Apex's drab driving and painfully dim AI drivers drag down an otherwise interesting idea.
As we start to see more and more racing games hitting the market, it isn't merely enough for a game to be a solid racer in either the arcade or the simulation categories. Apex attempts to differentiate itself from the pack by putting you at the head of a new car manufacturer and challenging you to race your concept cars against similarly powered licensed cars from a handful of real-world carmakers. While this new twist is a welcome one, it isn't nearly as fleshed out as it could have been, and the game's generic approach to the actual driving doesn't pick up the slack terribly well, either. It's still a good all-around arcade-like racer, but it's definitely not one the Xbox's best.
The key portion of Apex is known as the dream mode. It's here in dream mode that you'll name your new carmaker, choose a logo for hood ornaments, and develop your first roadster. "Develop" perhaps isn't the right word here, though. You won't actually be developing anything. Instead you'll be given a choice of three different cars to build, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. From there you'll be set into motion in a series of amateur races and other challenges. As you progress, you'll open up new sections in your ever-expanding car manufacturing facility, including an area that shows how many cars you've sold. The number of cars sold is actually tied directly to your race performance, and as you sell more cars, more options will open up, such as the ability to develop one of the remaining roadsters. Or if you'd rather progress forward, you can save up your research points to develop the next class of car, the sports car. Much like in the roadster segment of the game, you're again given three choices of cars. This moves forward through the sports car ranks, through a set of supercars, and all the way up to dream cars. As you win races and progress through the game's events, your company's building expands to include new rooms--but all this really serves to do is to annoyingly spread your existing options out into different spots, making you click through a room or two before actually getting to where you want to go.
In addition to dream mode, there's an arcade mode that lets you set up quick, stakes-free races using cars and tracks you've unlocked in the dream mode. Single race and time attack options are available for one-player games, and there's also a two-player split-screen racing mode. The two-player game slows down a bit here and there, and it's also only a two-car race, so it isn't very exciting at all.
Regardless of how the shell around the driving looks and acts, driving games still come down to gameplay. Apex gives you a few simlike options, such as the ability to adjust your gear ratio and downforce, but it remains largely an arcadelike experience in the vein of Ridge Racer or Burnout. In addition to the gas and brake control, you're also given a hand brake. The cars handle reasonably well, but the whole thing begins to fall apart once you take the poor AI into consideration. Cars tend to pack up, with one lone exception that tends to be the only real challenger in any race. This pack mentality means that it's incredibly easy to go from first to last after a mistake. Also, the AI cars don't drive particularly well. None of them attempt to block your pass attempts, and they'll often slide out into barriers or, in some cases, slam into each other when driving down a straightaway. While you could chalk some of this up to the developers probably not wanting the AI drivers to behave like professional driving robots, they instead seem incompetent.
As a non-simulation-styled racing game, Apex's physics don't need to be terribly accurate, but the game's physics are definitely less than satisfying, even taking into account the genre's lax take on reality. The cars are very static on the track, and you're never really given any feedback about your car's handling. A little jolt from the controller's rumble sensors when turning would have been a nice touch here. Any time a car leaves the ground, it seems to do so in an unrealistic and silly-looking way--it's not unheard of to see cars up on one rear wheel, slowly gliding up the track for no good reason, then hitting the wall on a turn and slowly gliding back to earth. But the biggest problem with the game's physics is the way it handles collisions. There's no penalty for hitting other cars--though you'd think that you would want to keep your concept car looking nice for potential buyers--and bumping your way around turns by sliding out into your opponents is an easy way to turn sixth place into first place any time you see a 90-degree bend in the road. Once you're in the lead, keeping the lead is as easy as occasionally switching to the rear view to make sure that you're blocking the other cars from passing you on the straightaways and making sure that you're not spinning out around corners. Even if you do let a car occasionally pass you, once you've gotten down the finer points of ramming the lead car to swing around corners without losing much speed, regaining the lead is never much of a challenge.
Though its appearance doesn't surpass other Xbox driving games, like Project Gotham Racing and Rallisport Challenge, Apex's graphics are still the best thing about it. It's a pretty no-frills presentation, but it makes use of the standard Xbox driving game feature set, from lens flare to bump mapping. The game also has a pretty sterile look to it. You'll occasionally see sparks flying out of the wheel well of a damaged vehicle, but you won't see too much smoke from the tires, and you'll never see any patches of rubber from skids or burnouts. The car models for the licensed cars look pretty nice, but most of the concept cars--the ones you'll be driving all the time in dream mode--aren't terribly exciting. Some wilder designs, or at least the ability to design your own cars, wouldn't have been too out of place here, considering the game's less-than-realistic driving. Nevertheless, Apex does manage to look impressive for the most part, especially if you don't look at it too closely.
You can and should use a custom soundtrack with Apex. The music that comes with the game is really repetitive and grows tiresome very quickly. The game's sound effects are pretty much par for the course, though collisions sound woefully understated.
All in all, Apex has some neat ideas, but none of them are executed very well. Concept cars make great material for a racing game, and perhaps including some actual concept cars from licensed manufacturers would have made the game more attractive to car aficionados. Letting players actually make meaningful decisions about the concept cars would have been much cooler than what is essentially a pretty shell for the standard method of unlocking new vehicles in a driving game. And in the end, Apex's drab driving and painfully dim AI drivers drag down an otherwise interesting idea.