Xenon Racer, as you might notice from the images, brings a slightly new approach to racing while also seemingly drawing strong inspiration from the Ridge Racer franchise, particularly Ridge Racer Type 4 (R4).
Yes, the outrageous car designs and the drifty driving style see this game resemble R4 … and it doesn’t stop there. In fact, the upbeat electronic music, the track layouts and even the slightly annoying race narration end up making Xenon Racer feel like a direct tribute to R4.
Thankfully, Xenon Racer does add a few modern touches. It approaches racing in the traditional fashion – with a world championship campaign and some time trial and elimination races on the side – but you get to customise your vehicle thanks to the choice of a number of colours, preset liveries, wheels, tyres and aerodynamic elements. Each car also bears a unique set of performance stats (speed, acceleration, handling, drifting, etc.) that can be subtly altered through customisation.
What makes the game more interesting are the crazy car designs that embrace a futuristic focus on downforce and aerodynamics. The designs are Le Mans prototype-inspired, which is fitting because you’ll spend a lot of time doing somewhere in the region of 300 km/h. Some models furthermore boast active aerodynamics, adding a sense of innovation to the experience.
Sadly, since all of the featured cars are electric, the sound aspect is seriously lacking. Mechanical noises are present (albeit very hushed) and because the cars use a single-speed gearbox much of what you hear is a constant whine … which gets very old, very quickly.
Another area in which Xenon Racer lacks is in the graphics department. While the game is very colourful, many objects are too sharp and even slightly pixilated, lending it an unfinished feeling. What the game does reasonably well, though, is keep up with the speed of any given race. Frame rate drops don’t occur during track time, but I did notice some strange graphic lagging at the beginning of each race.
While the presentation of the game is impressive for a small-time developer, it’s a pity the gameplay doesn’t meet the same standards. Of course, Xenon Racer is by no means the worst racing game around, but there are elements that make it extremely frustrating.
Obviously, it follows an arcade racer feel, which means it places a lot of emphasis on drifting. But unfortunately drifting in this game isn’t quite fluid enough. Engaging a drift isn’t much of a challenge as it requires only a quick lift-off from the throttle, but the challenge is maintaining this drift as you cannot countersteer once engaged. This means adjusting the angle has to be done via the throttle, which in its own right is an issue because it’s not very responsive. The only way to secure a clean corner is to get your entry point 100 percent on the mark, which means there’s absolutely no room for error.
This becomes an issue around chicanes, of which this game has quite a few, because you won’t be able to set up your car for the second change of direction. There’s also no run-off area on tracks, which means you’ll often land up straight in the wall. Braking hard for a corner would therefore seem the best approach, but unfortunately acceleration is unbearably slow … so if you sacrifice speed in order to take a clean corner, you’ll lose too much time and allow opponents to overtake you.
In most cases, the best bet is to take the hit, make contact with the wall and deal with the consequences. Thankfully, there’s a DRS boost feature that can be built up by drifting or collecting power-ups on the track, which helps you accelerate from slow speeds more effectively (still, it’s often better to save these for the straights).
Of course, whenever you make contact with a wall or opponent, you car sustains damage. When the damage hits a certain point, your car will be “reset”, which will in turn see you sacrificing time. Thankfully, the rate at which your car becomes damaged is based on the selected level of difficulty.
The issues with cornering don’t end there. If you’re driving a car with a low drift figure, you’ll often hit the guardrail and once you do that there’s no escaping, even if you bring the car to a near halt. Why? Well, once you get below a certain speed the aerodynamic elements lose effect, which means the car won’t steer sharply enough to release itself from the clutches of the corner. Obviously, riding the corner out will cause significant damage to your car so it’s often best to pick a car that has a lofty drift figure (although this defeats the point of making different cars available to the player).
Once you get the hang of the drifting physics, it becomes a fairly satisfying game to play. Many of the tracks have sweeping corners so for most of the race, you should be safe once your skills are up to scratch. Still, there’s one track that will have you pulling your hair out regardless: Canada clockwise. The corners are far too sharp to drift around and because most of the areas are narrow, you’ll find yourself bumping up against your opponents. In short, this track is a damage-fest that will quickly have you considering dropping to “easy” mode.
Ultimately, Xenon Racer is an acquired taste. You really have to put plenty of hours into it to fully appreciate the game. But, unfortunately, I don’t think there are many gamers patient enough to put themselves through this process.
I think it’s a great tribute to arcade games of the past and from a design point of view it stands out, too, but it simply doesn’t have the sort of long-lasting appeal that’d have you playing for hours. Indeed, most players would likely be overwhelmed by the initial frustration…