By Tyler Lubben / September 3rd, 2013
|Title||Race The Sun
|Release Date||August 19, 2013|
|Platform||PC, Mac, Linux|
In this age of games with cinema-quality cutscenes, deep storylines and memorable characters, sometimes it’s nice to get back to the simple things. Sometimes you just want to zip through a polygonal environment at top speed, dodging various structures in an endless chase with a celestial body that you cannot hope to win, while missiles devastate the landscape, and UFOs attempt to vaporize everything around you. Yeah, the simple things.
There are many things about Race The Sun that are simple. The premise is simple, the graphics are simple, the gameplay is simple. Simple, however, does not necessarily equal boring. Players control a high-speed aircraft that can only be powered by direct sunlight. Unfortunately, the sun is setting fast, and players must race endlessly towards the horizon in an effort to stay in the sun’s light for as long as possible before it disappears. That is the only semblance of a story in this game.
Race The Sun was created by Flippfly, previously known for their musical iOS title, Monkey Drum. Following more of an arcade format in its gameplay, Race The Sun takes a decidedly more hardcore approach than its child-friendly predecessor. The controls are easy to pick up. The ship can move left or right, and the space bar is used to activate items you pick up. As a session plays, a score counter in the top corner of the screen constantly builds up. Spinning blue triangles called “Tris” can be collected as players travel on, which serve a dual purpose of giving an instant 100 points, as well as applying a multiplier to players’ scores for every five Tri collected. The score and multipliers will rise perpetually for as long as players can continue on without either crashing or staying out of the sun for too long. At the end of each stage, or Region, players will get a short breather while a bird appears and drops a few Tris and a power-up. Unfortunately, just about everything in the game is trying to destroy you. The landscape is littered with geometric shapes of varying sizes that will hinder your progress. Early on, they act solely as obstacles that players simply have to avoid, but later stages have the objects move to stop the player. Large pillars will fall, spheres will roll around, and cubes will bounce and turn. Bombs also appear in later regions, and, while they can’t destroy the ship outright, getting caught in the explosion will cause several seconds of blindness which can easily result in a crash. This all adds to the challenge, and keeps players on their toes as they push farther and farther for that high score.
The game also features a leveling mechanic which unlocks various upgrades and items as players complete challenges. These challenges can range from grabbing a certain amount of Tris to surviving through a certain number of regions to using only left or right turns. Challenges also range in difficulty, and give more or fewer points towards the next level based on that difficulty. Almost every level up rewards players in some way to make their subsequent runs more successful. These come in the forms of permanent score multipliers, item pick-ups and ship add-ons, though some rewards are better than others. Once unlocked, Boosters can be picked up to give a temporary speed boost, with the added effect of pushing the sun higher into the sky. The Jump item will allow players to go airborne momentarily, allowing them to fly over obstacles or pick up airborne Tris. The Emergency Portal basically acts as an extra life, allowing players to continue their run after they crash into an obstacle. There are also Region Warps, which will cause players to immediately warp to the end of the region they are currently flying through. The Booster and the Emergency Portal are immensely useful, as these allow players to prolong their runs. However, I found the Jump to only be marginally helpful. Yes, it helps to avoid obstacles, but picking up airborne items could be fairly hit-and-miss. Given the speed at which you are usually traveling, it’s difficult to see these items coming before you have time to react. Additionally, I’m not quite sure what purpose the Region Warp really serves. Yes, it allows you to warp to the end of a stage, but at what cost? While the game does give you the equivalent points you would have at the end of the stage, I don’t think the missed Tris and other power ups are worth it. All you have to show for the effort is reaching another more difficult stage, but a lower multiplier that will ultimately, more likely than not, hurt your final score. I eventually tried to avoid these warps unless I had a challenge that explicitly tasked me with completing a certain number of regions. Players will also acquire add-ons that will allow them to hold more Jumps or Emergency Portals, as well as ship upgrades that help them survive in darkness longer or make sharper turns. There are also various vanity designs that can be applied to the ship to give it a more personalized feel.
I was surprised at first to find that Race The Sun’s landscape was not procedurally-animated. I figured a game like this would need such a system to keep it from getting stale. While it’s true that you’ll be playing through the same spaces over and over, this only applies on a daily basis. The maps through which you travel are changed every day, which helps keep players coming back daily for new challenges. If this isn’t enough for you, though, there’s another little nugget to enjoy. Eventually, a new mode simply called “Apocalypse” is unlocked. It plays about the way it sounds. From the very first region, everything is out to get you. Obstacles move faster, bombs are going off all around you and the sun starts in a much lower position. Do you grab the Booster to get yourself a few more precious seconds, or do you avoid it to stay at a speed that is more manageable? Either way, it’s hard enough surviving even the first region. Hell, it’s hard enough surviving more than ten seconds. It’s the perfect mode for the most hardcore of players.
