Futuristic racers are dead, right? Well, that’s what you’d believe if you’ve ever taken a look for them around the current gaming landscape. A genre that was once all the rage in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with classics such as Wipeout, F-Zero, and Extreme-G have all but dried up, with only a few remnants left courtesy of new releases on the mobile platforms.
It came as quite a surprise then when I stumbled upon Death Road, a futuristic racer released for PC in 2012 that feels like a throwback to the great games listed above. The surprise came from me being a huge fan of the genre and not ever knowing the game existed until just a couple months ago! Could this obscure title from Polish developer Active Zone Group defy expectations and provide a solid racing experience? Keep reading to find out!
What is Death Road?
Death Road is a futuristic hovercraft racer in the same vein as Wipeout, where each pilot controls a high-speed racing ship outfitted with a choice of weapons. Given its obscurity and budget price, it may surprise you that Death Road contains nearly all the fixings of a triple-A racer, from a full campaign mode, 6 unique gametypes, and even online multiplayer.
Death Road’s campaign consists of 4 “cups”, each containing either 10 or 15 individual races for a grand total of 55 missions. These missions consist of a number of different game modes, from combat races, time trials, minefields, and more. The developers do a good job of introducing the new game modes and challenge gradually into the single player campaign so the progression feels consistent.
Acquiring points through finishing in the top 3 of each race or killing opponents net you unlockable weapons and vehicles, most of which feel useful in different situations. For instance, in a combat race or minefield I would choose a slower vehicle with higher shields while a time trial or elimination race would call for the fastest vehicles possible. Weapon choices work much the same way; I would always choose the plasma rifle in speed races since each successful hit gives you extra boost power, while other weapons such as the machine gun and rocket launcher are better for taking out opponents.
The AI racers that populate each mission are surprisingly adept at providing strong competition during each race without feeling unfair or using overtly cheap tactics. There does seem to be some rubberbanding in play, since the AI lets you right back in the middle of the pack when trailing significantly yet stays directly on your tail when you’re in the lead, but this never feels cheap because taking an early lead and continuing to race well almost always results in a high finish. It also provides a constant swarm of other racers around you to contend with using your weapons.
Death Road’s race courses aren’t as elaborate as many other games from its genre. Most consist of gradual hills, smooth turns, and long straightaways, in contrast to the twisted roller coasters of other similar games. This simplicity makes it easier to focus on using the weapons during each race since there isn’t such a concerted effort required to navigate each track. Also, given the somewhat finicky steering of the ships and the lack of analogue control when using a gamepad, the simpler tracks aid the player in not routinely crashing into walls while trying to take corners.
The downside of this course design is that it feels as though the developers played it too safe. A few loops, corkscrews, or drops scattered in each track would have heightened the exhilaration of the driving element while still maintaining the speed and weapons that make Death Road great. A few of the tracks also feel relatively short, offset somewhat by the later races which are as long as six laps.
Pros & Cons
Despite my critiques above, Death Road provides an experience that is fast, chaotic, and very fun. The game demonstrates a great sense of speed through its liberal use of motion blur and the powerful ship boosters, and its weapon play is the best I’ve seen in any futuristic racer. Each feels powerful and purposeful without disrupting the game’s flow, and although you will die a LOT in each race, the game respawns you right back in the action with little momentum lost.
However, one aspect of Death Road that is problematic is the very sensitive collision system. Any impact with an enemy vehicle or obstacle could end up flipping your vehicle upside down or even completely backwards in an instant. While this doesn’t happen too often and isn’t much of a problem in the beginning of the race, I certainly had a few moments of frustration where I was leading a race only to collide with a stray crate or vehicle, flip around, and drop to last place immediately.
Death Road surprised me with its excellent presentation and polish. Starting right from the slick main menu to the awesome on-vehicle heads-up display, it’s apparent that the developers took care in making Death Road a fluid and stylish product. Each level makes effective use of ambient and dynamic lighting to create atmosphere, and despite relatively simple geometry, they look good thanks to sharp texture work and dynamic background elements such as machinery and holographic billboards. The hovercrafts and weapons are also well-designed, with slick animations and particle effects providing visual flare.
I would be remiss not to mention the soundtrack too, which contains some nice original techno songs from Polish composer Traymuss. The sound effects aren’t spectacular but get the job done without grating the ears in any way.
If you like futuristic racers as much as I do and have been longing for the genre to step into the new generation, you owe it to yourself to give Death Road a shot, especially for the low asking price of $15. While the multiplayer has unfortuntely been discontinued due to the shutdown of Gamespy’s servers, the singleplayer provides hours of entertainment and even includes achievements and multiple speed/difficulty settings. Jump into Death Road and let me know what you think in the comments below!