty curve can make or break a game like Pacer. You’re either setting your difficulty yourself, which can be frustrating. Or you’re ramping up to higher-powered circuits after a lot of first place finishes and then, suddenly, a lot of last-place ones.
Pacer makes each new circuit class, starting at FF200 up to Elite, approachable through a variety of race types. There’s the standard stuff, finish first, best lap time, etc., but my favorite was a mode called Elimination. In it, racers begin to lose health after the first lap so it isn’t about recklessly flying into first place and staying there. It gives you a chance to learn a track at a slower, steadier pace. Something you’ll need for when things go sideways, upside-down or vertical.
When your vehicle does crash, you quickly restart in the center of the track without much time lost. There are no crash cams! This was a huge plus for me because crash cams are the fucking worst. (Looking at you, Need For Speed franchise.)
Down the road
This early version of Pacer is not without a few faults. The HUD is extremely weak, though I demoed a pre-release version of the game, and this aspect of the design is still being refined. Because the game is so fast-paced and the tracks are flashy and bright, you need a HUD that is vibrant and easy to read without taking your eyes off the track whizzing underneath you. Here's hoping the full release can strike the right balance.
I also had issues with the soundtrack which includes a lot of great tracks, but also some that include confusing sound effects. One had a noise that sounded like a vehicle streaking past you when there wasn’t. Others include some vocals that sound similar to the in-game warnings, or mask actual ones (like when I thought “ROCKET” was part of a song). This is disorienting when you’re white-knuckling your way through a complex race.
I can’t speak to the online or multiplayer portions though, including the much-ballyhooed battle royale mode, but as long as they aren’t plagued by horrible network issues I imagine gamers looking to connect with friends and relive their Wipeout glory days won’t be disappointed. Gamers like me who tend to stick to single-player diets will find a lot of speedy meat on these bones too.
Pacer wants to be pure fun, plain and simple. There’s no message, no lessons, no deeper meaning. Smash, crash and go fast. You can’t ask for much more than that from your racing games.
Pacer comes to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam on September 17.