Review by Mariner
"Blink and you'll miss it"
I don't care too much for racing games. I have a car; why would I need to pretend to have a different one? However, my car can't break the sound barrier. Nor can it hover above roads that twist, defy gravity, or are built miles above the Earth. So while Gran Turismo would make me yawn, F-Zero always piques my interest. Not only is it different in terms of style, but different in terms of gameplay. Nintendo and Sega, thankfully, understood this, and it shows in F-Zero GX. Fast, furious, and riveting, this game is certainly a worthy update to its predecessor.
The F-Zero series (or, to be more accurate, the F-Zero X series) is built around one thing - speed. Your hovercraft moves through the tracks at speeds in excess of 1000 kmh, hurtling you forward to victory or doom. Each of the four cups (plus a bonus cup for the true masters of the game) consist of five tracks, three laps each. It's not just you though, as 29 other competitors are all competing for the prize, and they're all more than willing to push you around and ruin your chances. There's no wussy guns or anything in this game, but you can broadside the competition or do a nifty little spin attack to knock them out. But be careful, as getting rammed by the other folk or crashing into walls will drain your energy, besides slowing you down considerably of course. You can sacrifice more energy by boosting, and indeed boosting is vital to winning these things. Because without the boosts, you're merely plodding along around the sound barrier, and you'll never win at that pace when everyone else is blazing away at the speed of light. It all comes back to that one thing: speed.
And indeed, that speed will be the first thing you notice in the game. I don't usually talk about graphics, but their influence on the game is undeniable here. Sega loaded the races down with special effects, background objects, and (of course) the other racers, which only enhances the feeling of breakneck speeds. Everything around you will become a blur, sparks fly whenever you graze anything, and a well timed boost allow you to zip by everyone else. That 1000 kph or whatever isn't just a number; it really feels that fast. Crash into a wall and everyone will blast past you before you even notice you stopped. Catch a boost and the background becomes a blur. And the game never has any slowdown when you're racing, no matter how many cars are grinding into each other or boosting away. The effect is an integral part of the game, as you need to feel like you're burning through the sky in order to make the rest of the game fun. Fortunately, that effect, that feeling of driving too fast for your own good, is never lost throughout the game, leaving you gasping for breath.
What this means is that timing and momentum are critical to winning this game. Boosting is vital, but just pressing the button alone won't do it. Boost before a turn and it's worthless; boost while everyone else is slowing down and it's perfect. And do you immediately boost again to keep your speed high, or wait a few seconds to gain maximum efficiency? Smashing into the back of a racer will slow you considerably, while someone smashing into you will cause you to zoom out of control. This all may seem simple, but not when you're going this fast. You must make snap decisions, and execute them perfectly. And because the game runs at such high speeds, getting back to high speed takes far too long. Thus, you need to keep up the pace, at all times.
When I said "blink and you'll miss it," I wasn't kidding. Because of this emphasis on breakneck speeds and momentum, things can change in an instant. Ramming into a wall will knock you completely out of the race. Laying off the boosts for a few seconds will get you rear ended by dozens of cars. Everything changes so fast that every single moment in the race counts. Slip up for a moment and you're a goner, hit a turn correctly and you're a winner. Don't be surprised to suddenly see yourself jump up 15 spots in the ranking within the span of a second. Don't be surprised to find yourself unconsciously holding your breath during the last 30 seconds of the race, afraid that even breathing could cause you to slip up. Don't be surprised to see your heart rate increase while playing this game. It requires that much concentration. It's that intense.
The question is, is it too intense? Make no doubt about it, this is among the hardest games released this generation. I could take on Master mode in F-Zero X, but even Expert mode gave me numerous problems here. It's not just that you mess up once and you drop out of the running, but you can find yourself getting passed even when you think you're doing fine. Remember that whole timing and momentum thing? You need to keep up that momentum, at all times, throughout the race. Even when the track is extremely narrow with tight curves and bumps in it and everything. Even when 20 cars are all surrounding you. And even then you'll probably lose. There's no gentility here, no one to feel sorry for you. You will find yourself stunned at getting 23rd place, assuming you didn't fall off the track at that one turn, of course. The game is downright frustrating at times, as you play a cup over and over, only to see yourself failing time and again.
But you'll keep coming back. You know it. This sort of frustration is rare enough that it will feel almost pleasant, and you won't want to give up. Because you will find yourself getting better. Maybe you aren't crashing as often, maybe you discovered the right way to take that turn, maybe you discovered the optimal places to boost. And you'll continue to get better at tuning your racing skills, getting just the right touch in. And when the game's so hard, the payoff when you actually win is just that that much more special.
A word or two should also be said about these tracks you'll be racing on, which are both better and worse than its N64 brethren. Thankfully, the tracks are more varied here, and not necessarily focused on one specific theme. You'll be driving through the inside of a tube bobbing up and down, only to come out on a track and weave around the tubes you were just in. You've got hills and jumps, boosts and split tracks, narrow passageways and tight curves, ice and dirt and lateral shifts and uneven road and everything. And yet, despite the diversity, each track still feels unique and complete. The elements in each track work together, still keeping a unifying theme or two while allowing for multiple challenges. It really works. Unfortunately, it also means the tracks feel a bit too long. It seems to take forever to get around the track, and keeping up the intensity this game requires for all three laps can be annoying at times. Could they have shortened some of them and still kept the same thrilling races? I think so. It's certainly not something that kills the game for me, but it is something that I hope they'll improve upon next time around.
Unfortunately, while Sega may have created a magnificent racing experience, they failed in pretty much every other aspect. The extras surrounding the main game, to be blunt, were rather poor. Story mode was a complete waste of time, for example. Not only do we not care one whit about Captain Falcon as a character, but the challenges were generally rather lame. I want to race, not pick up canisters or make sure my bus (er, car) stays above 700 kph so it doesn't explode. And the one alternative I did want, the Death Race, was removed. Oh sure, there's a lame version in the story mode, but why couldn't Sega keep the real one in? Or the X-Cup, for that matter? Meanwhile, unlocking stuff in this game was pathetic, consisting only of getting tickets for completing a cup. Whether you accomplish something noteworthy or you merely practice on the easiest difficulty, you are still "rewarded" the same. I also think the create a vehicle mode is a waste of time, as the 30 cars available to you should give you all the variety you need (and if they don't, that's Sega's fault). Instead of wasting time with these things (and even more pointless things, like "interviews" with the racers), Sega could have added more cups and shortened the tracks present. Or they could have come up with a better reward system. As it is, the game just has a "that's it?" feel to it, feeling rather short of a complete package.
But that doesn't mean what's there isn't great. It's not the perfect update to F-Zero X I was hoping for, but I can't argue with a game that's faster and harder than the first. We have the speed, this time with graphics to really emphasize it. We have momentum and timing, with disastrous consequences if you mess up. We have devilish opponents on complex tracks. Is this enough to make up for the poor presentation and lack of (good) extras? Does it completely replace the N64 game? Not quite, but close enough. At the very least, it's a solid game for the Gamecube, even for those of us who don't normally like racing games.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/14/06
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