Pacer's a Future-Racer Aiming to Fill that F-Zero Shaped Hole in Our Hearts

By Rich Stanton on at

With hindsight, one can describe the original Wipeout as something of a triumph of style over substance. In some ways this is what made it the most emblematic of early PlayStation games: as Sony strove to establish the console as 'cool', this title arrived with simply stunning art design, visuals, music and branding. From the box to the in-game action, Wipeout simply was cool. It felt a world away from the cartoony sci-fi of F-Zero, its most obvious predecessor, and like a game made for young adults rather than teenagers (which might seem a fine distinction, but it's one of the most important aspects of how PlayStation successfully distinguished itself from SEGA and Nintendo).

There is, however, a bit of a dirty secret about Wipeout. Whisper it but, as a game, it really could have used a little more fine-tuning. I'm not saying it's bad or anything, but the controls are overly sensitive which, in concert with the impressive speed, makes it much more of a trial-and-error driving game than a genuine racer. The crafts had an incredibly slow acceleration speed after you'd bumped into the sides of the track, meaning otherwise-perfect races would be ruined by tiny misjudgements at the last. Various developers clearly came to realise this over time, which is why you the greatest Wipeout games, for my money, were the PSP titles, which retained everything that was blisteringly good while having a much smoother handling experience.

But I digress. The reason is that the first thing I look for in any game of this ilk is how it handles that marriage of extreme speed and craft handling. And after whipping through more than a few tracks in Pacer, this semi-new title (I'll explain shortly) has got the most important thing right: the 'feel' of a sleek and superfast hover-arrow streaking forwards, making minor dips and rises in altitude as the track changes, and smoothly cornering at some obscene angle with minimal loss in speed before once more shooting forwards into a straight.

Not that it began this way, of course. My first few laps were a mess of wall-bumps and wild steering as I learned how to properly incorporate the air brakes at the heart of the crafts' handling. Yes, it works a lot like F-Zero GX (which is a great thing). You have both a left and right airbrake, mapped to the bumpers, and in concert with your current speed these are the key to re-orienting the craft as you enter corners or curves at high speed: a little tap will tip the nose in that direction, then a quick burst of acceleration will take you into that line; a sharp hold will yank your craft's shape in that direction, then you quickly tug it out with a speed burst.

There are all sorts of gradations in-between, but what's so nice about this handling is how well it holds up at speed. The clue is in the title, but: Pacer is a very fast game indeed. The faster a racing game is, the most you're going to misjudge track elements and be surprised by what's suddenly appeared ahead. Once you have a feel for how to control your speed and use the air brakes to quickly adjust to a new line and pull into it, these situations have an escape route. In certain other games, that wall you just noticed will shortly have an attractive craft's debris decorating it. In Pacer you can not only slam on the brakes but use them to rescue the situation without a crash, and get you back en route fast.

For the tech nerds this is running at 60FPS on the consoles (no Switch version, sadly), and at 144FPS on PC - during over an hour playing the game, one or two minor bugs cropped up (textures not loading, a bit of screen-tear or slowdown), but for a game still several months from full release this is in my experience completely normal.

The only slight caveat there is, as I said earlier, Pacer is a semi-new game. The core of this experience is an older title called Formula Fusion, released in summer 2017, which was a decent if extremely bare bones racer. Essentially what's happened is that the studio behind that game have been funded to do it again, but properly this time around. This meant Formula Fusion has been removed from sale and re-branded to Pacer.

That might make some players sneer at this, but I can't emphasise enough how basic elements of that original title were, and Pacer is on a different level.

Rather than going on about it, I'll give an example of the kind of richness I mean. There really are some sights to see here, and it's such an underrated aspect of racing games in general. One of the main reasons Outrun 2: Coast to Coast is my favourite-ever racing experience is all the stuff you see as you drive through that world, sometimes cruising past gorgeous California-style beaches, sometimes through European-style coastal towns, and sometimes speeding towards nothing less than a god-damn space rocket that you just know is going to take off at some point.

I'm not saying Pacer is on that level, more that its designers have made these 14 tracks visually distinct and filled them with surprising things that catch the player's eye as you zoom by. Fantasy companies have their trackside billboards, while perhaps a monolithic corporate block dominates the skyline, or a beautiful mountain range moves lazily past, or you whip through sealed neon tunnels before breaking out into blue sky. Does a racing game necessarily need a giant Ganesh-style statue sitting in the crook of a bend, as in this article's opening image? Of course not, but is the experience immeasurably improved by its inclusion? Praise be, yes.

Another great inclusion in this regard is the ability to play any of its tracks in reverse, or in mirror mode, or combine the two, and choose a day or night vibe. I managed to test out a few variations on the tracks I'd already raced most on, and they were immediately a new kind of challenge and, in some cases, looked even more spectacular at night (it's probably because I'm a sucker for neon future cities).

This kind of tweaking mindset is what lies behind one of Pacer's distinctions from the obvious competition. The various craft can be levelled up as you race, and customised to accentuate whatever kind of racing style you prefer. In addition to this I haven't mentioned the weapons and the unusual way in which they're incorporated: you select a loadout of two for each race, rather than picking them up on the track.

My first thought with this was that players will quickly find an 'ideal' loadout and online play will become dominated by it, though Pacer's developers reckon the game's history means many have been playtested and balanced to a high standard. We'll have to wait and see on that one, but the weapons I used were a kind of electric line that moved forwards from my craft, stretched across the track, then shot forward and gave every craft it hit a shock (the effect is more to slow them down than make them crash). The second was a homing missile which required a lock-on to be held for a few seconds before... well, homing in, knocking the target off-course, and doing some damage. After enough hits, any craft will explode and reset.

The weapons didn't dominate Pacer for me. In fact, the developers had to keep reminding me to use them; my focus was so completely on getting those air brake toggles bang-on, and that feeling of losing as little speed as possible on a tough bend. That was what absorbed me in this and, while Nintendo continues to drag its heels over giving the world another F-Zero (come on, get F-Zero GX on Switch), blasting around Pacer's tracks soon came to feel like a very good substitute indeed.