NGEN Racing is one of those rare games that comes along and helps reinterpret its genre. While the gameplay is conventional, the concept (racing ultra-powerful jet planes through deadly courses) is totally novel and, by all accounts, fully realized by the developer.
Many of NGEN's elements will seem familiar to racing gamers. Included in the mix are the requisite arcade and career modes, each with its own submodes. NGEN's multiplayer games exist within the arcade mode, while the time trials and other special events are bundled with the career mode (called the NGEN mode).
The arcade mode (much like the career mode) is composed of a series of races divided into a "trainer" class and three fighter classes. With each jump in class comes a logical escalation in vehicle performance. In a similar vein, weapons don't come into play until after you've made your way out of the trainer class. Though the career mode is definitely the heart of the game, NGEN's robust arcade mode provides enough depth to warrant at least as much attention.
Given the richness of the career mode, though, finding time to waste on the relatively thankless arcade mode will be difficult once you've started playing out a career. As is the convention, you're given a set of funds with which to assemble your initial vehicle. Once you are out of the hangar, the order of the day is to acquire permits (NGEN's version of Gran Turismo's aneurysm-inducing licenses) that let you fly in tournaments more distinguished (not to mention more profitable) than the lowly club races. Armed with permits, you're free to compete in tournaments, raise cash, buy new aircraft, raise more cash, and get more permits, ad infinitum. Time trials and special events help lessen the redundancy, and the sheer number of aircraft available will keep you interested in the rat race. The time-tested ritual that is a racer's career mode doesn't travel very far, though, if there isn't a solid racing engine to justify its performance.
And what an engine Curly Monsters has unleashed! Though the concept of jet racing seems a bit farfetched, putting yourself behind the helm of an NGEN aircraft will make you an instant believer. There are two control settings available during the races: arcade and pro. Arcade, as the name implies, is fairly simple, letting you pick up and fly, with the only stumbling block to speak of is in learning the button layout. Pro mode, on the other hand, forces you to take factors like roll and pitch into consideration, forcing you to relearn the physics of flight gleaned from the arcade setting. In the end, both settings are intuitive, albeit one has a significantly higher learning curve, and both hit home Curly Monsters' concept.
Successful racing in the NGEN universe, basically, is characterized by the ability to creatively ignore boundaries. The boundaries, in this case, being actual concrete markers containing the tracks' race paths. Marked by a series of tight flares, the boundaries are relatively thin when compared with the mobility of the aircraft; too often, you'll be tempted to veer in any direction just because you can. And often, it pays off; as long as you're not off-course for too long, you can gratuitously ignore the boundaries to gain an edge in a particularly tight race. Stay out for too long, though, and you'll be forced back on course via autopilot, which significantly decreases your velocity, often more than enough to dump you back a few places.
While the game's control scheme often allows for such indiscretion, a troublesome button configuration will often foil your efforts. X applies the throttle, while the square button and circle buttons, respectively, control your afterburners and weapons. The triangle button cycles through your arsenal (once out of trainer class, of course). The trouble is that, logically, you'll constantly be applying throttle, which, depending on the way you hold your controller, leaves few or no digits for the other functions. Unless you're possessed by an extraordinary amount of manual flexibility (which isn't unheard of), you're probably going to have to release the throttle to apply the afterburner or to fire a weapon. This, of course, totally slows you down, thus defeating the initial purpose. The solution? Curly Monsters could have allowed for the mapping of certain functions to the shoulder buttons. In then end, though, this is but a relatively insignificant fault that doesn't mar the quality of this fine product.
All of NGEN's racing has a breakneck pace, only slowing down enough to let you savor the light-headed feeling of low-gravity nirvana. You'll be flying low most of the game, as your proximity to the ground largely dictates your overall velocity. Rings are scattered throughout the tracks, usually slightly above the ideal altitude, to replenish your health and afterburners. Though you'll rarely encounter significant damage during the early stages, you'll find yourself scrambling for those green rings once weapons come fully into play. The key is sparing use of aggression, as it has a tendency to compromise the ideal altitude, and takes your thumb off of the throttle. Stick to defensive flying, and only attack when you're in very close proximity to your potential target. Maneuvering through the myriad obstacles is tricky enough, given the sheer speed of the higher-end aircraft.
Given NGEN's speed, it's easy to ignore its graphical shortcomings, namely the relatively low-res environments and the slightly noticeable bits of clipping and pop-up. Track features - checkpoints, most notably - will often pop up in very unseemly ways, though given the game's sheer ultra-fast pace, you'll seldom notice. Overall, the game looks good, rendered as everything is at such an astounding velocity. It's obvious, though, that Curly Monsters didn't put nearly as much effort into aesthetics as it did into mechanics - which is, arguably, a valiant thing. Sound was given a similarly minimal treatment: The soundtrack consists of your standard pumping-yet-empty dance tracks, and the sound effects are your typical muffled jet-plane fare. Both the visuals and the sound, while fairly minimal, seem more than functional despite their obvious weaknesses.
NGEN Racing, at any rate, has it where it counts. It is a fully realized, innovative take on a genre constantly aching for fully realized, innovative concepts. While by no means a perfect product, NGEN does a good job of establishing an aspect of the racing genre that will obviously see many reinterpretations - here's to it being a blueprint for games to come.