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Wed, February 22nd, 2006   #1
A Black Falcon
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Default XGRA: Extreme-G Racing Association

Note - Review is a modified and improved/expanded version of my original impressions of the game posted 3/13/2004 here http://www.tcforums.com/forums/show...&highlight=XGRA .

XGRA is a futuristic racing game by now-dead developer and publisher Acclaim. It was, in fact, one of their later releases before the company closed. As such, it is currently the most recent title in the Extreme-G series which goes back to the early days of the N64.

XGRA, or the Extreme-G Racing Association, is a very fun game. The game is what you get if you take the basic futuristic arcade racing game, remove everything not fun, and emphasize all the fun parts. It does have the flaw of being too short and easy (it won't last long, and you'll almost never fail a race), but even so, it's good enough to be worth playing again. At first it will take a little while to get used to the game system, but within a few races you'll have gotten it down and it becomes simple to do very well. Other than the rare hard race the main challenge is achieving the optional team goal, some of which are quite hard. In the spirit of "making it fun", however, those optional goals are just that: not required. You must do them if you want to unlock all the special bikes, but otherwise you can ignore them if you wish.

The game may seem simplistic, but despite that the fun factor cannot be understated. This game is a huge improvement over Extreme-G 3. It is clear that Acclaim Cheltenham's second effort with the series was vastly improved over its first, and it is quite sad that they won't get a third try. Clearly Acclaim Cheltenham agreed with me over the XG3 fans in that XG3 was flawed, and XGRA is now much more like the older Extreme-G titles. It's still got the graphical style of XG3, but better, but the gameplay is much improved. One addition to the game is customization. You can select a pilot, a team (with that team's bike), and change several ratios to change the top speed and handling of your bike. There are eight pilots and eight teams, each of which uses one of three basic bike models, one of three different handling systems, and one of four basic weapons systems. The different handling types truly feel significantly different, so going from one team to the next really does matter. Also, while the "teams" concept returns from XG3, now the pilots are independant of the teams. You choose a team to go with after each circuit, with better teams being available if you did better (by completing more secondary objectives). The game is organized as if it were a real racing tournament being broadcast on TV, from the menu system layout on. The game intro is like the start of a sports show. Once in the menu system though the layout is admittedly somewhat plain, without the interesting looks of XG2 or XG3's menus, but it works and has enough style to look good enough. The sports TV broadcast theme is well integrated throughout the game. There are announcers before the first race of a circuit, having some banter about the upcoming race. Also, during the introduction to each race, there is a flyover with a track description from the game's main narrator. These introductions to the courses are funny and well done, if very corny. The game doesn't have much of any story other than this, and is lacking a solid ending beyond the satisfaction of winning the final circuit, so it's not perfect, but it does have something as a story/theme, which is more than I can say for many futuristic racers...

One of the most important parts of a racing game is its tracks. This game has 14 tracks in 7 environments, a solid variety. The tracks are great and are very well designed. Like so many features in this game, the improvement from XG3 is huge. These are far removed from XG3's sterile, dissasociating tracks that do not really feel attached to the place they are supposedly set in. You never interacted with the environments and spent the whole time on the narrow tracks driving on that one same road surface. Now there are many surfaces you drive on. It varies from open surface areas to streets on the ground to floating roads like XG3, and even those last though even those are more varied, with parts solid and parts cool looking metal-grate floors. And the width varies, from narrow roads to big open canyons. In addition, the tracks branch and split and twist over themselves. Multiple paths abound. Simply, the track designs are fantastic. The tracks are very well designed and truly feel like they belong in the places they are set in. This is a huge change from the previous game, and its importance to making this game great cannot be understated. In addition, most tracks also have an Extreme Weather variant which makes the track much more challenging. From sandstorms on the Mars tracks to rain in the city or the blinding snow of Vostok, Extreme Weather is awesome, and is done with the game's trademark attention to detail -- for instance, in Vostok when you enter a tunnel the snow stops for an instant, until you emerge from the other side and get blinded by the white again. This is very cool and it affects your play too -- you can actually get lost at times, though the game keeps you on course by not allowing you to drive backwards. Just keep going and you'll get there eventually, though like with all good racing games learning the track helps. XG3 had uniform tracks, always with the same road surface and design. It got very boring very quickly. You never actually interacted with the world and never even drove on the surface! In addition, the game had a grand total of one shortcut (though there were two or three other places with track splits as well). XGRA changes all that, and all for the better. From the beautiful space station with its zero-G twisting corkscrew path through the silence of space to the snows of Vostok, XGRA has fantastic track designs that really draw you in to the game's world. And it doesn't hurt that they're also incredibly fun to race on...

