Developer: Acclaim Studios Cheltenham
Release Date: September 10, 2003
Fans of fast and furious futuristic racing games don’t have too many options these days and since beggars can’t be choosers the newest game in the long-running Extreme-G series, XGRA, should come as something of a godsend for PS2 owners. The Wipeout series has grown stagnant, and the new ass kicking F-Zero GX is a GameCube exclusive, so where are PS2-loving adrenaline junkies expected to get their fix? Luckily, Acclaim Studios Cheltenham has answered that question for you. XGRA should be a no-brainer for PS2 owners thirsty for mach-speed racing with a side of competitive combat. But while XGRA is the fourth game in the Extreme-G series, some might be disappointed to discover that little has changed since the original N64 game.
Despite the fact that the developers claimed XGRA would set itself apart from the previous games by introducing a deep and interesting storyline to push the proceedings along, it is at once apparent that the only plot progressions you’ll find here are of the utmost simplistic nature. XGRA takes place nearly 80 years into the future, deadly dangerous Extreme Gravity Racing is the preferred form of entertainment, and the game’s many over-the-top personalities are more than willing to give the public what they crave. Hosted by none other than the cleverly named Sports Interactive News Network (or SiNN), spectators the world over watch in hushed anticipation as daring racers compete for first place while trying to make a conscious effort not to die in the process. If you’re looking for talking heads and applicable dialogue transactions in XGRA then you’d be well-advised to look elsewhere as the focus here is squarely on extreme racing of the highest order.
While the developers went to the effort of changing things up a bit this time around, fans of the previous game may be disappointed with a few of the modifications. For example, the entertaining career mode in the last PS2 game, which allowed players to earn cash for winning races, which could then be spent on upgrading your bike, is sadly MIA. Instead, new rides are automatically acquired by completing races and graduating to the next speed class. Decidedly more streamlined and functional, the new system of obtaining bikes automatically will undoubtedly rub fans of custom modification the wrong way.
Another change that might end up doing more bad than good is the revised weapon system. The sheer number of weapons that can be used in XGRA has been increased, but the combat system itself has been substantially dumbed down. In each race you will have access to both a primary and secondary weapon. The primary weapon can be immediately used and consists of such things as machine guns, electrical and energy based weapons, and bombs – depending on which bike you’re using.
Secondary weapons are obtained by driving over glowing green icons that are liberally placed around any given course. Unlike the primary weapon, which you can use consistently throughout the race, secondary weapons are of the use-once-and-throw-away variety. Luckily, there is a wide array of secondary weapons to be used as an alternative to depleting your primary weapon’s ammo. Mines are useful for shaking those pesky bumper grinders; the Patriot Vampyre will steal nearby opponent’s health; but the most devastating secondary weapon, and arguably the weapon that renders all others obsolete, is the SiNN Deathstrike, which fires a super heated ion beam from an orbiting platform at the targeted enemy and results in an instant kill.
Each race in XGRA’s 2080 career mode comes with its own unique contract (or secondary) goals. While having more than just the standard place-first-and-win objective is a nice change of pace from nearly every other racing game on the planet, the overly rudimentary and sometimes nonsensical secondary objectives – such as qualifying ahead of another racer or destroying three billboards – seems entirely tacked on.
If there is one thing that the Extreme-G series has consistently been able to get right, it’s an intense sense of pure, unadulterated speed. XGRA is no exception. You’ll blast through tracks at breakneck speeds and if you hit a few strategically placed speed strips you might just break the sound barrier. Watching as your surroundings surreally melt away into a frenzied blur as you hit mach speeds is admittedly cool, though when this does occur your level of control over the bike is substantially diminished, often resulting in nasty, time-consuming crashes. Nevertheless, once you’ve sufficiently acclimated yourself with XGRA’s incredibly touchy control system, crashes will be more of the exception than the rule.
The various tracks in XGRA are all quite distinctive and original. A brief background on each track in the game is delivered by a couple of fictitious broadcasters who don’t seem to get along prior to each race. Such unique locales as the Japanese Okhotsk Sea bed, sports lots of straight-aways and speed-enhancing opportunities, while the Santarem Torre track is a head spinning combination of triple corkscrew loops and extreme weather conditions. The AI in XGRA is consistently competitive, though never utilizes cheese tactics to artificially stay neck-and-neck.
While XGRA’s career mode offers up a lengthy and fun series of ever-changing events, it does eventually come to an end. This is where players will want to check out the game’s other modes of play which, unfortunately, aren’t all that great. Such obligatory additions as a time trial mode and multiplayer “arcade” options are unsurprisingly included, though don’t offer anything beyond what most race fans have come to expect. Sharpening your skills in time trial is always a worthy exercise and there is also a certain degree of interconnectivity with the arcade and career modes as progressing in the latter will open up new options in the former.
Visually, XGRA initially looks slightly better than the previous PS2 game but upon closer inspection you’ll discover that the game is far from perfect from a technical perspective. A default frame rate of 30 fps puts the on-screen action on thin ice right from the get-go and an annoying stuttering tendency doesn’t do anything to sweeten the deal. Plenty of special effects such as varied weather conditions, particle craziness and real-time lighting techniques do a good job of keeping things interesting. Couple this with the fact that up to seven additional racers can be rendered on-screen simultaneously, and it’s easy to understand why intermittent slowdown is present. But when an unstable frame rate detrimentally affects gameplay you have to wonder why the developers didn’t take the extra time to balance out the technical details. Luckily, XGRA boasts an impressive audio presentation. Sound effects are spot-on and do a great job of representing the frenzied roar of engines churning at insane RPMs, and the intense sound of hitting sonic speeds is perfectly implemented. The music is split into two distinct categories: rock and techno. Chock full of licensed musical selections, most of which do an impressive job of luring you into the action, you’ll definitely want to kick up the volume.
Overall, XGRA offers up a sound racing design and plenty of speed, but whether XGRA is actually an improvement over the last Extreme-G game is debatable. Fans of the series may find XGRA to be a tad too derivative in terms of the previous games, but newcomers will be welcomed into the fold with open arms thanks to its streamlined and simplified modifications. If F-Zero GX is out of the question then XGRA is certainly worth taking out for a spin, but if the previous games haven’t succeeded in winning you over don’t expect XGRA to be any different.