I found Race The Sun’s simple graphics oddly nostalgic. Flying around with geometric shapes whizzing by was reminiscent of the original Star Fox on SNES, albeit much smoother and more fast-paced. While the gray-scale color scheme of the game was initially off-putting, it does allow the power-ups to stand out better. Truly, color is used to draw players’ attention to details in the game. The most important of these being the sunset, which gives the sky a distinct reddish hue as it gets lower in the sky. Not only does the sunset signify that players need to try to find Boosters to keep it going, but it also just makes the game more difficult. Shadows play a major role in hindering players in the later waves. Being in a shadow too long makes the ship lose power, causing it to suffer severe deceleration. This gets even more difficult the lower the sun gets, as shadows, especially those of taller structures, get longer and become harder to avoid. Clouds also begin to appear in later waves, which players will have to steer around to keep a clear view of the sun. The music is rhythmic and catchy. The game features five basic tracks, with an additional track that plays at the end of each region. It starts of rather softly, conveying a feeling of relaxation, but also urgency as the sun starts to slowly fall from high in the sky. With each passing region, the music gets a little more urgent, adding more elements to the base music. By the fourth wave, the music becomes purely percussional, causing the feeling of urgency to reach a fever pitch. Then, at the beginning of the next region… the game plays the beginning track again. I’m not sure what I expected, but it seems rather anticlimactic to suddenly start playing the softer, more relaxing track just when the action gets as hectic as it’s ever been. Even so, the music helps keep the game exciting, even if there are some minor hiccups in later regions.
While many aspects of Race The Sun are simple, one key component of the game is not: the map maker. Included in the game is a program called the Simplex World Creator. This is the same tool that the developers used to create the landscapes seen in the game, and it’s touted as being easy to understand. Perhaps I just didn’t have the patience, or maybe I’m dumber than I think I am, but I simply could not penetrate the veil of confusion over how to even begin to make my own maps. The videos I’ve seen show basic item placement, but there are several other factors involved that I just could not wrap my head around. It’s a real shame, too, as some of the player-created worlds I’ve played in were real treats, and incredibly unique from the base game world.
There are two ways that Race The Sun tries to implement a multiplayer system – player-created maps and a “Relay” system. Player-created maps can be played either by choosing them from a list in the game, or through special portals that are unlocked after the first few level ups. Going through a portal allows players to travel through another player’s map rather than the region they are currently in. That’s the idea, in theory, at least. In practice, the only map I ever played through when going through a portal was “Void,” the asteroid-littered map pictured above. It’s fun, and a nice departure from the regular landscape, but I eventually got tired of playing through it over and over. I don’t know if it’s a glitch or I have to do something else to make more maps appear, but it isn’t explained either way. The Relay system, too, I feel is not as well-implemented as it could be. In lieu of local or online multiplayer, Race The Sun utilizes a system in which players will travel as far as they can, then, after dying, post their score through Twitter, Facebook or a private e-mail. Another player can then pick up where the last one left off and continue the run. This repeats three times, at which point, after a fourth player completes the run, the total score of all four players is posted to the leaderboard. Again, it’s an interesting idea in theory, but, in practice, it falls short. The only way to really take part in this relay is to be in contact with people who are also playing the game. If you can’t swing it, then you’re out of luck. As rare as it may be these days, it’s possible that some people may not have a Facebook or Twitter account, thereby locking them out of the chief ways to pass on their relay score. The system could benefit from an in-game implementation, so that players can connect with others who are already playing, rather than wandering out into the vast, cold Internet looking for other people with whom to connect.
Race The Sun is, at the end of the day, a fun and challenging game that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. At face value, the gameplay mechanics are top-notch. Flying out, dodging deadly obstacles and building up the highest of scores is a fantastic way to spend your time. Plus, the daily map changes and Apocalypse Mode are a great way to keep players coming back for more. Unfortunately, the half-realized multiplayer system and the confounding map creator keep this game from being all it could be. In this early stage, however, Flippfly is constantly updating the game, and I can only hope that they’ll find a better way to implement the changes necessary to let this game truly shine. If you want to try it for yourself, the game is available for PC, Mac and Linux on Flippfly’s website for $10.Review copy provided by publisher
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