The Fast and the Obscurious
When I was but a hopeless Counter-Strike newbie and the word ‘eSports’ still earned a little red wavy line of disapproval from Microsoft Word’s spell-checker, I often imagined that competitive video games would gradually get faster and faster as time goes on, constantly attempting to one-up each other by demanding progressively more inhuman reaction times from their players. In my head I envisioned teams with eyes fixed unblinkingly on flashing monitors, parsing meaning from virtual scenes changing too rapidly for anybody else to keep up. Commentators would be hired based purely on their ability to speak coherently at Zero Punctuation-tier words per minute, and slow-motion replays would take up more of the recording than the actual live footage. It’s not a world that I ever expect to see happen anymore (thankfully) but if it did, Redout—a speedy little anti-gravity racing game in the vein of classics like Wipeout and F-Zero—would probably be one of the first signs of it coming to fruition.
So it’s the distant future year of ‘humanity has officially stopped giving a damn’ and the planet Earth has been transformed into a harsh, near-uninhabitable wasteland by the inevitable onset of global warming, a change that would probably carry more weight if most of the population hadn’t already buggered off to Mars or some distant moon. Fortunately there is no patch of land, however weather-blasted and miserable, that some entrepreneur will not co-opt for the purposes of entertainment—as anybody who has ever attended a music festival can attest—and as a result, the planet’s surface scrapes by as a stage for extreme tourism, theme parks, giant mecha fighting tournaments (I mean, probably) and of course, irresponsibly fast levitating racing leagues with very particular rulesets.
Unless you’re an enormous dork like me who reads through the entire Steam store page before clicking ‘buy’, however, you won’t encounter any such backstory. You start the campaign, pick a craft and boom, you’re in a race, sailing over the apocalyptic desert sands before you even know which pedal is the antigravity clutch. The controls are tighter than a pair of latex underpants and quite nuanced to boot, letting you adjust your pitch, strafe slightly and even tilt around mid-jump to pull off those tricky knife-edge manoeuvres at Mach 2, but they do take a bit of getting used to in a “rub your tummy, pat your head” sort of way, so the lack of even a cursory explanation of the buttons can initially make it feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep end.
But then you get a handle on things, and oh, what a sense of velocity. What face-melting, hair-ripping, ribcage-crushing velocity. It’s easy to make a racing game where everything has a maximum speed of nine thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine grid units per second, but to make one that really communicates that speed to the player, all while remaining within the realm of fair and challenging playability is… well, let’s just cut it short and say that Redout accomplishes that. That ever-so familiar sense, instilled by the likes of Wipeout, of screaming along inches from the ground on a cushion of air, eyes fixated unblinkingly on the next few meters of track as it weaves and bobs and twists into knots, using every trick up your sleeve to take corners at more and more suicidal speeds, is here in all its exhilarating glory. It’s pretty clear up-front that somebody high-up in the Redout team had their gaze hungrily focussed on VR compatibility, and while I can’t personally tell you how well that particular feature works out—you’ll just have to mail me a headset, if the experience matters to you that much—I find it hard to believe that anybody could come out of a race in VR without the dazed, wide-eyed, slightly distant expression of one who has been repeatedly slapped in the face with a large, damp trout.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a futuristic racing league if driving at the cruising speed of a 747 through improbable gravity-defying tracks in a machine kept aloft by suspension of disbelief wasn’t the second most dangerous thing about being a participant. As tradition decrees, there are powerups. You can equip one passive powerup and one active powerup on the staging screen—just one of the multiple opportunities the game gives you to spend your hard-earned credits to soften up the next challenge a little—with the latter essentially letting you empty a full meter of boost in exchange for some short-lived effect. The system works nicely as a means of averting the awkward scuffle where everybody tries to fly over the same magic powerup tile as they round the first corner, but it has the unfortunate shortcoming that none of the powerups are really all that interesting or impactful. Most of the passives just unconditionally soup-up one or more of your ship’s stats—max speed, acceleration, grip, health, boost, recharge, that sort of thing—while very few of the actives feel worth the energy needed to deploy them, even when fully upgraded. Why would I use an EMP blast with no effect other than stopping my foes from regenerating boost for a few seconds? Why would I need a repair drone when health regenerates so rapidly already? Why would I need a shield that absorbs collision damage when the real hazard of colliding with somebody is that you’ll inevitably end up facing the wrong way, getting an eyeful of the crash barrier, trying to find the reverse gear while the rest of the pack leaves you in the dust?
Actually let’s expand on that, because collisions have been the killing blow for more races than I can count at this stage. There’s something very infuriating about finally clawing one’s way up to the chap in first place over the course of a lap only to be nudged gently by his tail fin and sent spinning right back to square one. I’m not asking for some ridiculous Burnout-style system where AI racers will willingly throw themselves into the path of an oncoming meat van if you so much as brush their rear bumper, but Redout goes way too far in the opposite direction to the point where it actually feels like the system is balanced against you. Every collision, right down to the most trivial scuff, seems to send you spinning out wildly with unerring consistency no matter who the instigator is, and while this certainly sounds like a realistic interaction when two floating racing ships bump at hundreds of miles an hour—minus all the flaming wreckage and ambulances and stuff, of course—the fact that I’ve never seen an enemy racer suffer the same fate is a mite suspicious. I wouldn’t mind so much, but many of the races, especially towards the earlier end of the game, are so short that an unfortunate tailspin on the first bend—brought on by some cheeky beggar who was in the mood for a scrap and knew he could come out on top—is all it takes to seal your fate bringing up the rear.
