Thursday, August 10, 2006

Action WheelRacer Review

Action WheelRacer, developed and published by Ultrabizz.
The Good: Unique racing physics, varied terrain, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Difficult and sluggish controls, demanding graphics engine, slow AI drivers, hard to tell running order
What say you? Out of the ordinary mechanics makes this a unique racer, despite some rough edges: 6/8

Racing games have always been pretty popular on the PC. Most of them have tended towards the simulation side of the equation (NASCAR Racing, GTR, rFactor, Xpand Rally, Live for Speed) for the more sophisticated PC crowd. There’s been pretty much every racing series simulated at one point or another, but I have yet to see a title simulate racing in a giant ball, until now! Action WheelRacer puts the driver in the shoes of a hamster, piloting their giant American Gladiator-style ball around hilly race courses rife with obstacles. Will this novelty be enough to make Action WheelRacer worth playing?

The graphics of Action WheelRacer are pretty good. The environments are realistic enough, although the amount of detail present in other racing games is missing. The amount of detail on the WheelRacers is pleasing, complete with suspension-based cockpit (bouncing like the driver’s seat on a bus). Despite the fact that the graphics of Action WheelRacer don’t have the bells and whistles of other racing games, the game runs very slowly at any resolution. I’m not sure what is so demanding about this game, but I can run GTR 2 at the same resolution and better overall graphics at a smooth framerate. The entire game has a sluggish feel to it, especially when other drivers are rendered on the screen. The system resources required for Action WheelRacer don’t correlate well to the amount of eye candy. The sound in the game is disappointing: just the usual mix of engines, a silly wrecking sound, and campy background music. Still, Action WheelRacer doesn’t look and sound bad, and you won’t notice the bare environments much when you’re speeding around the corners at top speed.

Action WheelRacer features both single player and multiplayer racing on over 30 courses. Finding a multiplayer match is easy through the in-game browser, although I never saw anyone else playing when I attempted to join online games. There are two kinds of races: regular and endurance. Both are five laps, but endurance races take place on longer tracks and require a pit stop for fuel. The tracks are a good assortment of beginning and challenging courses that uses the physics of the game. The game spawns random obstacles (metal boxes) and flags that move you ahead or behind each map, so the maps are superficially different each time. However, the density of these obstacles and their impact on gameplay are minimal and just serve as minor annoyances. Piloting a giant sphere is an interesting experience, and Action WheelRacer I feel delivers a believable physics model. There are times where some wacky things happen to your ball, mostly when hitting other objects, but for the most part the game drives what I would perceive to be quite realistically. The controls in the game are quite lethargic, however; whether this is by design or not I’m not sure. Turning using the mouse required turning the sensitivity to the maximum, and I still needed to move the mouse quite a long way across the desk to turn. Maybe the precision I have with aiming in first person shooters has spoiled me, but I should still be able to have more control over my giant ball. I couldn’t test out using an alternate control method because Action WheelRacer didn’t recognize my analog gamepad (grrrr). Once you get used to the game, controlling the racers is easy enough, but the sensitivity I require just isn’t there. The AI drivers in the game are not that challenging as long as you stay on the racetrack and don’t run into anything. They will purposely wreck you, which is a good tactic in the game, but they are just simply too slow to be any real challenge. The game doesn’t give a running order for the race (just who’s in the lead) or indicate lapped cars, so your position during the race is a complete mystery unless you’re in first. The result after the race always put you at the top of the order instead of sorting by race time as well. I guess the racing and not the result is the concern of Action WheelRacer.

You won’t find another racing game that drives quite like this one, and the rest of the game is good enough to make playing Action WheelRacer enjoyable. There are some aspects of the game that could be improved, especially as better race stats, but the basic game is solid enough to make the game fun to play for the most part. The controls are too sluggish for my tastes, but I just might need to slow down a bit before entering those corners. The novelty of racing giant hamster cages goes a long way in making Action WheelRacer an enjoyable alternative to all of those generic car racers. Those interested in a different racing experience should take a serious gander at Action WheelRacer.