Just in case you missed it: PACER, the spiritual successor to the Wipeout series of games created by Sony-owned developer Psygnosis (later known as Sony Studio Liverpool) is finally out. Beginning its life in the summer of 2015 as a Kickstarter project originally titled Formula Fusion, PACER is a futuristic Anti-Gravity (AG) racing game which much like the games which inspired it strives to combine blisteringly-fast weaponized racing, dizzying spectacle in the form of winding, roller-coaster like tracks, and a cutting-edge electronic soundtrack. And in a number of way it succeeds.
Before we dive in, a quick disclaimer. It’s impossible to discuss PACER without comparing it to the Wipeout franchise, thanks in large part to its pedigree. The game’s developer, R8 Games, was founded by Andrew Walker who along with other early R8 team members was originally part of Wipeout 3’ s Psygnosis Leeds Team. Game music composer CoLD SToRAGE (a.k.a. Tim Wright) and graphic design studio The Designers Republic, the people largely responsible for Wipeout’s signature sound and look respectively, have also contributed to the game. R8 Games’ own website even proudly displays a Eurogamer quote on its banner proclaiming “PACER is a new hope for Wipeout Fans” and another from Inside Gaming that declares “The F-Zero, Wipeout sequel you want is PACER”, so holding it up to scrutiny against those earlier games is more than fair. Just saying.
As someone who has owned and played the hell out of many a Wipeout game and considers the Wipeout Omega Collection to be a masterpiece of the AG racing genre, PACER definitely ticks a lot of the right boxes to pique my interest. Brutalist dystopian world colliding with corporate product placement and striking visual design? Check. 14 tracks, each with unlockable Day, Night, Reverse and Mirrored Modes? Check. Eclectic soundtrack of over 80 songs with the ability to toggle all or any one of them on or off? Check! Online multiplayer for up to 10 players? Check! Eight modes of play, in both campaign and online, including a Battle Royale-inspired Storm Mode? Alright, R8 Games, you already had my interest, now you have my attention. But how long will it hold?
Well, to start it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that Pacer cribs a good deal of lore notes from the original Wipeout (as any proper homage should). The game is set in 2075, anti-gravity racing is a major sport, and professional-level events such as the PACER World Championship serve as a proxy by which mega-corporations legally wage war with one another, testing out their latest experimental weapons, defense systems and navigation technologies on the battlefield (i.e. the racetrack). Taking on the role of a rookie pilot fresh out of the amateur ranks, players must complete “contracts” with each of these corporations in order to advance through each speed class and ultimately win the championship. Naturally, the above description pretty much describes all the Wipeout games to a “T”, but while the original Wipeout games only went as far to introduce teams and characters with backstories that had no affect on gameplay, PACER instead fleshes out its world through the heated rivalries and egos of its 10 corporate teams, with the formal invitation to participate under each banner often revealing bitter public grudges which manifest themselves into actual challenges within the game’s Campaign mission structure. For example, Team Trans Am Yangs, who recently suffered a humbling defeat on their home circuit at the hands of rival Team Neu-Tron, tasks the player with coming ahead of Neu-Tron’s pilot in every race or challenge of the next circuit as a requirement to complete their contract. Meanwhile, Team Gagarin, famed for its superiority in lethal weapons systems, demands that the player destroy as many enemy crafts as possible (a minimum of 10 kills to meet their quota) on the way to the podium. Provided that players manage to meet the minimum passing requirements for each Speed Class, failing to complete these additional “goal requests” won’t necessarily block the player from advancing, but since medals in PACER are awarded on the basis of merit, not placement, anything less than first place than 1st Place in all objectives will be denied a Gold Medal for that Grand Prix and the unlockable rewards that accompany it (e.g. liveries for your craft, track day/night/race mode variants, etc.). I found that this encouraged me to replay several races in pursuit of 100% Grand Prix completion, and somehow, the tying of those challenges to each team’s company culture made the tasks feel more grounded and meaningful, rather than just a random checklist of side-tasks.
Where PACER really changes up the game compared to its Wipeout predecessors however is the abandonment of the series’ Mario Kart-derived, randomized pick-up system for weapons and boosting, in conjunction with the new ability for players to customize the performance and weapons loadout of their chosen craft before the race begins. To be clear, speed and weapon pads meticulously placed along the racetrack are still a thing, but now flying over a weapon pad simply recharges the weapon or weapons that your craft is currently armed with. Additionally, all craft in PACER now have health and shields, which can be partially replenished by flying over the newly-added shield recharge pads found on the track, and the KERS Boost system found on every craft (KERS = Kinetic Energy Recovery System, a real-world technology) gradually regenerates boost energy over time, allowing pilots to be strategic and adaptive in how they use boosts in combination with the single and double-speed boost pads already on the track. The result is a Wipeout-style racer that places much greater importance on piloting skill and far less on chance. No longer are races a lost cause simply because the weapon pads keep giving you dumbfire rockets instead of the manual speed boost or heat-seeking missile you desperately need to close the gap with the leader. Likewise, now that KERS Boost, Sheilds and Weapons no longer occupy the same slot on one’s craft, players don’t have to sacrifice their offensive ordinance in service of a defensive one anymore. For example, they can now use a perfectly timed KERS Boost to thread the needle through the front of the pack and take out the leader with a pulse blast, all without having to fly over a weapon pad and hoping it will actually provide the necessary power-up first. In PACER, the player is given more agency during the moment-to-moment action of the race than ever before, making the contests much more fun and exciting, white-knuckle come-from-behind victories far more possible.