And yet despite rusty nails like that lurking in wait, Redout isn’t nearly as consistently vicious as it seems to think it is. Initially you get thrown in the deep end and yes, you’ll be struggling to just barely crawl over the lip of the podium, but the difficulty curve quickly begins to zig-zag more and more erratically until every race is either spent desperately vying for third place or cruising around casually at the front without so much as a speck in your rear-view mirror. Rubber banding is a bit of a dirty word in racing game circles, and not without good reason, but with so many variables influencing your own performance standard—your powerup loadout, your choice of chariot, how much money you’ve forked over to have a mechanic drill holes in it and tell you it’ll go faster—it feels as if the game could stand to be a bit more adaptive. But hey, balancing is one of those things that’s hard to pull off without a massive pool of human test subjects lying around, and most indie developers don’t have the basement space for that.
When it comes to sailing along on the open gravity-road with the apocalyptic sun in your eyes and the hurricane-force wind in your hair, though, I’ll take style over substance any day, and Redout has the former in spades. On paper, the head-on collision of bright, lurid, low-poly geometry with all the shiny next-gen lighting and shaders the engine can muster sounds about as appealing as putting a racing spoiler on your dad’s battered Honda, but the end result—much like your dad’s battered Honda—looks surprisingly good when it’s whizzing past at half the speed of sound. I was especially a fan of the ship designs, which are all unique and appealing in their own way, hinting at their team’s philosophies and influences: the chunky all-American muscle machine with all the inertia of a sledgehammer; the sleek European supercar wannabe with strong all-round performance and no body mass; the experimental prototype with a glowing power orb cradled in the middle of its needle-shaped chassis; even the definitely-not-a-podracer with all the straight-line speed and structural integrity you’d expect from two rockets dragging a sled on a length of fishing line.
It’s a shame that the same level of character doesn’t extend to the environments themselves. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by The Designers Republic’s striking, postmodern visual work on the Wipeout games, or maybe Redout just moves too damn fast for anything but the largest roadside features to stand out, but by and large a lot of the tracks are strangely unmemorable. There are four areas around which the tracks are built, following the Super Mario 64 school of world themes—Shifting Sand Land, Snowman’s Land, that one tropical level I can’t remember the name of, Bowser’s Deep Core Mining Project—and while there are occasional distinctive sections, like whistling through the air past the Sphinx’s head or rocketing vertically down into the centre of the Earth, I couldn’t possibly tell you what the layouts of the tracks they were part of looked like. Everything kind of blurs together, which is a bit of a letdown for a setting where they could be filming G Gundam right over the hill for all you know.
Perhaps the oddest part of Redout is the feature it’s trying to define itself by: redouts. Well, and greyouts, I suppose. While most games in the vein of ‘high speed anti-gravity racer’ carefully skim over the problem of how their pilots sustain g-forces of such magnitudes without all the skin coming off their faces like pants flying off a washing line, Redout embraces it. Take a whiplash dive or a breakneck ascent without pitching your craft appropriately and the effects will manifest, dimming your vision or dyeing it a distracting shade of crimson to simulate your blood getting irresponsibly sloshed around. It’s interesting in theory, having to take the limitations of your feeble human frame into account as well as those of your machine, and I do rather like that it’s an opaque system instead of some abstract bar that fills up whenever you hit a sweet ramp, but it’s simply not impactful enough to be anything more than a fun little visual effect. The momentary screen tints are the absolute worst punishment you can possibly experience for taking a loop at an inconsiderate speed, and yes, it’s a little disorienting the first time around when you need to visually focus on the track, but by the second lap you’re already running off muscle memory more than anything else anyway, so you might as well floor it and deal with the piddling effects of neural tissue oxygen starvation later.
Redout is a game that’s perpetually within arm’s reach of greatness, but just can’t keep itself in the danger zone. The core moment-to-moment driving experience—screaming through corners, fearlessly accelerating over blind apexes, making hundreds of micro-adjustments as your speedometer breaks four digits and just keeps on going—is as polished and sublime as the finest examples of the genre, but the weaknesses of the supporting elements mean that it struggles to nail those shining, memorable moments. You’ll never turn a race around with a well-timed powerup or barely scrape over the line with half a dozen competitors breathing down your neck; the vast majority of the game passes in a haze of similar-looking tracks and your lonely whining engines. Is it really worth it for those scattered moments of glory, when all the game’s elements align perfectly and you barely snatch first place in one desperate, daring, high-speed manoeuvre?
Yeah, I suppose.