Genre : Racing
Developer : Milestone Studios
Publisher : Infogrames
Release Date : 18 Feb 2003
With the world of racing games getting more and more crowded, it's becoming harder to stand out from the pack and bring something new to the table. Infogrames is hoping to do just that with their new Xbox exclusive racer, Apex. Promising a lot of new features and a new take on the tried and true formula, Apex is trying hard to really stand out, but are these new features enough to help push Apex over the average racer bar?
One of the first things you will notice about Apex is its great graphics. Apex is pushing a ton of polygons. The levels are made up of around 500,000 polygons, and it shows. There are single buildings in the game that have more then 60,000 polygons each, giving them an incredible amount of detail. You will be hard-pressed to find very many 2D objects in the levels because just about everything is made out of polygons, and lots of polygons at that. Apex also sports some highly-detailed textures to cover all of these polygons. The level of detail in the textures is above most, if not all, of the other Xbox racers. To make things even better, Apex is using 4x AF filtering (the maximum amount Xbox supports) to further increase the level of detail in the textures and help extend the depth of field far into the distance so you won't see any texture blur. The draw distance in the game is around 2km, letting you see far into the distance with no fog or pop ups, which is definitely impressive, considering the amount of polygons and detail Apex is pushing.
The cars themselves look great. Made up of around 12,000 polygons each, they look exactly like their real-life counterparts and sport some believable real-time environmental mapping, thanks to some nice cube mapping. The cars do take damage, and you will see bumpers drag on the ground and smashed-in fenders. Although it could have been much better, the damage system still does a fine job of showing off the wear and tear on your car. The game's lighting system is also very nice; driving into the sun will create a blinding glare and is quite stunning. Overall, Apex is probably the most impressive looking racing game I have seen, on either the PC or a console.
Unfortunately, the same praises cannot be sung for the game's sound, as Apex features some of the worst sound effects to date on the Xbox. Thankfully, the engine noises sound pretty good, but the other sound effects aren't as rich as such a graphically-intense game deserves. The car impact sounds are very painful to listen to, as they sound like two of the audio guys from Milestone Studios went out back and banged two trash cans together. The music in the game is also extremely bad. Luckily, you can use your own soundtracks, and although it's pretty limited compared to other games, it is a very welcome addition and helps the sound situation.
When Infogrames first announced Apex, or "Racing Evolution," as it was named at the time, they hyped it as a totally different take on racing, as the game would not only let you design and build your own cars, but your own company as well. That got many gamers very hyped, but things haven't turned out quite like Infogrames said. Instead of having a standard career mode like other racers, Apex has a "Dream Mode," in which you get to start up your own company, pick its name, logo (from a set of pre-made ones), and away you go. You set up shop in this old run-down garage where this guy finds some concept car designs and gets to work on building a few prototypes. All of this takes place via cut scenes, and while the acting is far from amazing, it's nowhere near bad.
At the start, you get to pick from one of three car designs, and aside from color and a few car settings, there is very very VERY little you can do to customize the cars. As time goes on, you begin to design different racing models, ranging from street rods to GT-type cars, and you soon have a whole lineup of cars in your garage. You have to win races or place in the top three to open up new tracks and get your car noticed. The racing part of Apex is really deep, with tons of tracks and different racing styles for different car classes. The more races in which you either win or place, the more attention you draw to your cars, which in turn, gives you more sales. The more sales you make, the more money you will have to fund other car designs, and the more your company will grow. After a while, your shop will start getting bigger and better, as well as more advanced. In your shop, you can check out new designs, check out the latest sales numbers, view your cars, change their settings and color, and take them out on your test track, which also gets beefed up quite a bit later in the game. You can also change all in-game settings from your shop and view the different races open and pick which ones to attend. This makes for a much more pleasing "hub" compared to most racers, which only offer a 2D screen to view all of this.
The actual racing portion of the game is really deep and tends to play great. Let's get one thing straight first, Apex is an arcade racer, so do not expect the cars to handle very realistically or the game to play like GT3. The handling in Apex is great, although not realistic. All of the cars handle nicely, and braking and power sliding works well. The races in Apex are action-packed and intense, with laps lasting anywhere from 2 minutes on the shorter tracks to 7 minutes on the longer ones. Despite what others have said, the AI in Apex is pretty damned good, and there is a lot of realism in the game. When you start playing Apex, you have to understand that you are starting your own car company to compete with the very best in the world. This is not like other racers where you get to use cars that have been out for years that are fully tested and optimized.
Having said that, you will initially lose a lot of racers, and it will appear that the AI is cheap. It will blow by you on most straightaways and seem like it's slowing down for you to tease you. What is really happening has little to do with AI and more to do with your car, since your first cars have pretty good acceleration but lack a high top speed. Consequently, the AI will tend to blow past you on long straightaways, but you are able to catch up around turns. As you progress through the game and develop better cars, you will be able to not only pass them on the turns but also blow past them on the straightaways. If you drive really well, you won't even see them after a lap or two. The AI tends to stick to one path on the tracks, but again, for anyone who has watched real racing on TV, this is pretty much how they drive. The AI also tries to avoid you at all costs, which is always nice to see, although there is still a good bit of contact early on. Besides dream mode, there's also an arcade mode and two-player mode. Dream mode will definitely be where you spend the most amount of time, and the two other modes are the same standards that have been in almost every other racing game since the 32-bit days so I will not go into detail on those. It is worth noting, however, that there is also a time trail option in arcade mode.
Overall, Apex is a fun, great-looking racer. It does not live up to the hype that was first pushed onto the game, and its main concept and selling point, dream mode, is very simple and lacks depth. While Apex has a great idea, it could have been so much more. What you end up getting is a great arcade racer with a very deep, long-lasting career mode, with lots of tracks and a great racing system. Dream mode does not really change or differ from other racing games' career modes all that much, and it does not factor into gameplay any differently than other racing games, where you do a set of races and win money. Apex does add a really nice "3D garage" setting to the game, and some pretty good voice acting to keep you up-to-date on how you're doing.