When speaking of the genesis of futuristic racing games as we know them, the obvious jumping-off point is Nintendo's 1990 SNES classic, F-Zero. But, on the other side of the globe, UK developer Argonaut lays some claim to genre husbandry with its older, more obscure 1989 Atari ST/Amiga racing game, Powerdrome. This sort of gives Argonaut's 2004 version of Powerdrome some old-school credibility, and it has turned out as a surprisingly accomplished, by-the-books, futuristic racing game.
Powerdrome quickly dispenses with the pleasantries, assuming you already know all of the prerequisite rubbish about intergalactic racing circuits and the climate of future politics that every last futuristic racing game feels compelled to throw in there. You can dig up some of this stuff in the manual, but it's refreshing that Argonaut seems to realize that backstory in a game of this nature is pretty inconsequential. The people don't come for well-drawn characters or a poignant vision of the future--they come for ridiculously fast races on audaciously realized race tracks nestled into fantastical futuristic environments.
And to this end, Powerdrome delivers. The action is straightforward racing, and it forgoes the whole weapons systems that recent racers like XGRA and Quantum Redshift became overly reliant on. Aside from maintaining the highest speeds possible with simple acceleration and braking controls mapped to the shoulder triggers, your capabilities are limited. There's a boost system that you can fill up, and this is done simply by not running into the track barriers or into other racers. Ironically, this boost reservoir can also be used to instantly repair your battered vehicle, which you can bang up pretty badly just by running into the track barrier or into other racers. In a somewhat interesting touch, Powerdrome gives you the option to shift manually, which can give you a slight edge if used correctly, though you can still remain competitive by sticking with the automatic shifting system.
Some players might miss the chaos brought on by a full-fledged weapons system, but by keeping things simple, Powerdrome streamlines the experience and gives an increased sense of speed at the cost of lots of last-to-first upsets. The tracks you'll race on don't really push any boundaries as far as track designs or locales go--last year's XGRA was far more daring and inventive in this respect--but by not risking it, Argonaut has come up with tracks and landscapes that have a very smooth, thoughtful feel to them. There's only about a half-dozen unique tracks in the game, and Powerdrome gets the most out of each by offering alternate and reverse routes.
More often than not, the environments that the tracks are resting on look really great. The themes are predictable, including a neon-lit, Vegas-inspired future town, a water-bound track that actually incorporates the water into the design, a track that could be ostensibly referred to as the "fire level," and a track that takes very deliberate and knowing inspiration from the ringworld where that green cyborg fought all those weird aliens with the funny voices. There is never a shortage of activity outside the track. If you take your eyes off the action during a long straightaway you'll see interesting sights, like herds of massive alien-dinosaur creatures stomping across the landscape, massive futuristic zeppelins, and streams of space traffic. One of the real tricks for a futuristic racing game is to give the sense that you're in a real place and not just a future-themed track, and Powerdrome gets this.
Like the gameplay itself, the available modes are pretty basic too, but they capably cover the necessary bases. There are quick race, time trial, and championship options, as well as a single-system, system link, and Xbox Live multiplayer options. These options all basically do what they sound like, and though there are no real surprises, they all do their job pretty well. Unfortunately, the Xbox Live servers for Powerdrome are empty, and we couldn't find anyone else playing the game online, despite checking in regularly for five days. It's a shame that there's no one else playing Powerdrome, because this feature could add more replay value to the game, if others were playing it.
The gameplay and the gameplay options in Powerdrome are all completely serviceable, but it's the surprisingly accomplished visuals that grab your attention. The game moves at an incredible speed, and the Xbox handles the load with aplomb, maintaining an unnoticeable draw distance and an unshakable frame rate the entire time. The only time we noticed any graphical discrepancies at all was during four-player, split-screen action when the game appeared to bump the frame rate down from 60fps to 30fps.
Powerdrome plays up the sensation of speed even further by throwing in some great visual effects. There is a great Need for Speed Underground-style camera-shake effect that relays the sense that you are just barely hanging on, and the edges of the screen will blur up as if to suggest that you're going so fast that your eyes can't keep up. Powerdrome also uses lighting to a stylish effect. There is a glowing light-bleed effect that is used to give the sensation that your eyes are adjusting to the light as you fly out of a dark tunnel into broad daylight. You'll notice a cool glare off the water as you race over it, and some filtered lighting, such as when you're racing in a cavern behind a waterfall. You can race on tracks during different times of the day, which provides for markedly different color palettes. The craft you're piloting, which share the same open-cockpit ethic but little else in terms of design, all have a slick sheen to them and will let off sparks, belches of black smoke, and even tiny bits of debris when you make contact with the track or other racers. Even the pilots look good, though the only time you'll catch a good look at them is during the prerace lineup and during replays. All of the pieces come together to form a clean, cohesive look, making Powerdrome one of the the best-looking futuristic racing games around.
The game doesn't sound as good as it looks, but it largely accomplishes what it sets out to do, despite some unevenness. The underlying soundtrack is comprised of rather nondescript post-Wipeout techno tracks that are heavy on the percussion. You probably wouldn't listen to this stuff on your own time, but when it comes to setting the tone for a futuristic racer, it works. The ambient racing effects are actually pretty good, nicely layering subtle environmental sounds with the jet-engine sounds of the antigravity boats. If you're paying attention, you'll even notice some cool Doppler effects as you race past large objects and other racers. There are some appropriately shrill scraping and dull crunches when you bump into stuff, though we did notice on many occasions that when we were rubbing against the side of the track and sparks were flying, the sound was oddly mute. The biggest misstep in the sound design seems to be the inclusion of lots of little sound bites from the drivers during the race. Which, for one, doesn't make any sense since they're all traveling in open-cockpit vehicles traveling at subsonic speeds, and two, it's just kind of annoying.
A value-priced, futuristic racing game might not sound immediately appealing, but Powerdrome is better than the sum of its parts. This is largely a genre exercise meant to appeal to people already invested in futuristic racing games, though the responsive controls, clean visual style, and fairly attractive price point will definitely make it more appealing to other breeds of race fans as well.