Futuristic racers are an unfortunate rarity in today’s market. With the F-Zero franchise facing an over one-and-a-half-decade long hiatus and the Wipeout series not receiving a truly new installment since 2012, efforts from smaller development studios have attempted to fill the void ever since. Pacer is the latest such effort provided by R8 Games, a team consisting of some former Wipeout developers. Despite some unfortunate missed opportunities, Pacer is an otherwise impressive racer that will likely satisfy fans of the genre.
Pacer’s basic structure is very reminiscent of Wipeout. Players race on twisting, rollercoaster-like tracks using a variety of hovercrafts, and they can take advantage of weapon pickups to gain an edge over their opponents. What really surprised me about Pacer is the sheer number of customization options available. Players can set up their own weapon loadouts to equip in most races, and a large variety of mods can be purchased to tweak vehicle stats and change the weapons’ properties. The options available can seem overwhelming at first, but they ultimately lead to a great deal of flexibility in how players can tackle each race. Players can also choose from a variety of racing modes, all of which give the option to change elements of the race, such as the number of laps and whether or not weapons are disabled. In short, players can enjoy Pacer mostly however they wish, which greatly boosts its appeal and replay value.
The core racing mechanics are also worthy of praise. Steering the hovercraft always feels smooth and responsive, and the curvature of the vehicle’s turning radius feels finely tuned so that players are challenged with a tricky movement system to master without feeling burdened by excessively difficult controls. The airbrakes are handled particularly well, as they can be used to navigate sharp turns while reducing speed. In addition, using the airbrakes will charge the player’s boost meter more quickly, so players are always caught in a delicate balancing act where they have to decide whether to turn better and gain boost or to drive faster. The game also benefits from mercifully balanced AI for the opponent racers that refrains from rubber-banding when the player is in the lead. This means that the AI appropriately challenges players without punishing them for performing well, which makes races feel that little bit more fair.
All of these mechanics are bolstered by a surprisingly robust single-player Career mode that sees players competing in many races with varying objectives. Several of these races use the standard ruleset or borrow the rulesets found in the alternate racing modes, but several others provide challenges completely unique from anything else in the game, such as one where the player has to use the invisibility power-up to bypass security gates. These objectives really help the Career mode feel varied and expansive despite its simple nature, and the difficulty escalates nicely as the player is asked to compete in gradually faster speed classes. The later speed classes feel almost uncontrollably fast, which can make the later races feel more frustrating, but they are also undeniably exhilarating as a result.
These positives help the game tremendously, but there is one area where Pacer feels disappointingly tame compared to its contemporaries: the track design. To be clear, the tracks on their own are very well-crafted, with the winding, anti-gravity roads and the numerous rapid-fire turns offering a great sense of spectacle and challenge. However, the ingredients that make up each track are relatively limited; for the most part, the only elements that separate one track from the other are turn and boost pad placement, along with the occasional jump or branching path. Part of what makes racers like Fast Racing Neo and especially F-Zero GX so enjoyable to play is the significant variety of track mechanics and the ways in which they play with and experiment with those mechanics depending on the level. Not only does this make each track feel more distinct, but it also means that players constantly have to rethink their knowledge of the game mechanics to succeed. With so few elements to work with, the tracks in Pacer never stimulate the brain in quite the same way as the ones in those other racers do. Of course, Pacer is its own game and does not need to closely emulate its genre’s best titles to succeed, but it is nonetheless underwhelming to see track designs so conservative that they rarely feature sections without guardrails. To be fair, adding roads without guardrails probably would not work with the game in its current state, as the higher speed classes alone would make navigating these segments a nightmare. But I couldn’t shake the constant feeling that Pacer was holding itself back in its track design, which is a shame considering how fun the game can be most of the time.
The game also suffers from smaller but nonetheless irritating issues. While the weapon system is mostly balanced, the flashbang weapon really needs a rethink. Weapons that partially obscure the screen are common in racing games, but completely blinding the player, however briefly, during an incredibly fast-paced track feels excessive. While the visuals are mostly excellent, particularly the backgrounds which expertly blend the futuristic with the current, I really grew bothered by the multicolored filter that would appear when the player is assaulted by gunfire. There are much less visually abrasive ways to signal when the player is in danger, and I can imagine this being a problem for players susceptible to seizures or other issues caused by intense visual stimuli.
Despite these flaws, I ultimately came away from Pacer feeling satisfied. It may not innovate its genre as much as it could have, but it still makes for a thrilling ride.
Score: 7 out of 10
Reviewed on PlayStation 4