The game's controls work very well. The game is, as advertised, slower than XG3 -- But that's a good thing! XG3 was perhaps a bit too fast for its own good, and the minute decrease in the top speed means that it's a bit easier to control your bike. It's still an incredibly fast game, so nothing was truly lost. The bike controls are vastly different this time around. Bikes feel much heavier and turning is quick -- just like the graphics, a cross between XG2 and XG3. I really like the improvement here. The loss of speed is minimal and the much simplified controls work so much better for this kind of game. Extreme-G isn't F-Zero and never should be F-Zero. It's Extreme-G, and it's about blasting through a track above the speed of sound. You should be worrying about the upcoming turn, not managing your shield meter or stopping at the next pit stop... and that's exactly what you do this time. The game focuses you on the racing. The whole control system is replaced: there is now one brake, instead of two, and it simply slows you down. The shield and weapon energy recharge strips are similarly removed. Instead, your ship automatically regenerates its shields and weapons slowly, or you can use powerups to recharge more quickly if you feel it necessary. This is all done thorugh the new weapons system. In XG3, you bought weapons and switched beween them inrace. It was hard to aim and hit people with most of them and often you just didn't use them. Also everything was on one trigger. Now, you have two triggers, like XG1 and 2. There is a main weapon -- which varies depending on which team you are (the main weapons are a machinegun, lightning gun that bounces, grenade launcher, rockets, etc) -- and a secondary weapon system, which best compares to the system in Gradius. On the top center of the screen is your items bar. The currently selected choice will be highlighted. Power ups are scattered across the courses. Like Gradius, each time you get a powerup it moves to the next box on the list on top of the screen. And like Gradius when you're at the weapon or powerup you want you press select to choose that option. Then, pressing that button again will activate your choice. This system replaces not only the weapon system, but is a major part of your shield and weapon recharge system as well. The secondary weapons include returning items like the Leech (drain shields and speed from the person in front of you), speed boost, mines, and the sideattack weapon, but there are new ones like a nuke bomb, options to fill up your weapons or shields, and the Deathstrike. There is a bit of a balance problem, however. The Deathstrike instantly destroys the CPU vehicle in front of you. It makes killing your opponents easy. It's the last powerup so it takes a few to get to but once you get it you can target someone and have them instantly killed. It makes most all the powerups before it not that useful... and is just too strong. Not that great for a games that is already too easy... however, it is in other ways welcome -- it is actually quite hard to destroy the other racers without it, because the main gun is at the start quite weak and requires time or good aim. The same goes for the other weapons. Before you unlock the Deathstrike, kills actually can be hard to get. With it, the game may be unbalanced, but if unbalanced means fun, I'll take imbalance...

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the game system has changed dramatically from XG3. Gone are the shield and weapon bars that had to be carefully managed and slowly recharged on infrequent recharge strips you often had to stop on to fully use. Gone is the broken, useless weapon system. Gone are the dual airbrakes and the overly complex controls they brought. In is simplicity and fun. The auto-recharge for weapons and shields removes most of the frusteration about running out of either. The simple powerup-based item system works very well and is easy to use. Having a main gun and a secondary item, with one brake, like XG1 or XG2, returns the game to the style of its predecessors while still being unique (for those games had a very simple 'collect weapon X pickup, then use weapon X pickup, etc' system, while this one is much deeper and more interesting). Also, while a speed accelerator is one of the items, it doesn't speed you up as much as XG3's Boost button did. Instead, Wipeout-style, the tracks are full of boost arrows -- though the number of them puts any Wipeout game to shame. The arrow-filled tracks, speeding you along, are a beautiful sight to look at, not to mention much more fun to race on. Oh yes, and if you go off course you simply get reset back on to it, instead of instantly failing the race like XG3. Much better.

The totality of these changes really changes the dynamic of the game from games like XG3 or F-Zero. By removing the hassle and slowdown of having to stop for shield or weapon recharge, they keep you moving and keep you having fun. Now, you never need to stop and never need to stop having fun. It is true that it makes it harder to kill others, as their shields recharge too, but hit them hard enough fast enough, or simply use a Deathstrike, and they will go down. This takes practice though -- your first time through the game, the hardest secondary missions will probably be the killcount ones. Skill in this will come with time. You just need to learn to hit harder and faster than perhaps you did in XG3 or Wipeout. It works pretty well overall and with effort you can destroy most of the field when you try. Between all of these features, this is a great game you won't soon stop having fun with.

