Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Second Look @ APEX

(All images are from
APEX is known as Evoluzione Racing in Europe

APEX is hard to pin down as far as a racing title goes. The physics are sim-like and grounded in reality while speed is more of an arcade commodity, never fearing to cause the car to brake quickly or bounce off of a wall. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in personality, but that alone does not a good game make.
You and your bud have found an old garage and inside are blueprints for race cars. While he builds your first car, you build the business, choosing the company name, logo, and car designs. Unlike other racing games, such as Enthusia, APEX has a purpose for racing: the better you do in each race, the more demand for car sales come in. Occasionally you'll be thrown a challenge from another driver or a car magazine who wants to see if your machine is truly up to par. A lack of definition as to what you're doing is to blame for the parts of the game outside of racing being boring. You can't really upgrade your cars right away, you can only choose from a few colors, and it will take a lot of replaying races to get enough sales to begin production on a new design. With enough cars sold the game automatically expands the company, adding R&D and Production wings to the small garage. 

Its definitely one of the better-looking games on the Xbox for the time. The frame rate never drops, there are no pop-ups, cars are nicely detailed, and tracks are varied, feeling alive with crowds, planes, banners and confetti. When passing under a bridge with support beams above, each beam shows a reflection in real time on the car's back window. Racing towards the sun causes the screen to brighten and might cause you to lose focus. Cars get damage from each other and the track but it never affects performance. Mirrors fall off, bumpers get dented, and sparks flying are the only extents of damage. Additionally you don't have to pay for repairs after each race, adding one more point to the arcade checklist. There's no money system involved, only sales to track your progress towards developing your next car.

Sound is an important part of a racing game. If the engines sound weak or repetitive then immersion is lost. A Corvette simply cannot sound the same as a Lotus Elise. While the sounds between cars might seemed varied here its merely the same sound just adjusted in pitch, meaning a muscle car doesn't sound powerful with a whiny engine. The hits between a car or the environment each time is just the sound of a glass breaking. Better get used to that.
The music is purely generic rock and seems to loop the same song constantly, or its just me ignoring the difference in them. On the original Xbox, you can choose your own custom soundtracks which saves you from having to listen to the mundane and unattractive tunes.

The game isn't easy, but that's mainly due to poor AI. (At one moment I looked behind me to find that the last three opponents had wrecked... on a straightaway.) The AI runs on rails and is, for the most part, always properly braking, turning and accelerating, causing you to either hit them or vice versa on a sharp turn. The AI just feels lifeless and they're more like moving obstacles on the track that you have to avoid and overtake. There is no option to restart a race on the pause menu, which I've never understood why a racing game does that. It forces the player to completely back out of the race in order to try again. There are racing series that forces you to go to the next race automatically, and those moments are understandable to have a no restart policy.

You'll find you can only race your custom-created cars in the Dream Mode against real world manufacturers. Meanwhile in Arcade Mode you can pick from several. Racing is done on city, mountain, racetrack, and stadium/speedway locales. There are several tracks in different "cities" with each track being a variation of one larger track. It changes up often enough to prevent boredom so there's enough variety in each locale to keep you interested. City courses have long straightaways and tight corners. Mountain tracks have winding roads. Racetracks are meant to test the player's braking and handling abilities. Stadium races are for true tests of speed.
Cars are sectioned by classes ranging from Roadster, Sportcar, Supercar, and Dreamcar, in the first two classes you have upgrades from Street to Evolution to Racing. Dreamcars are unlocked by fully completing all of the racing series being presented.

Uniquity is a hard thing to pin on a game such as APEX. The only stand-out performance in this game is the "custom" car creation which, even then, isn't very customizable. The only multiplayer option being couch co-op is just racing between you and one other person with no special modes; just choose a car and race. Its a neat idea to create your own company and that's just about the only appeal behind it all. The AI is lifeless and merely follows the track. Mindless drones that sometimes don't even brake properly, which can make the racing itself not very fun. Handling is either too loose or too sharp, braking feels unresponsive, and there's a lack of a sense of speed (80 feels the same as 40). However, once you reach the racing evolution for each car, then the real speed starts and the game begins to pick up its pace.
But despite all the shortcomings, if you're a fan of racing games in general then its worth playing. The developer, Milestone, put their all into this game and it shows. A careful attention to some details that other racing games of the time didn't have. It feels like it wasn't trying to be the best, it was trying to be just a racing game. In that regard it only succeeds as "something to do." It doesn't have a huge fan base and to be honest it shouldn't. The game doesn't do anything to WOW the player into completing it unless you're a completionist by nature, yet its solid enough to stay in you're collection for a while until you feel the need to play every so often. And maybe, one day, you'll check it off of your completed games list.

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