The racing genre has traditionally been one of the more staid and basic genres of videogames. Going from track to track, players work on buying new cars, upgrading the cars they already have and winning various competitions. It's a system that pretty much ignores the emotive and narrative aspects of videogames, usually concentrating on gameplay and graphics above all else. Apex, the new driving game being marketed under Infogrames' Atari label, represents an attempted step in a promising new direction for the driving genre by offering up more than just driving.
The main attraction of Apex is in the fleshing-out of the non-driving portions of the game. Rather than just shuttling the player from race to race via menus, Apex creates a fictional motor company that the player gets to name, promising to allow the player to design cars, run a business and watch it grow. A 3D representation of the factory replaces the usual menu screens, and various characters inhabit the company and interact with the player. Such a setup should be a step towards creating more of a simulation off the track, as well as adding more in the possibility of a narrative arc. The fleshing out of the world could go a long way towards making the action on the track become tenser, creating possible rivalries, must-win races, etc.
It's because the possible results are so appealing that the eventual failure of Apex cuts so deep. From the beginning of the game, it becomes obvious that things are not going to go well, as the opening cutscene features the player's mechanic friend, Mike, 'finding' blueprints for custom car models as they start their business. Somehow the director of the scene felt that Mike 'searching' the abandoned garage meant having Mike move about 5 feet before stumbling over some blueprints that are already spread on a table, causing Mike to dramatically overact his excitement. This scene is typical of the ones that follow, as the progression of the game is played out by execrably wretched dialogue spoken by stiff and clumsy models. It remains baffling to think that a developer would add significant content of this nature and then not bother to do it well. It is a further reminder to the game industry that if a game is going to rely on writing, hire somebody who can write—not only for dialogue, but for the larger structure of the game's progression.
While the game claims to allow you to design your own car, the actual implementation of this game mechanic leaves much to be desired. In the aforementioned opening scene, your mechanic friend finds a series of blueprints. The player is allowed to choose which of the blueprints he wishes to see developed. After winning a fair amount of races, the player is allowed to either upgrade the blueprint he chose, or choose another blueprint for production. As the game advances, the player gains more and more options as to what to do with the cars, eventually gaining the ability to change more individual components such as engine, chassis, shell, etc. But these expanded options become available far too late in the game (at least 5+ hours), creating a situation where a player who wishes to actually try and design a car must play through race after race of cookie-cutter driving to even get a sniff of actual design. It's a model that relies on tedium before delivering its payoff, and although there is a sense of realism to it, it's stretched beyond the limit of patience and effectively torpedoes one of the main attractions to the game.
In terms of the driving, Apex runs the thin line between simulation and arcade. Initially, the gameplay seems to be fairly well done, with technically difficult tracks that put the player's sense of the excellent controls to the test. Cars must be handled fairly carefully, as hitting walls results in quite a slowdown, not to mention many spots where a spinout is a real danger. But the gameplay is marred by some small issues that wind up ruining the whole experience. The most aggravating feature of these is the car-on-car collisions. Almost universally, in a situation where two cars bump up against each other, the player will be slowed down. This wouldn't be so bad if the same happened to the computer car. But it does not. Scrub sides in the homestretch, and the next thing the player sees is tailpipe, as the computer happily drives away, completely unaffected by an action that's seriously slowed the player. It cannot be emphasized enough how badly this affects the driving, as collisions are nearly impossible to avoid and aside from certain advantageous angles when taking corners, the player will always be the loser.
The AI (artificial intelligence) in Apex also institutes one of the more frustrating elements in racing games: rubber-banding. So named for the elastic properties of rubber bands, rubber-banding is when the AI allows the computer to execute perfectly in order to even things up with the player. This means that as the player drives better and better, so does the computer, taking every turn exactly right, keeping the player always in sight. One could argue that the AI balances it out by rubber-banding in the player's favor, as after a spin-out, the player can observe the computer cars slowing down to allow the player back into the race. However, this kind of chicanery with the AI winds up only feeling cheap, regardless of whom it is applied to. If a game presumes to offer up a simulation of racing, it is up to the game to find ways to make the racing competitive without resorting to obviously unrealistic tactics to do so.
The combination of the AI and gameplay issues is a bad one, as it emphasizes one of the more important aspects of videogames. When the player plays a game, there exists an unspoken contract between the game and the player that there are certain rules, and that those rules will remain consistent and coherent throughout the game. For games that rely on simulating real-world events, there is an added onus for the game to adhere to real-world rules when possible, or at least as long as it's still fun. For example, it's not a big deal that you can't wreck your car in Apex. Only the most hardcore of simulations would stick to a system that would do little more than frustrate the player and make the game much harder to play. But when the situations are the car-to-car physics and the AI of the computer cars, not only does Apex break the rule of adhering to real-world rules when possible, but renders the internal rules of the game incoherent through the use of 'special rules'. This is what is commonly known in the gaming world as 'cheap', and greatly reduces the player's enjoyment of the game.
In terms of aesthetics, the racing looks pretty good, with the tracks boasting a decent variety of scenery, as well as some admittedly impressive lighting effects. However, the graphics for the cutscenes leave quite a bit to be desired. Apex, like most modern games, does not have good models for human beings, particularly in terms of the face. The fakeness of the models is only further emphasized by the spastic movements and lack of lip-synching to speech. But the real disappointment is the sound. First of all, the sound effects during the race are awful, the most egregious case being during collisions, when the sound played is merely a repeated banging, sounding like someone taking swings at a piece of sheet metal. The other sounds aren't much better, with all of them being incredibly understated for the actions depicted. The other major issue is if the user has a soundtrack ripped to the hard drive of the Xbox. When music is played during a race, the game only selects a single song and loops it, making for some annoying repetition when the song is short or the race is long. Even worse, the fidelity of the music is severely compromised during the running of the race, as you can hear audible distortion on the music track. This is inexcusably shoddy programming, and a near-complete waste of one of the Xbox's unique functions.
As games continue to develop, they will come to a crossroads in terms of continuing to concentrate mainly on a single basic style of gameplay or whether to offer a more cohesive whole. Driving games in particular are in a situation where innovation in design is sorely needed if the genre is to break out of the mold of incremental updates on a basic formula. The game that truly manages to make the action on the track compelling in the larger context of the game will make quite a name for itself. For a game that could have been that potential leap forward, it's a real shame that all Apex manages to do is present a mediocre-to-poor driving experience in a painfully threadbare setting.