Platforms: PC (reviewed) | PSN version TBA
Developer: Active Zone Group
We love arcade racing games here at Dealspwn, and better yet, we love the brave few that take us out of traditional cars and put us in other, more interesting modes of transport. Like totally rad boats. Or planes. Or ridiculously awesome anti-gravity sleds.
WipEout tends to monopolise the ridiculously awesome anti-gravity sled market, but fresh out of Poland comes Indie studio Active Zone Group with a lightning-fast, cut-price contender. Death Road aspires to be a neon-edged, Sci-Fi racer that can stack up with the big boys, and in most respects, it succeeds.
There's not much of a storyline, which is absolutely fine by us. The year is... the future... and people race ridiculously awesome anti-gravity sleds for fun and profit. As a wannabe newcomer to the scene, you'll need to push through over fifty varied singleplayer races, gain points to unlock new sleds and weapons, and face down increasingly vicious AI competitors. Quick races and online multiplayer are on hand to provide meaty replay value once you've unlocked some decent gear.
First things first: Death Road absolutely nails the sensation of extreme speed. Holding the accelerator will cause you to involuntarily lean backwards on the chair as imaginary G-forces pummel you into submission, while the slick futuristic levels hurtle past your shiny sci-fi cockpit. Opponents constantly jockey for position, their colourful tail streaks occasionally punctuated by enormous explosions as your powerful weapons tear into their hulls. Active Zone Group have done an excellent job with both art design and raw graphics output, creating a solid and believable selection of environments that are modern enough to impress yet pleasingly rooted in reality. The bespoke engine only offers a handful of resolutions, but it provides some nifty particle effects, reasonable textures for an inexpensive download title, copious motion blur and a properly visceral experience. It's also Alt-Tab stable, which is a bonus.
The controls are fairly standard for arcade racers, and you'll likely get into the swing of things fairly quickly. If using a keyboard, you'll use the arrow keys to steer, accelerate and break. You've got a limited boost, a fire button and three multiple camera angles - and that's your lot. After all, it's difficult to drift or handbrake turn in a vehicle that never touches the ground. Keys can be rebound at will - a nice touch - though they bizarrely have to be manually mapped to a gamepad. It's a shame that Xbox 360 controllers aren't automatically set up, and whilst they're natively compatible, you'll have to spend some time rebinding each and every command before you can use it. Including steering left and right. How quaint.
The lack of direct camera controls are also slightly vexing, though many arcade racers have admittedly gotten by just fine without them.
Handling comes down to your vehicle of choice. Acquiring the eleven racers requires you to obtain certain goals in the singleplayer campaign (such as besting a certain level or accruing a high number of cumulative player points), and each one features a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. As you'd expect, the faster sleds are fairly twitchy and boast a higher turning circle at higher speeds, whereas the more agile rides will take much longer to reach their highest velocities. Just as importantly, the larger vehicles have more armour and shield capacity than their faster cousins... which is lucky since you'll bear the brunt of an inordinate amount of firepower in every single race.
Death Road handles weapons brilliantly. The selection may be fairly small, but each weapon boasts a discrete special ability that makes them relevant for different events. The starting plasma rifle, for example, is weak but actively charges the boost gauge every time you score a hit. A slow energy cannon can freeze enemy steering and make their sleds less responsive. Unlocking them requires you to acquire cumulative points thresholds in certain chapters, which lets you access the more powerful armaments by consistently placing second or third as opposed to winning every time. And then, naturally, you'll equip your new toys to make securing pole position that little bit easier.
The singleplayer campaign is fun and surprisingly expansive thanks to four entirely separate chapters/difficulty levels, but it does falter occasionally. Some of the missions are littered with pre-set mines and no respawn option, making them thoroughly miserable to grind through. Worse, the same selection of tracks are constantly repeated. Since participating is the only way to get ahead, you'll occasionally have to dig in for hours of frustrating retries. Free race and multiplayer offer more in the way of variety (including multiple game modes such as elimination races, combat deathmatches and an innovative 'hunt' gametype), though the use of Gamespy as a multiplayer client is slightly retro to say the least.
A horrific (or worse, cheating) AI can scupper a racing game, and there's no doubt that Death Road will keep your fellow competitors right on your tail. Thankfully, Active Zone Group were considerate enough to provide players with a way of holding on to the lead: landmines. These powerful deterrents are dropped directly behind your vehicle, meaning that it's easier to maintain first place without being instantly annihilated by overzealous AI opponents.
There's just one major problem with Death Road, and it's unfortunately big enough to hold the entire game back. While the eight tracks look great, they're neither long or expansive enough when compared to the likes of WipEout and other arcade racers. The basic mechanics would be perfectly suited for enormous, wide-ranging courses packed with jumps and shortcuts, but instead, the core gameplay is hamstrung by bland, narrow-minded and uninspired track design. They're short, rather boring and unbelievably linear, with none of the stunts, chicanes and hazards we've come to expect from modern titles. It's a wasted opportunity for creating a truly superior racer.
- Fast, fluid and gorgeous in motion
- 55 singleplayer levels, multiple free race gametypes, multiplayer
- Tough, rewarding fun, great weapon selection
- Short, boring, unimaginative tracks
- Controls have to be manually bound to gamepads
- Serious difficulty spikes
- Gamespy-powered multiplayer
The Short Version: Death Road is sensationally fast, packed with content and looks gorgeous in motion. The visceral sense of speed is astounding, but sadly, an otherwise excellent arcade racer is let down by disappointingly blinkered track design. We hope that Active Zone Group will release some new, larger and more imaginative courses down the line.