Reviewed: May 10, 2003
Released: January 28, 2003
Iíve been a huge fan of futuristic racing games ever since the early days of F-Zero and Wipeout. Since then weíve had nearly a dozen such games spanning all the major systems including the latest hovercraft racer, HSX: HyperSonic Xtreme.
HSX, like those that came before it, doesnít stray far from the traditional concepts that make all these games fun. Take a modest selection of wedge-shaped craft and put them a few feet over some of the most twisted and looping tracks you have ever seen in a console racer and you just begin to scratch the surface of this challenging and extremely (or should I say ďxtremelyĒ) fun racer.
Some Xtreme features:
HSX is divided into two main components, racing and track editing. Normally, perks like a track editor are treated like an add-on, but in HSX over half the manual and half the main menu is dedicated to the custom course designer built right into this game, and rightly so. HSX features one of the most powerful and friendly track editors Iíve had the pleasure of using. But before we get into that letís talk about the racing game that lies at the heart of HSX.
One of my favorite futuristic racers of all time is F-Zero, and HSX is about as close as anyone has ever come to creating the thrilling experience of that classic. You start by picking one of ten available racers, each with their own specific hovercraft that varies in attributes like shields, grip, acceleration, etc. There is a decent balance between all the craft, so all are competitive once you learn how to drive them properly.
Like most games of this type everything is locked down tight forcing you to play through the various Arcade and Slalom series. Only the first track in each series is available when you start. By placing in the top three for each race new tracks are unlocked that then become available in Time Trial and two-player modes. There are three arcade series and two slalom series, each with six races for a total of 30 races.
Computer AI is brutal, even on the easiest of the three difficulty settings. The computer racers are not flawless and you will often see them scraping the walls and bursting into flames or flying wildly off course on a jump and smash into the side of a mountain, but there are always at least two racers in each race that offer some stiff competition. This is where strategy comes into play.
Unlike games such as Wipeout where you have weapons and can attack your opponents, HSX is all about speed, racing, and coming in first. As you race around these roller coaster tracks there are long strips of speed boosters. Racing above these striped areas will boost your craft to speeds in excess of 7000mph. There are also red power-ups you can pass through that will fill your boosters. It takes about four of these red icons to fully charge your boost meter, although you can boost at any time provided you have some energy remaining.
The trick to placing first (or even in the top 3) requires you to save that boost energy for the long stretches between the normal booster strips. This way you can be boosting through about 80-90% of the track, which is about the only way to remain competitive with the leaders of the pack.
Another innovative feature in HSX is the huge jumps you will encounter in the track. Some of these are massive and will literally have you catching massive amounts of air as you sail over cities and even mountains. Using the boosters and the acceleration strips can help you complete these jumps but there is a bit of player finesse that goes into making an un-boosted jump. You have full control over your ship while in the air so you can steer to either side and tilt your craft forward or back to gain additional lift or forward thrust.
Track design ranges from pure evil to pure fun. There are more twists, turns, loops, and inverted sections of track than you can count and plenty of hazards like patches of ice and sand that affect your tracking and speed. Tracks widen and narrow and the track walls vary in height or disappear entirely making it all too easy to slip off the track and plummet into the hillside below.
Ships will take gradual damage as you scrape the walls. There are yellow health icons on some of the more dangerous tracks, but these are few and far between and they only restore a fraction of your shields. After you take so much damage your ship will catch on fire and flames and billowing black smoke will obscure your view, but splashing through any available pools of water on the track will put out the flames. You have unlimited restarts if you explode, but there is a severe time penalty that will generally send you to the back of the pack unless you already have a substantial lead.
Control is solid with responsive analog control over your ship. The L2 / R2 buttons control your side thrusters allowing you to navigate sharp turns and twisty sections of tracks while the X button serves as your main thruster. This button stays down 99% of the race unless you need to back off for a very tight turn. The square is your boost and can be used as long as you have energy in your boost meter.
Unfortunately, HSX does one thing that really annoys me about a lot of racing games. There are one or two ďgoodĒ racers and if you donít win they always do, giving the entire scoring system an unbalanced feel. Even though there are ten racers in each event it always seem that you are racing against the same top two.