Of course, that sense of player ownership all begins and evolves in The Garage, where players can spend credits they have been awarded from their victories to purchase and install modifications for their craft. Effectively there are only five craft types in the game, each with their own unique base stats for Acceleration, Top Speed, Handling, Braking, Anti-Gravity (how closely the vehicle hovers above the ground) and Defense, but from there players have a myriad of upgrade choices to tailor their craft’s performance and offensive capabilities with various mods. The general rule of thumb here is that any improvement gained from a mod carries with it an equivalent penalty in another area (e.g. improved Top Speed at the sacrifice of handing, or the ability to use a weapon twice without recharging at the cost of a lower damage output), but with the capability to mod one’s craft in up to 8 different Performance and Weapons parameters, there is enough granularity here to create some widely varied machines.
Sadly, that granularity does not extend in any way to PACER’s base controls. On PS4 at least, there is only one default button configuration and it cannot be customized in any way. Neither are there any sensitivity sliders for adjusting the depth response of the triggers (which serve as your airbrakes) or the base turning speed of the analog stick (which controls steering). To put it bluntly, unless you have the touch of the lightest feather in your trigger fingers or thumb, you can expect to be slamming into the edge of every second or third turn, even on tracks you’ve gotten used to, and unlike the later Wipeout games, there really isn’t a way to grind along the edge of the curve at the loss of some shield energy but still maintain momentum. Nine times out of ten you’ll just collide and lose most of your speed. The controls aren’t so bad in in the Single-Player Campaign where your AI opponents are tough but not invincible, and the excellent weapon targeting system (which features a snappy lock-on mechanic that clearly identifies which opponent is in your sights) is simple enough to use that players can fire, forget and focus on piloting their craft. But once you get into the higher Speed Classes or manage to get into an online match with a human opponent, you’ll realize just how clunky the controls actually are if you don’t have hair-trigger precision. It’s a pity, especially during an age of unprecedented accessibility in gaming that a modern follow-up to the Wipeout games of old has not evolved its controls with the times.
So let’s talk about the music for just a bit. Obviously, no modern AG racer vying to fill Wipeout’s shoes would be complete without a sick, banging electronic soundtrack, and with over 80 licensed tracks (including original tracks made exclusively for the game composed by CoLD SToRAGE, the original Wipeout’s main composer), Pacer does not disappoint. A browse through the playlist of artists likely won’t uncover any mainstream, household names, but in the niche genre of AG racing, a soundtrack as diverse and unapologetically fringe as this one is a badge of honor. A racing game set in the future needs music that also sounds like it is from the future, and the team at R8 Games clearly understood this when compiling the playlist. Unfortunately, the way in which Pacer incorporates its vast soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired, and it could even be argued that the game squanders it the majority of the time. For example, compared to most of the tunes in the playlist, the game features a rather slow and pedestrian song for its opening theme and insists on using it whenever the player is not on the racetrack, which I personally found to sap much of the energy out of the experience between races, in menus and especially while customizing my craft’s performance and weapon loadouts in the garage. There’s no option to listen to or shuffle the full soundtrack outside of races; you just have the boring main theme, or nothing at all. It’s a real shame because the ability to clearly hear the full soundtrack without the noise and distraction of racing would not only make players’ downtime in the game more enjoyable, it would also go a long way in promoting new music and artist discovery among players. Just think of how many gamers’ favorite songs were first discovered by them while flipping through menus or tinkering with their vehicles in like Forza, Need for Speed, Burnout, etc. It’s not exactly an AG racer tradition, but with so many songs to listen to in PACER the lack of a shuffle mode outside of races is still a head-scratching omission in a game that features music so prominently. Putting together a list of all the available songs on Spotify and running the PS4’s Spotify App in the background is a far more viable option.
That said, the biggest problem for right now PACER is the state of its online and multiplayer options. As of this writing the game has been out for over a week and only once in all of my attempts did I manage to find a game to join, and that one game had one lone player in it (who was also a much better pilot than me and flew a much better optimized craft). Suffice to say I spent three races in a row against this individual flying alone, only ever catching a glimpse of my opponent’s boost trail at the start of the race. My amateur skills notwithstanding, my concern here is that there appears to be next to no one playing PACER online, which does not bode well for its multiplayer offering. When considering PACER’s emphasis on game modes, tracks, and craft customization options, multiplayer is easily half of the game’s value proposition, and to see the game’s potential cut off at the knees due to what seems to be poor initial pickup is truly tragic. Hope springs eternal that the game will see a “Fall Guys-esque” resurgence in the weeks and months to come, possibly fueled by the game being added to PlayStation Plus or Xbox Game Pass (where it could possibly experience a significant boost in userbase, promotion and finances all at the same time). But as it stands right now, at $54 CAD on the PlayStation Store, PACER will be a hard sell for many.