Whether you love or hate the look of the Wachowski brothers latest film, Speed Racer, you have to admit that it's certainly got style. The movie, from the famed directors of The Matrix trilogy, features just as many seizure-inducing flashing psychedelic pastels as it does death-defying jumps, outrageous car drifting and, inevitably, explosive crashes. (There's a story in there somewhere, too.) The film's visual presentation is so saturated with blinding colors and rendered backdrops that movie critics have relentlessly called it tantamount to a silver screen videogame and so it should come as no surprise at all that Warner Bros. Interactive has simultaneously commissioned the real thing, namely videogame takes on the Racer franchise for both Wii and DS. (A PS2 build will arrive later this year.) Movie-to-videogame projects are seldom any good and in contrast usually offensively bad, but Wii's Speed Racer actually defies the odds for an end experience that captures the style and intensity of the movie and slaps it all between some fun gameplay mechanics. It's better than expected, but not perfect thanks to some remaining issues related to driver AI and a repetitious selection of courses.
Speed Racer: The Videogame comes to Wii from Sidhe Interactive, the same team behind the good PlayStation Network game GripShift. The studio is very capable, as is evidenced by the fact that Racer really nails the look and speed of its movie counterpart, sporting a roster of incredibly unpredictable tracks complete with loop-de-loops, corkscrews, jumps and competitions with nearly 20 vehicles zipping along at more than 300 miles per hour. Not only is the exaggerated, cartoonish presentation of the film translated in full, right down to the outlandish color schemes, but the sense of speed has come over unharmed, too. The end result is a Wii racer that moves along at an unexpectedly quick pace in the realm of the WipEout series and even approaches F-Zero GX's lightning-fast performance here and there (although the framerate is not as smooth as Nintendo's title). Naturally, everything also runs 480p and 16:9 widescreen mode, always beneficial for those of you with HDTVs.
The racing fundamentals powering Speed Racer are better than anticipated, too. You control your vehicle (from a selection of more than a dozen) with the WIi remote. Hold the controller on its side and steer, tilting left and right as you would in Excite Truck or Mario Kart Wii. In fact, the title's in-game tutorials suggest that you use the recently released Wii Wheel, which shows that the developer has future-proofed the racer. In our experience, controlling high-speed racing games with the Wii remote can be problematic because accelerometer input is slightly less accurate and in turn responsive than a traditional analog stick. Sidhe has overcome this potential issue with track design that leads cars into curves and turns. It's a subtle undertaking and you may not even notice it, but it makes all the difference.
There's much more to the control scheme than steering, though. You can engage in all sorts of Car-Fu, a terrible moniker for the enjoyable act of using your vehicle to battle opponents. As you race through levels, perform tricks, land jumps and avoid hitting walls, you build up boost power and you can acquire up to four boost levels. If you engage a boost directly behind an enemy (done by tapping B-trigger), you'll boost bash them, which may send them skidding off to the side in a stylish slow-motion display. You can also perform satisfying spins, smack downs, round houses, hyper spins, torpedos and more, all done very easily while you race. And they're fun. Pull back with the Wii remote and your vehicle will hop into the air; if you time it just right, you'll land on an enemy and send them crashing. Easily our favorite maneuver, though, is the shunt, which lets you side-strafe into enemies, sending them off course -- and perfect for gaining extra boost at a rapid pace. The process for performing the shunt seems gimmicky -- you jerk to the left or right with the Wii remote -- but it works very well and proves an addictive executable as there's a very tactile, thrilling feeling to side-swiping competitors.
Beyond the Car-Fu mechanics, though, Speed Racer seldom strays from the formula its title suggests: specifically, speed and racing. There's no real weapons, just speed bursts and the occasional on-road obstacle. Races are always fast, but are temporarily transformed into weirdly spectacular light shows if you trigger four boosts in a row, at which time Speed goes into the "zone" -- it looks like he's racing through a rave. That the game is unabashedly comic book and tethered to straightforward racing is almost refreshing. Sidhe hasn't attempted to pepper the experience with useless cinematics from the movie or, for that matter, even included a coherent storyline of any kind. Instead, it's focused on the racing mechanics, period, and that's just fine by us.
Speed Racer does hit a few brick walls, however. The game has a couple quirks where the racing mechanics are concerned. The drift plays a major role in the movie, but using it in the game is detrimental, as grinds only slow you down. As a result, you won't want to use them, even if they do look fun. Meanwhile, the framerate, while fluid, is not nearly as fast as a title like F-Zero GX, which is disappointing since the game is all about delivering the greatest sensation of speed. But the biggest offender is the lack of variety. The single-player mode takes you through the Championship, which consists of only three different classes, all of which can be whizzed through in no time. As you go, you'll be expecting to unlock dozens of new tracks but think again -- instead, you see the same old levels over and over and over again, a truth that definitely diminishes the excitement of moving forward and simultaneously decreases your drive to keep going.
Finally, AI characters have taken a cue from the Mario Kart series, as they stay unfairly rubberbanded to your vehicle during matches. Even if you're already in first place and trigger four boosts, you will rocket through a level for 30 seconds and when the effect is over again, opponents will somehow be right on your tail again. And guess what? You're not safe from enemy Car-Fu, either. They will wage war on your car's bumper and you will have no means to counter their attacks short of guessing since there is no rear camera or any on-screen indicator of where your competitors stand in a race.
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