Monday, August 03, 2009

Super Laser Racer Review

Super Laser Racer, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Pleasing arcade-sim hybrid driving mechanics, satisfying weapons, well designed tracks, quality AI opponents, inexpensive, nice graphical style
The Not So Good: Limited tournament mode, lacks multiplayer, interface does not indicate ammunition level
What say you? A futuristic top-down arcade combat racer that's quite fun: 6/8

Ever since Super Mario Kart perfected the arcade combat racing game, many newcomers have attempted to recreate that balance of skill, luck, and shooting red shells at Donkey Kong. Most of these fail to live up to expectations, and now it's New Star Games's turn at bat. Fresh off New Star Grand Prix, the developer has adapted that racing game to a more arcade shoot-em-up named Super Laser Racer that takes place in the future, a future that looks a lot like Geometry Wars. How does the racing game adjust to a more action-oriented universe?

Though obviously not original, the graphics in Super Laser Racer are still effective in the minimalist way. The clean lines have a nice neon glow to them, and the effects during the races are quite effective, from getting damage to weapons going “boom boom pow.” You play against a predominantly black background and the lack of textures actually does not hurt the presentation: it's a smart, efficient design decision. The music is a fine mix of tunes that fits the theme of the game well, and the sound effects convey the chaotic nature of the races well. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics and the sound design, despite their simple nature.

Super Laser Racer takes place in the future. I can tell because all of the vehicles and tracks are now made out of neon, which has clearly become a precious, highly valued commodity reserved only for the super-rich. You can undertake three race types: the typical lapped race (from 3 to 15), “eliminator” (which eliminates the last place car each lap), and survivor (which disables recharging shields). There is also a tournament mode that consists of (except for the highest circuit) four races that must be completed in succession, with drivers earning points each round. Considering the strong career options in previous New Star games, the underdeveloped tournament mode is a disappointment. You cannot save your progress during or even between races (troublesome for people with busy schedules) and there's nothing to do other than race: no upgrades, set-ups, monetary modes, nothing. About the only reason to plug through the tournament mode is to unlock all of the cars. There isn't anything beyond the single races and tournament mode, as Super Laser Racer lacks multiplayer options. Boo racing games without online play! Yay racing games that work in Windows and Macintosh!

Super Laser Racer comes with thirteen well-designed tracks that feature multiple paths and braking zones that actually require skill (no holding down the accelerator). Tracks are scattered with turbo boosts (like Mario Kart), weapon pick-ups (like Mario Kart), and a shield recharge zone in the pits (like....oh, actually, not like Mario Kart..well, maybe the star, but that's more of a pick-up than a zone you can pass over...oh well, never mind). Most of these zones are placed in good positions that aren't terribly out of the way but not directly in the racing line. If thirteen tracks are not enough, Super Laser Racer comes with a point-and-click editor for creating your own circuits: nice. It's fairly intuitive (selecting and placing tiles, drawing the racing line) and easy enough to use. Super Laser Racer also comes with twelve cars to unlock (three are initially) that vary according to acceleration, top speed, steering, and shield strength; there seems to be a zero sum with respect to the attributes, so if a car is strong in one area it is weak in another.

The basic racing of Super Laser Racer is not surprisingly similar to New Star Grand Prix, although it found it to be easier thanks to increased cornering ability and more forgiving track layouts. The main difference comes in the “laser” part of Super Laser Racer, as there are various weapons you can collect along the way: lasers (duh!), missiles, mines, chainguns, bombs, and other assorted projectiles. You can only carry one weapon at a time, and the game does not indicate how many shots you have left. This is made even more confusing because some weapons are single-shot while others grant multiple uses. There needs to be an indicator showing how much power you have left. Damage taken during the race can be repaired by entering the pits; there isn't enough penalty for doing this, as it almost always fully recharges your shields and doesn't slow you down enough, typically only losing one or two positions on the track. Your computer opponents are quite good, especially on the higher difficulty settings. They use the weapons effectively, but are also prone to human-like mistakes, like taking a corner too fast. Maybe the weapons are mixing up the action and the track layouts offer more variety, but the bottom line is that I found the AI drivers to be a lot more interesting to race against than in New Star Grand Prix (one suspects four months of additional development contributed as well). Overall, I enjoy the chaotic racing of Super Laser Racer more than New Star Grand Prix, and if the auxiliary features were more developed (a better tournament, online play), this would result in a higher overall score instead of just being equals.

Super Laser Racer delivers exactly what I expect from a $10 game: solid, enjoyable core gameplay. The racing is adapted well from New Star Grand Prix, easing back a bit on the difficulty to compliment the combat more effectively. The fast pace of the races works well, with turbo pads and plentiful pick-ups to dispose of those pesky enemy racers. The AI is quite competent and less robotic than before, successfully using their weapons and utilizing alternate paths along the way: they are a good foe. The quality of the AI almost makes up for the lack of a multiplayer component, but the lack of a compelling career mode makes this a more glaring omission. Every racing game needs online play, and Super Laser Racer is no exception. The points-only tournament mode borrows none of the interesting career options from other New Star games, and the only motivation to play a series of races is to unlock additional content. Even with these limitations, the appropriate low price point of Super Laser Racer makes is a good choice for fans of arcade combat games.