The last part of HSX is track design; apparently a major selling point for this title. Itís hyped on the box, it takes up half the manual and there is even a large tutorial included in the game. The designers are obviously banking on your desire to create you own tracks and have given you the ultimate toolkit to do so. You can even create your own custom race series using several of your own tracks.
You start by picking a location for your track; either a preset location or you can freely choose any location on the world map. Zoom down to terrain level and start laying track using the intuitive menu interface. Itís terribly easy and a total blast to race on your own tracks, but itís even more fun to challenge your friends on your own designs. You have full creative control and can easily make tracks that rival the ones that come with the game. You can even add scenery and landscape details to round out the racing experience, but you may have to tinker with these settings to find a functional mix of detail versus framerate.
The visuals in HSX are rather simplistic by modern gaming standards, but by keeping it simple the designers have been able to maintain a fluid 60fps throughout the game, which helps convey the sense of blazing speeds you achieve during the races.
There are a few issues I had with the graphics; namely the water droplet effect that occurs when you splash through puddles on the track or when itís raining. At 65mph the water doesnít stick to my Saturnís windshield in stationary drops so why do perfectly round drops of water appear on my screen when I am going 7000mph. At those speeds the water would turn to steam and evaporate in the plasma surrounding the nose of my ship. It looked cool in Quantum Redshift and a few other recently released games, but now it seems contrived and overdone, much like lens flare effects when they first started cropping up in games.
The water becomes especially annoying when you have weather effects turned on. Weather isnít random in HSX. You either turn it on or off and since having it on does nothing to affect your hovercraftís performance, only your vision, there is no reason to have it on unless you enjoy water or snow streaking across your screen.
There is no fogging so the draw distance is visible out as far as the eye can see, for the terrain that it. On some of the larger jumps you will be flying through the air and the track you need to land on wonít even appear for several second. Then, as you steer toward the track, details will slowly fill in like track walls, speed stripes, etc. It never hurts the gameplay, but it does get annoying at times.
The track designs are crazy, bordering on insane, but the environments they inhabit are relatively unimpressive, mostly in order to keep the framerate high enough. Once you start designing your own tracks you will see the challenges the designers had to overcome to bring you fluid races with low to moderate detail. At speeds that average 6000-7000mph you probably wonít have time to be sightseeing anyway, and what background imagery is present does manage to imprint on your peripheral vision and compliment the entire experience.
You have three camera angles to race from; near and far chase views and a nose cam that will create such a sensation of speed youíll be yakking on the living room floor before the first race is over. There is also a great replay camera that captures the race from all sorts of TV-style angles.
The music in HSX is the typical techno-rock stuff youíve heard a hundred times before and will probably continue to hear as long as they keep making these kinds of games. Most of the soundtrack is that energetic, thumping, beat-driven music that keeps pace with the race. A few of the songs were actually quite good while most simply slipped into the background where they belong.
Sound effects get the job done, but they pale in comparison to games like the Star Wars Episode One Racer, Wipeout Fusion, or the aforementioned Quantum Redshift. None of the engines sound all that different and their sounds are rather subdued, even in the external camera angles.
I may have had a hard time recommending this game as anything more than a rental when it first released for $29, but now you can easily find the game for $19 and if you really look hard enough you can find it for $8-10 in the budget bins of a lot of stores.
HSX, as a game is rather short. You can speed through all 30 races in about 3-4 hours. Whether you decide to replay the game on the other two difficulty levels or not may add 8-10 more hours onto this estimate, but the true staying power is definitely in the track editor. With this handy utility the game can last for as long as the creative juices are flowing.
Despite the average graphics, sound, and gameplay length, HSX: HyperSonic Extreme is a great racing game that will keep you mesmerized for as long as you play it. HSX doesnít bring anything new to the genre, but rather borrows, refines, and offers a creative mix of what we already love about the racers that have preceded it. And at budget pricing, you can probably pick this title up with the change found in your couch.