If there's one thing Germans know besides beer, it's automobiles. Which, amongst other promising signs, bodes well for the Deutsch team behind Beam Breakers. Developed by Simulis Software for publishing newcomer Fishtank Interactive, this pedal-to-the-metal futuristic rendition of mile-high chases and races aims to bring console-style gaming onto Pentium-compatible platforms in Q1 2002. And despite the fact that sales of PC driving games have dwindled following the wake of disappointing sales figures for BreakNeck, DethKarz, and Ford Racing, chances are good that Beam Breakers will deliver solid arcade thrills...besides, its competition at stores will be almost nonexistent.
Unlike most driving games, in which fine-tuning plays a large role, setup here is minimal. Faced with conceptual parodies of current showroom models, you merely choose from the vehicles that are unlocked and proceed right into the gameplay. Selections include the Dudge V12, Lincoln M3, Acora, CMG Oldsmobile, and other recognizable spoofs. Each car not only looks unique, touting wings, fins, spoilers, or stranger accoutrements, but handles differently as well. Inherent arcade physics notwithstanding, the program accounts for size and weight differences, though it doesn't relay such information to you during pregame preparation in any quantifiable form besides visual. Any choices made at this point will surely be based on top-speed attributes and the aesthetic viability of the roadsters you've recently unlocked by completing one of Beam Breakers' 30-plus missions.
According to the plot, you're a taxicab driver working a postmodern New York and looking for a big break. Plot details are scarce at this point, but it is certain that the story will evolve throughout play, as scenarios see cabbies interact with Russian, Italian, and Japanese gangs. Hence, level goals will include stealing vehicles and getting them to a safe haven or avoiding police long enough to safely drop off gangsters at a predetermined destination, amongst edgier fare. Few mission choices are available at first, as many more become unlocked once initial entries are successfully completed. All told, the progression scheme is logical, if uninventive, teaching beginners the basics at first and eventually ramping up difficulty settings until you're ready for a real challenge. Of course, "freeflight" options are offered as well--these let you get to know the lay of the land, but the best way to learn anything is naturally by doing.
Beyond basic configuration details lurks a simple, yet simultaneously complex racer. Environments are universally sprawling, multilevel urban backdrops teeming with traffic. Picture the air-taxi sequence spotted in The Fifth Element and you'll have an idea of what's in store. Literally hundreds of buses, trucks, cars, and transports fly around the city streets, going about their daily business. It lends locales motion and depth but makes for hazardous navigation. Dodging floating billboards, light emplacements, and hovering ads at top speed can be frustrating; you don't even want to imagine what doing so is like while hordes of commuters whiz by. Readily apparent is the need to create your own path throughout each stage, at the same time being bound by set checkpoint constraints. It doesn't matter how drivers get to these glowing green markers in the interim, just so long as they pass through them, period.
Luckily, you won't be fighting a rigged match. The interface is easy as pie, consisting of arrow-key-driven movement commands and a couple of buttons devoted to altitude. Light taps produce immediately visible results, since a highly unrealistic physics model tends toward loose responsiveness. Momentum feels appropriately light and airy as a result, giving the impression you're soaring through the smog-infested clouds. But in terms of side effects, bumping into obstacles creates unpredictable outcomes. Recovering from a head-on bender with a steel monolith takes time you may not have. Open-ended pathways or not, regaining ground lost to rival racers is tricky. The computer plays a mean game, though a competitor's viciousness can be negated with a good shove into nearby establishments. Playing fair is absolutely not encouraged.
It makes you wonder why multiplayer isn't being included out of the box. Such a freestyle, aggressive contest begs for human contact. Nonetheless, Fishtank representatives hint that this feature may be included in a proposed expansion pack. For now, rugged duels that rage over Little Italy, the Eastside, and even grittier zones must suffice. The reward for continued participation in solo mode is access to new tracks and vehicles, of which five classes exist in total. If nothing else, handling skills will improve with long-term involvement, a fact that can prove the deciding factor in airborne showdowns where damage modeling affects performance. Both intentional and stray collisions add up, so learning to drive like a pro is essential. Plus, as an added bonus, you'll learn the lay of the land and afterward needn't always be consciously aware of arrow prompts pointing toward upcoming destinations.
Three views are offered, specifically first- and third-person camera angles, plus a behind-the-back perspective. Of these choices, only the former two seem practical. The cockpit-situated camera angle works best with little company around. It can be used to spot hidden shortcuts and alternate routes, but caught in a traffic jam, you won't be able to properly see whether or not the car will snag against outside objects. Conversely, wider camera angles don't reveal many secrets or convey a decent impression of close situated terrain. What with city streets taking sharp turns and weaving through tight corners, it's an issue you should be aware of. Turning past a gap only to find an outcropping ahead while the proper path lay inches before it can be frustrating, but the game is still early, and the developers still have to time to address this issue.
The Graphics Engine
When it comes to pretty pictures, though, Beam Breakers doesn't need much help. The metropolis wherein play is set readily lends itself to imaginative landscapes, with a canopy of iron, steel, and rust enveloping every towering skyscraper or monumental office building from which the skyline's composed. The movie Blade Runner has left its legacy upon every detail, from neon signs hocking useless wares to glass domes that shatter as you barrel through. Evidence of crime is also apparent in the graffiti scrawl plastered across many vehicles, including your own. Great care has obviously been taken to ensure textures fit a mature, dark theme, even though they sport a wide array of color patterns, not all depressingly grim. Sharp, linear objects further define the world, adding to its stark image.
Liberal use of mood lighting additionally enhances gameplay. Cruise toward the setting sun, and lens flare blinds you until the car has safely slipped behind an errant steam pipe or other outcropping. Still better examples are had when flitting in and out of tight spaces, where random hazards obscure your view, affecting your range of visibility on the fly. Unwilling victims flash their high beams and honk horns as well, warning that oncoming traffic isn't keen on becoming a makeshift collision course. Sound effects haven't been fully implemented yet, but you can already hear engines whiz, air currents shriek, metal scrape on metal, and destructible surfaces shatter with a tinkle. Smoke and spark effects already reinforce collisions, though just how much impact you'll "feel" is debatable until full audio support is online. Even so, it's obvious the designers are banking heavily on a glitzy presentation.
Still, Beam Breakers appears most notable for quantity, not quality. Up to 850 moving objects can be displayed onscreen with little frame rate dip. Cruising at 60fps defines the norm, despite the fact that hundreds of moving entities reside within gameworlds at any given time. What's more, every single one is sentient and constantly active, comprising a living obstacle course for players when grouped alongside a few dozen friends. Therefore, neo-New York really feels like it should, brimming over with millions of surly, uncaring individuals. And although these innocents won't perish in violent collisions, they will slow your roll posthaste. In fact, dodging trouble while avoiding becoming enraptured by the scenery is a major part of the action. Though Simulis has no working plans to license its engine right now, hopefully this will change. If full-fledged action games were gifted with so much interactivity, they'd likely find a more willing home with trigger-happy casual consumers.
Beam Breakers' simple play mechanics belie a sophisticated piece of software that juggles a titanic number of objects at maximum velocity without a hitch. You may find yourself a bit chagrined at console-type handling and sensibilities on the PC, but you shouldn't be put off by such attributes in the end. If everything goes as planned, everything from the physics engine to handling and overall depth will improve tremendously before ship date next year. So while it isn't licensed by BMW or road-tested on the Autobahn, this is one motorized European import you'll still want to take for a test drive.