In attempting to offer a viable futuristic race for Wii, Detn8 Games gets a few things very right in Speed Zone. First and foremost, on a platform regularly maligned for the poor quality of its visuals, not only compared with higher-powered systems, but within its own catalog, Speed Zone looks good. The title's developers didn't push the Wii with polygon counts and texture detail that the system can't handle; we're not expected to tolerate the blurry mess to which Wii gamers lamentably have become accustomed in third-party titles that aspire to more than mere casual party game status. If you're going to develop on the Wii, whether it be the lead platform or just one console in a crowded handheld and full-weight market, knowing the limits you've imposed upon yourself is essential. The Speed Zone team clearly understood what they were up against.
Speed Zone's racing environment is all science fiction, whether they be terrestrial tracks across ice-bound planets or concrete tunnels and loops through space. The variety of available cars is likewise appropriate to the sci-fi theme, and there's a weapons-based battle mode that as a matter of course is most germane to a fantastical setting. Every bit of the tracks and backdrops look good for the Wii, which may seem damning with faint praise, but it's an important point. It is, after all, a Wii game, and it's nice to see developers pull off solid visuals without resorting to simple 3-D cartoon models or cel-shaded art direction. Speed Zone sets for itself a reasonable bar in environmental graphics and then meets its own acceptable standard.
Unfortunately, however, car models appear to levitate ever so slightly over the tracks. Sure, this is a future fantasy, but the vehicles are wheeled racers and should give the impression of hugging the track. Alas, the cars also handle like they're floating off the ground, with an all too tenuous handle on the road. The first available car, the only available car at the game's start, comes fully upgraded — this includes the "grip" attribute, which should aid your car staying nailed down to the track as much as possible. Even with full grip ready-made for your starter vehicle, it's not enough. Handling is poor; you'll feel as if all tracks are low-gravity, whether the setting lends itself to that element or not. Constantly, you'll be offered the opportunity to press the A button to respawn; and often you'll flat-spin out into the ether, invoking an enforced respawn. Though winning races — quite difficult, even early on — is not the only way to earn cash for car upgrades and unlocking more of the rather substantial inventory of 30 tracks, you'd at least enjoy the illusion you have a shot at winning, not suspect game's purely fantastical physics are blatantly working for opponent AI drivers.
It's fair to say that Speed Zone supports about every controller presently available for Wii, including Logitech's virtually orphaned Speed Force Wireless force feedback racing wheel. However, trying various methods, I found the easiest way to drive in the game — and there's not really an easy way to drive — is simply the Wiimote, sans Nunchuk, sans plastic wheel shell. For racing fans who are more comfortable with a proper dedicated wheel at their disposal, the Speed Force Wireless support will be a welcome option, but with the game's racing physics as unwieldy as they are, I can imagine having the wheel jerked around in your hands every time you bump a wall will only make the whole experience that more difficult. It's a relatively minor complaint, but Speed Zone by default also flops the usual Wiimote driving layout, assigning acceleration and braking to the 2 and 1 buttons, with Wiimote oriented so those buttons are at your right hand.
Speed Zone, again striving for a thoroughly complete package, offers numerous solo and multiplayer game modes, including Battle mode. All the way back to Crash 'N Burn for the mostly forgotten, outrageously expensive 3DO platform, high-speed track racers with weapons-based combat modes haven't worked very well. Perhaps Crash 'N Burn did it best, but the game was on rails: While lining up shots against opponents running ahead a few dozen meters, you didn't have to worry about losing control of your car and flying off the edge of the track. Sony's WipEout franchise has had good success incorporating weapons pick-ups in their racing model, but they're not the only valuable pick-ups, and combat skills are not the only way to win WipEout races. The best "battles" implemented in racing games belong to titles like Motorstorm, Fuel and the celebrated Burnout franchise, titles in which the combat is strictly limited to the visceral joy of slamming your heavy rig into an opponent's bouncy buggy, or better yet, landing a jump right on top of them.
In an obvious overreach, Speed Zone also supports a whopping eight players in split-screen multiplayer modes. Shooter fans know that without outstanding multiplayer mode design, screens split two ways are bad enough. Horizontal split-screen is more tolerable in racers, so long as you train yourself to focus on your little slice of TV. Four-player split-screen becomes onerous, but eight players in standard-definition is just plain out there. And in Speed Zone, the screen is not split eight ways, but indeed nine, leaving space in the middle for a track map. If you even can get other players to deal with racing on a postage stamp, you're certainly unlikely to have seven friends who'll stick with Speed Zone's difficult gameplay for very long.
Speed Zone does make some concessions to playability here and there. Auto-respawns are quick and don't cost you too much time in a race or against your alternative target goals. There's also a green racing line laid down on the track for you to follow. The problem with the racing line is that the oft-essential boost pads are set well off the line, requiring sharp turns to hit them, turns that will often send you whirling end-over-end off the track when you try to recover back to the racing line. If you're going to present a racing line in a racer, clearly that line should follow the most appropriate course for success on the track, and you should minimize even moderately compulsory track features placed far off the line.
The single saving grace to Speed Zone's racing mechanics, though a tough row to hoe, is that older children and adults, with perhaps the patience of the Buddha, can, with enough time spent at the wheel — or Wiimote — get the hang of the game's demanding, overly difficult physics. Once you learn what Speed Zone expects of you, regardless of how unreasonable you may consider it to be, you can indeed progress in the game.
Speed Zone suffers most from trying to do too much without realizing in the core of its mechanics that sometimes it's just fun to drive — enjoyable to win some races without necessarily becoming master of every turn in every mode. The developers certainly did a fine job with the visuals, both technically and in art direction, especially so for the Wii. Far more effort could have been put into the audio: Music is mostly nothing more than very brief techno loops that just about anyone could create on a stock sequencer in less than five minutes. The female announcer's voice in menus and during races is altered to give it a future-tech ring, but it's too often over-processed to the point that you can't make out what she's said.
Taking all the game's flaws into consideration and blending them with the developer's obvious attempts to produce a quality, full-featured title, I must concede that Speed Zone may well be the Wii's best third-party "serious" racer. Unfortunately, the third-party genre offerings on this console are not particularly numerous, and most racing titles out there range from the abysmal to the merely mediocre. But if the Wii is your primary console gaming platform, you're avid about arcade-style racers, and you can tolerate a steep, steep learning curve, Speed Zone may be worth a look.
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