A few years back, ESPN ran a series of NASCAR commercials that portrayed hotshot Jeff Gordon as Speed Racer. In Jeff Gordon XS Racing, ASC Games and developer Real Sports seem to have taken that idea one step further. This good-looking, light-hearted, and addictive arcade racer features some of the most unique cars and intense tracks you'll see this side of Whiplash. Though it has its problems, XS Racing is a decent title for those gamers who aren't hung up on realism.
Taking the wheel of a futuristic, sleekly aerodynamic car, you can battle it out with up to 39 opponents on a series of ten short tracks. The cars in the game are meant to represent "the next generation of stock cars" ("GeneratioNext" would have been more appropriate, however, considering the amount of advertising in this game for Pepsi, 7-Eleven, and Fritos). The tracks, on the other hand, are like something out of a childhood Hot Wheels fantasy.
Like any good arcade racer, XS Racing lets you bump and smash your way to first place, never having to worry about pit stops and other bothersome details from the real world. Each car in XS Racing is self-healing (they're constructed of space-age polymers, no doubt), so even though your vehicle will get smashed and distorted after repeated collisions, it will automatically morph its way back into shape. This is a pretty slick idea, and it works well in the game. Considering how simplistic the gameplay is, however, it might have worked better if you had to initiate the repair feature manually. As it is, you hardly notice the morphing at all as you whip around the tracks at 300 miles per hour.
The game options are pretty straightforward: You can take part in a ten-race championship season or take on a single track in arcade mode. In a championship season, you pick a car and a sponsor, such as the aforementioned Fritos, then try to finish first overall after ten complete races.
You can change cars between races, which is helpful on some tracks that require better handling than others (each car is rated for top speed, cornering, and braking). Like most arcade racing games, XS Racing includes a few locked cars, so if you do well, you'll eventually gain access to more vehicles. Bringing that Speed Racer metaphor to mind, each car has wings that pop out when you catch a little air, allowing you to sail over your landlocked competitors. There are no acrobat cars in this game, but maybe in a sequel.
Perhaps the coolest feature of the entire game is its support for 40 cars on a single track. Sure we've seen full-field racing sims before, but rarely in a pure arcade racer like this. Racing against 39 other vehicles really adds some excitement to the game. And unlike most arcade racers, which let you zoom to the front of the pack and then cruise to victory by simply staying on the track, XS Racing forces you to actually race and steer carefully whether or not you're in the lead.
After completing your first championship season, you begin a second, which is exactly the same except that now Jeff Gordon will be one of your rival racers. Gordon, identifiable by his all-red car, adds a little extra challenge to each race and is generally more aggressive than the other AI racers. For example, on the first track (Cloverleaf), most of the computer cars will not take the superfast accelerated-turn shortcut, but Gordon will. If you win the second season, you get to do it all over again, but this time it's you and Gordon head-to-head with no other racers on the track.
In general, XS Racing is not a terribly difficult game. In fact, on the lower difficulty settings (there are five in all) the game is downright laughable. Jacking the difficulty up a few notches can make things more interesting, but because you can bounce and bump your way around a track with near impunity, you can almost always stay in or near the lead. You actually do take a hit on speed and maneuverability while your car morphs, but it's pretty negligible.
The game's problems are fairly minor, but they do exist. For starters, the advertising is a little over the top. OK, it's sort of amusing to sign onto the Fritos racing team and drive a big yellow car, but must we be bashed over the head with 7-Eleven signs over the track and tracks named "Pepsi 2000"? How about letting players create their own sponsors with their own color schemes? This should actually be quite easy, since the cars are textured simply with colors and stripes - no logos at all. In fact, if this game had a multiplayer feature (amazingly, it doesn't), custom sponsors would be a great addition to online play. Oh well, maybe in a patch.
Also, for some mind-boggling reason, XS Racing runs at a maximum screen resolution of 640x480. This just can't sit well with gamers who plopped down over $200 for their spanking-new TNT2 Ultra cards, let alone people like me who are still going with the dual Voodoo2 SLI configuration. Simply put, a 3D-accelerated title released in the middle of 1999 should support higher resolutions. I mean, even 800x600 would be nice.
Though the game's sound effects are generally quite good, the music is pretty mindless stuff. You basically just get a beat, which would be fine if not for the fact that the looping music tracks are short enough that they restart several times during each race. Since the game uses CD audio, most players are going to experience a pause while the CD jumps back to the beginning of the track. Note: A pause in gameplay during a fast-paced high-twitch racing game is a very, very bad thing. When the music starts up again, your car is typically spun around, bashed up, and in last place.
Finally, the game's 3D engine has a tendency to drop cars when you race with the 40-car setting. Even on a Pentium II/450 with a Voodoo2 SLI setup, I frequently saw shadows with four wheels where a car should have been.
The lack of multiplayer options is somewhat baffling, since this would be an ideal game to play head-to-head with friends, and the 640x480 limitation is irritating, but Jeff Gordon XS Racing does have its good points. The graphics are good, and the gameplay is decent enough to be fairly addictive. Basically, this game can be a lot of fun for players who like their racing simple, fast-paced, and full of gimmicks.