Fast, slick but with a few too many flaws, Pacer is nevertheless a fine futuristic racer.
I was recently idly wondering whether we’d ever see another true WipEout again when I decided to download the Omega Collection via backwards compatibility on PlayStation 5. This loving compilation of Studio Liverpool’s last three entries in one of PlayStation’s most iconic series might be showing its age – you can trace the roots here back to the series’ PSP outings, and at times they certainly show – but that doesn’t stop it from being as sublime to play today as it’s ever been, especially in all the Omega Collection’s 4K/60fps glory. It’s pretty much as good as futuristic racers get.
Apologies for starting a review of one game while talking about another, but there’s no other way when it comes to Pacer really; this is a futuristic anti-grav racer that goes out of its way to evoke memories of WipEout. As it has every right to, seeing as some of the original team behind its development, back when it was still known as Formula Fusion before its 2019 rebranding, worked on WipEout 3. Pacer leans into the golden age of Sony’s series, recruiting The Designers Republic and Warp Records, two names as synonymous with the bleep scene of the 90s as WipEout itself.
So yes, Pacer feels familiar, which is no bad thing at all. You’re running ship to ship at speeds in excess of 1000kph, working up to the near-impossible-to-handle elite class from the starting ranks of the F3000 class. There’s a nice little nod there, if you’re of an age to feel a rush of nostalgia when listening to Autechre, to the F1 feeder class that used to pound the streets of Birmingham through the late 80s, and the SuperPrix circuit feels like it’d slot nicely into Pacer somewhere. This is a scuzzier, downbeat view of the future, more in keeping with the likes of WipEout 2048 than the more pristine earlier entries.
Take Hyderabad’s stomach-churning rollercoaster of a ride, dipping quickly from the bronzed heavens down into subterranean street markets. It’s exhilarating stuff, and the track design here is more often than not excellent, the 14 circuits on offer serving up a neat balance of flow and friction. Flow’s something that Pacer does well, in fact – 60fps is a standard across all platforms, and the various crafts, once you acclimatise yourself, course like liquid through the impossible cambers and stomach-turning dips and climbs. In the hand, this is a fine example of the futuristic racer.
It’s not exactly peerless, mind – Redout can muster a better sense of speed, and there’s more depth to be found in WipEout Omega Collection’s handling. So much of that is down to how Pacer’s anti-g racers are disappointingly beholden to gravity to a greater degree than their peers, the crafts staying stuck to the track and effectively cutting the pitch control that gives WipEout its nuance. Pacer’s never quite as satisfying, then, though you’ll find its twists elsewhere.
Like its weapon system, for instance, which does away with the randomised Mario Kart style pick-ups and replaces them with customisable loadouts, with those on-track pads being used to recharge your supplies. It’s a neat idea, slightly undermined by its implementation – Pacer’s front-end is an unwieldy thing, with a small handful of bugs thrown in to boot, which can make customisation a pain rather than pleasure, and on-track the weapons don’t quite bring the thunder, with limp cannons and missiles resulting in weak explosions that make the combat side of Pacer rather underwhelming.
The variety of modes, however, is anything but. There’s a career mode (which is generous albeit undermined by some wooly design that can make it hard to track objectives), served by straight races, speed laps, elimination events, even a surprisingly effective spin on the battle royale in Storm Mode, where you’re racing to keep in the eye of a deadly tempest. There’s Flowmentum, too, a riff on WipEout’s Zone mode whereby your ship gets faster every gate you pass. It’s where I’ve often found the heart of WipEout, and where I found the heart of Pacer – where its speed and smoothness comes to the fore, and where you’re slowly pushed into your own zone, helped along by pulsing beats and whipcrack 303 basslines (if there’s one area where Pacer soundly trumps WipEout its in its soundtrack, which is varied, deep and also as customisable as the crafts themselves).
It’s where you’ll find the heart of the genre, even, and Pacer delivers on that front and then some. It’s mildly frustrating that on one too many occasions it fluffs its lines, that it can never quite find its own voice, and there’s no doubting there are better futuristic racers immediately to hand. None of that stops Pacer being a fine example of the form, though – even if it can’t trump WipEout, it at the very least does its memory justice.