Developer: Acclaim Studios
Date: June 3, 2003
I like fresh, original games. No, really, I do. I loved the days when it seemed every other game on the market was a whole new experience. Super Mario Brothers lured me in with its incredible environments, cute enemies, and dastardly hazards. Doom gave me the feeling that I was in the boots of a real warrior, that I was holding a real gun, and I was blasting away tons of enemy scum. Just last year, THQ's Moto GP made it seem like I really was in the driver's seat of a powerful crotch-rocket. These games really tend to give you that fresh, happy feeling. When you pop in Speed Kings, though, you tend to get that 'not-so-fresh' feeling. Some of you may have already experienced this, but for those of you that haven't, I'll elaborate.
The 'not-so-fresh' feeling is not from soiling yourself with glee, I'm afraid. It's because this game is utterly generic and tiresome. Sure, there's only so much you can do with a racing game based entirely on a motorbike, but Speed Kings doesn't really offer anything that hasn't been done better in THQ's series. Admittedly, the game is different in that you are usually driving on streets filled with traffic instead of designated racing circuits. That doesn't make the game any better, and it actually drags down the experience.
You will crash into vehicles constantly. Sometimes you'll crash, get put back on the road, and crash again in two seconds. It happens. The game attempts to rip-off Burnout's ingenious boost system by giving you a nitrous boost after you've succesfully racked up enough points doing tricks. Burnout worked well because it rewarded you for dangerous driving - doing things like driving close to traffic, riding on the wrong side of the road, and power-sliding around turns. Speed Kings rewards you for acting like a retard in the middle of the road. You don't get points for driving close to traffic or on the wrong side of the road; instead, you get points for pulling wheelies, endos, "surfing," and other stunts that would have you killed in an instant on a real highway. Why, then, the obviously stupid locations? The level designs aren't exactly stunning in the first place, but removing the traffic would have made the whole experience a lot less frustrating. Plus, in Burnout, you were in a car and could actually take some damage. Here, you're on a motorcycle, and you fall off practically any time you make a slight mistake.
The controls are quite questionable. The default setting has the acceleration and braking all set to the main face buttons on the Xbox controller. Being quite used to having my acceleration and braking set to the two triggers, I scoured the options menu for a change. I did find a configuration that suited my trigger fancy, but as many of you know, motorcycles have both a front and back brake. The front brake was now located at the odd position of the white button, while the perfectly fine 'X' button did nothing at all. It's a shame they didn't design these configurations better! Also available to you are buttons for kicking (straight out of Road Rash), a button for tricks (hold it while moving the analog stick to do a small variety of tricks, such as "surfing"), or "powerdowns", which basically make you lean super-close to the road so you can slide under big trucks and other obstacles.
The controls feel stiffer than they should, which is definitely not a good thing. It's quite hard to dodge traffic when you can't maneuver your vehicle very well. The camera angle is also at a ridiculous point directly behind the driver most of the time, making it difficult to see directly in front of you. I found myself resorting to a wheelie (quite simply performed by holding back the left analog stick) so I could have a better view of whatever was in front of me. Of course, this made driving even harder and led to many more crashes. Unfortunately, crashes aren't even that fun to watch, thanks to the unruly physics in this game. Sure, they're supposed to be arcadey, not realistic, but I really don't think that driving right into the back of a tractor trailer should send me flying ten feet to the right.
The graphics in the game are nothing to brag about either. While they're more than bearable, they are in no way competitive with other Xbox racers. Textures are oftentimes very blurry, buildings couldn't possibly look more blocky, and the road itself has a bland look to it. Animation ranges from "bad" to "okay," with some very choppy rider animation, to some half-decent animation in the background. The background itself is easily the most detailed and enjoyable artistic point of the game, with some neat mountains, snow-capped hills, lumber-filled yards, or sprawling cityscapes. This is the biggest thing Speed Kings has going for it: some neat looking environments.
The sound is merely okay. Sound effects tend to really drone on - the engine sounds are okay, but the screeching noise of a turn can quickly grow super annoying, and it's always exactly the same sound. In other unfortunate news, there's no custom soundtrack support. You'll have to listen to the game's fairly boring mix of tunes, which consists (more or less) of drumbeats and the occasional guitar melody. Nothing very exciting, and nothing that will keep you from utilizing the mute button.
Overall, Speed Kings seems like it's nothing more than a half-assed MotoGP in crowded city streets. The gameplay mechanics are certainly nothing to write home about, and the graphics and sound are fairly mediocre. While driving in traffic, filling a boost meter, and blasting ahead of the competition could potentially be fun, the execution here is really too flawed to keep your interest for very long. You might be able to squeeze a little bit of fun out of it before the mediocrity of it all settles in. Speed Kings is the kind of game that gives Acclaim a weak name, and with a couple more months in development, it may have been up there with their gems, like Vexx and Aggressive Inline. As it is, Speed Kings probably isn't even worth a rental, especially with THQ's MotoGP series at large.
Score : 5.5/10