Brandishing brand power that made the WipEout series so iconic, Pacer has aligned the holy trinity behind the original WipEout 3 development team, world-renowned graphic design studio The Design Republic, and accrued original music from day one series composer Tim Wright aka CoLD SToRAGE. It’s clear that R8 Games intends to pick up the torch that Sony has had little interest in carrying.
Most of the established fundamentals a seasoned veteran of the aforementioned series would expect: the various unified international teams, increasing speed classes, air-braking & combat options etc. However, the devil’s in the details, as the parallels between Pacer and its quasi-predecessor are more nuanced once you get to grips with it.
There’s an equilibrium with the game’s Weaponry, Boosting, and Health mechanics that shifts expectations of Pacer being a streamlined bobsled to a 10-team frantic scrabble. If you hope to finish first, be prepared to adopt a more assertive and aggressive play-style. Speed and agility still plays a huge part in placing first, but feels more like a filter to those who can’t finesse through the relentless barrage of artillery towards your fragile floating tin-can.
With an emphasis on chasing the pack and leaving destruction in your wake, R8 Games tweaked and retooled the familiar features fan’s were used to, in lieu of something new. For starters, health is protected by your shield bar which can be restored incrementally; but once depleted, your ship's health is completely vulnerable.
Boosting too has seen an upgrade. Not only can you gain a temporary increase of speed by gliding over a boost pad, but you also have a dedicated boost bar that fills up during the race. Meaning, pilots have total control of when and how long to use cached thrust; opening options to freely use my reserve to blast past the apex of a hairpin, incrementally slaloming through chicanes, or drain the tank in an all-in-one dash down a straight.
There’s also no slot machine game of chance when picking up weaponry. Instead allowing the player to equip their loadouts of two weapons out of the eleven assortment of defensive and ranged artillery, in addition to stat upgrades to any weapon of choice. The foundations of a unique spin on the future-racer formula are present, with a satisfying rewarding balance in the subgames within races that rely on your decisive strategy and split second choices throughout.
Pacer pride’s itself as being a highly customisable experience, and although the attention to detail with loadouts is impressive, the counterpoise waivers outside of the race course. When upgrading your ships performance modifications or weapon loadouts, there isn’t much use for subpar mods, as better alternatives are barely worth any more of the in-game credits.
And the options for cosmetic customisations were woefully barren as of review. Basic livery pre-sets and barely noticeable modifications sapped any sense of ownership to my craft, compared to the established teams in the campaign.
Teams, I may add, that share the same five default ship models with the others. Though I can understand the direction R8 Games took with not giving each team their own distinctive ship, I find it odd they didn’t go full Formula 1 and have all ship models look alike. It’s difficult to differentiate a team by the silhouette of their ship, and it doesn’t help that most of the ship’s paint jobs aren’t distinguishable enough to identify.
Handling is relatively faithful to what one would expect of an anti-grav racer, especially at slower speeds. But as of release, turning and control is noticeably more rigid and restricted during the faster leagues.
The sweet spot for executing turns with the airbrake becomes extremely finicky. like adjusting a dodgy temperature gauge on a temperamental shower, the difference between bonking the outside of a turn and clanging into the nearest corner is dependent on what nanometre of pressure I gave the airbrake.
Where the handling could use a fair amount of tweaking, the courses’ themselves don’t seem to help the issue, as it can feel that the tracks weren’t designed to accommodate the constant cluster of ships or their steering. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the quality of all the race tracks, but there are some star courses that overshadow most levels; the pinnacle of which can be found in the Neo-Indian inspired stage “Sonashahar”.
Not only is it a joy to lap, but it stands out as a perfect example of environmental storytelling. The disparity between the lavish open air opulence on roads literally paved in gold, eclipsing the cramped downtown slums you briefly tour adds so much to the narrative of the world. Another highlight is the track “Midtown Trafik”, a dilapidated cityscape reclaimed by nature and repurposed as a racing circuit.
It has to be said, there aren’t many tracks that manage to encompass that same level of development and diversity - some of which feel so similar, they tend to blend together. Though generally, the spaces crafted by R8 Games were A1.
Story might not be as important to some in the racing genre, but it’s always a welcome inclusion for fans to soak up on the lore. Even if the campaign presents an interesting structure of having us pilots take up contracts for each anti-grav team to progress, little else is done to take the concept further. Issued context may be sparse and delivered by way of text boxes pre-trial, but the most you can say is that it at least exists.
A glimmer of intrigue that compelled me to complete contracts were the team-specific tasks; serving as a neat plot-device to better understand the teams’ individual ideologies, a demonstration for how each weapon loadout works, and providing some variety from the cycles of Races, Destruction Levels, and Speed Laps. But like a lot of features in Pacer, they’re few and far between, and are often hit or miss in execution.
Two particular tests stand out. Both of which are variants of Time Trials, yielding varying results. “Stay Hidden” was a fun diversion, in which you must avoid detection from turrets by equipping [invisibility] “cloaks” found along the track. Then there’s “Thread the Needle”, that has you traverse through a comical amount of mines sprinkle liberally along the course… which would be fine if the mines were visible enough to circumnavigate.
Other than the Speed Laps and Destruction game-modes outside of the campaign, Pacer carries a fair amount of additional content; four of which can be split into two categories: the Battle royales and the ‘Zone’-likes.