Oh, the structure of the game modes. First, single player is broken into speed classes. In each one you have a set of challenges. Each challenge, or circuit, will have a specific ruleset and number of tracks, and you need to win each one by points on the leaderboard (all first places is thankfully NOT required). The challenges start at 3 tracks long, with 6 challenges, but by the top speed class there is just one, eight tracks long, with the rules changing each time. The rulesets cooincide with the multiplayer mode game types. These include Normal Racing (do the standard number of laps for your class), Warmonger, where there are turrets on the track shooting at you and you get points for kills, Pure Racing (no weapons), Extreme Weather (explained above), Short Race (fewer laps), Endurance (more laps), etc. Unfortunately you can't double these up, so you can't do a extra long rainy Warmonger race, but it adds nice variety anyway. The main goal is winning, though, of course, so you have enough points to beat the challenge and the speedclass. However, there are also secondary objectives, special goals for each mission given to you by your team. These vary from 'Beat Rider X' to 'Beat 4 riders', 'destroy 2 riders', or 'destroy 4 signs for team X' (this one's interesting. You have to shoot and blow up signs that are above the track for the team in question... there will be red markers on them to show they are the ones you must blow up but you'll have to explore all of the many paths of some tracks to find enough signs. ), and some others. If you succeed, you'll get rewards -- weapons, upgrades for your bike (this is how you get them now, instead of buying them like XG3 -- yes, this means you can't choose what upgrades to get and are simply given them, but it works well, so I didn't feel like I was missing anything), unlocked features... but if you fail? You just won't get them. You are allowed to fail these and progress through the game, unlocking those things will just take longer. This makes the game even easier. I regularly fail. If it made you succeed these, the game would be significantly harder... still though, if you want the best bike you'll have to come back and play the game again and not fail any secondary objectives, so like usual they both make the game fun (by allowing you to beat it without too much trouble) and make it fun (by giving the expert something to do by having to beat them all).

As for multiplayer, it works well. Unfortunately the two-player co-op campaign from XG3 is gone, and is missed, as that mode was one of the best in that game, but the four-player splitscreen (with computers to make a total of eight vehicles) is intact. This mode is simplfied in comparison to the main single player game. You have no choice of drivers and no workshop to tune your bike. Just choose a team and track and race... the pilot option isn't missed as that seems to make a minimal impact, but the customization is a bit unfortunate. Nothing huge though. You get all fourteen tracks, all of the bikes and their disparate looks, handling systems, and weapons, a full field of vehicles, and access to all of the different game modes (Extreme Weather, Warmonger, etc). Find some people who like arcade racing and there's more than enough here to entertain for hours and hours.

Finally, I will address the graphics and sound. The graphics are good. Admittedly it shows its origin as a PS2 port, but even so it looks quite nice and the sheer graphical style of the designs shines. The game, quite simply, looks beautiful and is incredibly stylish to look at. The sound is about as you'd expect, well done without any flaws of note. The music is similar. The game has a fantastic arcade racer shoundtrack. However, there is a flaw here-- for some reason, in addition to the main techno ("Dance") soundtrack, the game has a "Rock" soundtrack too. The rock soundtrack is awful. However, you can disable it and turn on only the Dance option -- this is HIGHLY recommended. Leave the rock off permanantly and you'll have a great time with this game's very good racing game techno soundtrack. No flaws here.

In conclusion, XGRA is a great game. It may be easy (my first time though I beat the game (not all the secondary objectives, just the main game) without ever failing or having to retry a race) at first, but deeper in, and if you try the secondary objectives, its gets respectably hard. Try for all first place finishes with bonus objectives and you've got a serious challenge on your hands. This game is just plain fun to play. It truly is racing with everything fun put in and everything not fun removed, and it is one of the best racing games of this console generation. Highly recommended.

Gameplay: 10/10
Single player: 9/10
Multi player: 9/10
Sound/music: 10/10
Graphics: 10/10

Total (not an average): 9.5/10. Fantastic game, one of the best racing games of this generation. Anyone who has any interest in arcade racing should not just consider this a must buy but own it already.
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