If there’s one area of the racing genre that feels under represented it’s the anti grav section. There are very few titles released that venture on to the mag lev track, and the ones that do go largely unnoticed. Face it, if your name’s not WipEout, you’re not getting in. Maybe that’s the reason that it feels so sparse – the nagging feeling that whatever comes out is just going to get compared to the granddaddy and will fall short without a big budget. It might be stage fright or an inferiority complex. Pacer is one entry that isn’t intimidated by what the others have done and is more than happy to take what works and produce something new. R8 Games want you to go faster, bank harder, and fight dirtier than you have before, and not let you forget why it’s here in the first place.
It’ll come as no surprise that some of Pacer’s dev team have worked on the WipEout franchise. Get past the menus and into the racing and there’s more than a touch of de ja vu going on. Take to the circuits piloting for different teams and race or blast your way to a win. There are speed boosts, weapon pickups and a pounding electro soundtrack to accompany the action. It’s instantly familiar to anyone that’s played the “other game“, and it’s not shying away from that. Locales, artwork, controls and even CoLD SToRAGE running a huge chunk of the soundtrack mean veterans can pick up and play it with virtually no introduction. Remove the branding and there might be some copyright infringement lawyers angling for a quick buck. Look a bit closer though and it is different in subtle ways. To continue the comparison (and I’ll try to stop it after this), it’s less Omega Collection and more 2097. It feels a bit more hardcore and needs to be treated with respect or it will bite. Big time.
With a structured career mode that demands success before opening up the next event or tier, it acts as intro to the teams, the mechanics and the upgrades. Deciding who you want to race for kicks off a series of challenges that play to the strengths of that particular ship. What’s nicely different in Pacer is that you can then tinker with the ship performance before heading into an event. Rather than be stuck with one setup, there’s the ability to set different defaults (as well as using presets) that mean the craft is tailored to your style and the event. Upgrades are purchased with race earnings and these become available across all ships and configs so there’s a large amount of tweaking available. These adjustments might look minimal on the stats display, yet they will have a significant impact in the race. You might get away with picking the fastest setup for every race in the first league, but head to the next level and choosing the setup becomes a crucial part of the preparation, as does experimenting to find out what will work best on a particular track.
The same can be said for the weapon selection because they can all be enhanced in Pacer with a couple of upgrades, and then set as saveable loadouts. Only two weapons at a time are taken into a race however, each mapped to a shoulder button, and their use it definitely tactical. Running over a power up will enable ammo for each, though only one can be fired, then it’s hunt for another charge. All weapons are offensive with some being dropped behind and some targeting the opponent ahead, and the ability to take someone out or survive an onslaught is based on the crafts base health and shield power. The former is fixed and once it’s gone say goodnight; the latter can be recharged by running over pickups on the track, and the shield takes the brunt of the punishment until it’s depleted. Of course, you can try and outrun trouble as every ship is equipped with KERS that builds over time and can be used to boost. The effect is lovely as the engines kick in, pushing you down the track past everyone else, and the music heightens to emphasise it. Customisation abounds in the looks department too so you can be the fastest, deadliest and scariest all at once.
Getting to grips with the way Pacer handles takes a little bit of practice. The ships are highly agile, but are pretty much glued to the track so there’s not a floaty feel to them. They’re weighty and powerful and that means there are a couple of different ways to fly them. Drifting is actually a preset performance option and works well for those that like throwing the back end out. At the opposite end are the speed setups which demand precision and knowing how to carry momentum through the turns. There’s a lot more single seater car racing at play in the mechanics than you might first give it credit for. Indeed, it’s easy to miss when you’re doing things like Eliminations, Endurance events and the Battle Royale-style Storm challenges. There are races and tournaments as the backbone of the activities, but it’s refreshing to see team specific challenges pop up, like completing fast laps with no steering, only airbrakes, and trying to avoid minefields. Being successful at everything that comes your way means you’re learning how to be a better pilot, just be prepared for a fair amount of failure too.
As the racing gets quicker, running from F3000 to F2000 then to F1000 and onto Elite, the difficulty ramps up. Not only are the opponents tougher and feel like they race harder, but the reaction times are dramatically reduced. Pacer is astonishingly quick at times, possibly a little too quick in the higher levels because until you’re accustomed to it there’s a lot of time spent hitting the barriers. Not necessarily terrible as they are there to stop everyone flying off the track, but they spank the shields hard. In fact, it’s sometimes quicker to destroy a ship through watching it hit the edges instead of shooting it. The balance between weapon damage and track damage might be more realistic, yet it’s hard to like it when you’re hearing “shields critical” blaring at you after the first 3 corners. It’s disappointing the combat feels so anaemic. Because it can be so hard to take someone out the combat focused events can be a chore, and altering the weapon upgrades largely seem to reduce their power even when adding something extra. Focusing on more damage resistant setups will mean less exploding and respawning, though it’ll be at the back of the pack because there just doesn’t seem to be enough oomph in them to stay in touch.
Practice makes perfect, so that’s what needs to be done as this is a deeper racer than its short title suggests. You’ll need to learn the tracks, understand the ship handling, and wedge your eyes open with matchsticks because blinking will cost you lap time. Pacer is great looking, blasts along smoothly at its highest speed, and has a fantastic backing track that’s sometimes a little too quiet for its own good. It’ll provide anti grav racing fans hours of entertainment on- and off-line, but it isn’t going to let you romp away to victory every time.
A PS4 review copy of Pacer was provided by R8 Games PR team, and the game is available now on PC and PS4 for around £30, and will coming to Xbox One soon.