What post-PS1 WipEout players are familiar with in Zone & Zone Battles (a hybrid of a time-trial and survival by an escalating and fixed speed limit), Pacer brings back with “Flowmentum” and “Endurance”. The former being a solo run, very much in-line with the original Zone Battle concept and the latter, a ten-ship endurance battle against a decreasing health and shield bar; of which needs to be replenished after the first lap.
The two new battle royale-esque modes exemplify the frantic belligerence Pacer has cultured exceedingly well. “Elimination” is a chaotic scramble to be anywhere but last place, as whoever sees themselves behind the pack explodes after the timer runs out, only to reset until there’s only one; whereas “Storm” becomes a clustered struggle to stay within the parameter of an ever-shrinking dome - like a pack of gravity defying greyhounds, desperate to stay under the shadow of a volant drone rabbit.
The WipEout formula has been reiterated and replicated for a reason. Aesthetics unarguably play a significant role in the futuristic gran-prix subgenre, and a specific atmosphere has been cultivated over the console generations. Kindly put, Pacer may manage to scratch a certain itch for a broader audience, but there’s an unmistakable disconnect inherent within itself that is glaring amongst fans of anti-grav racers.
This is all too clear from the mismatch of stylistic choices that at the worst of times can affect gameplay; the epitome of which being the thin, flat, (and quite frankly boring) typography. In addition to that, the inclusion of racer avatars and pilot names as opposed to team names and logos during races was a baffling choice. All avatars occupy a tiny box and don the exact same pose; so whatever nuance of distinction each racer had from each other, it can’t be differentiated from when doing a quick glance from track to position listings.
Ironically, in R8 Games trying to give pilot’s and other ‘characters’ more of a spotlight, the less I cared about any of the teams or people behind the brands.
And seeing as though graphic design is a big enough deal to warrant mention in Pacer’s partnership with The Designers Republic in marketing, that trademark tDR talent, flair, and iconography is for the most part lost in the lack of creative cohesion somewhere along production.
Where the weapons, awards, and course option icons had that tDR distinctive charm to them, it only exposed the blemishes in quality further in how banal the majority of team emblems and general advertising were.
Luckily, the audio design is what ties Pacer all together. The crackles & pulses from each weapon, the roaring engine of your competitors fluttering either side, to the little tone that indicates you’ve reached first place; they demonstrate that no matter how small the detail, it can really make all the difference to the overall experience.
Like the importance of who’s behind the graphic design and development teams, bringing back CoLD SToRAGE (Tim Wright) to produce exclusive tracks was the final touch of reworked nostalgia meant to motivate series veterans into picking up the game.
A wide net was cast sonically to encapsulate the general EDM scene, and all tracks generally worked well within the game world. The soundtrack aptly reflects the multitude of influences Pacer attempts to juggle, with brief moments of aligned synchronicity in sound, sight, and feel.
A fair few recognisable names join the ensemble: from the hyper glitchy retro stylings of Squarepusher and DV-i, contemporary drum and bass with Dub FX and Ed Harrison, to a more familiar classic WipEout timbre with LFO. Though not all tracks flow together so gracefully (and sometimes the shift in tone can be jarring), ultimately the quality is consistently up to par.
I feel it suffice to mention Pacers’ beginnings of being in beta under the alias “Formula Fusion”, only because the jump between its final early access update to the debut release is enough to warrant comment. Other than the quality of life fixes and patches R8 Games made upon release of the final product, there were two major cuts that I felt detracted from the finished title.
The original sound design and gameplay made piloting these ships feel tangibly mechanical and weighty, in a way distinct from the sleek cruisers of WipEout. Formula Fusion leaned into the industrial gritty atmosphere, grounding the world in a more visceral competition rather than a sport for the elite.
Along with rekindling desire for pod-racing, the ships in Pacer are tightly tethered to the track with no room for ailerons or air-time. In those moments of flight found within Formula Fusion, you could angle your vehicle's nose up for further distance, or pitch downwards to give you a slipstream boost along the course. I feel as though this was an important exclusion, as not only did this ability give you an added level of control, but also speed; and living up to the portmanteau Pacer uses: “Flowmentum”.
With the pressure to perform to the standards set by themselves as WipEouts’ spiritual successor, it’s little wonder that it hasn’t kept up to those high expectations. R8 Games relied too heavily on the laurels of the names associated, losing sight on whether Pacer was meant to advance the genre, or reminisce and indulge in the good ol’ days; and instead taking a half step in both directions.
A somewhat personal issue that I had with the game was the lack of any reason in racing seemed to slip by the wayside. The soul of a racing game is in the competition, and I didn’t feel as though I was competing in a sport. I felt no team affiliation nor did I feel like any fans were spectating. All this despite that anti-gravity racing seems to be a financially backed international sport, clad in advertising, and for who and what purpose? The world feels barren and apocalyptic rather than dystopian.
That being said, rays of brilliance and originality do momentarily peak through the dense layers of its faults; a lot of which I’m optimistic could be patched and reworked if so desired.
Pacer (Reviewed on Windows)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
Though there are a lot of issues under the hood, Pacer is a decent anti-grav racer at heart. If R8 Games continue to tinker, tweak, support and add enough post-launch content - the potential is there for this series to become a serious contender.