Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC
Pacer is one of those games where I sometimes wanted to swear at the screen. I’d get mad at how good the A.I. was at beating me to a power-up, or at how it magically avoided my barrage of explosives. But after a moment or two, I’d calm down and try again.
That’s one of the impressive things about Pacer: It pushed me to be better. The anti-gravity racing game comes from R8 Games, an indie studio that consists of former developers from Psygnosis. Psygnosis was best known for creating Wipeout, so it’s not surprising that Pacer feels like a spiritual successor to that series. The sleek racing craft, bumping electronic soundtrack, and visually inventive race tracks only reinforce that familial relationship.
Pacer is more than just a trip down memory lane, however. In addition to its thrilling races, Pacer introduces some interesting new ideas and gives you plenty of ways to experiment with them. There’s actually a lot of content here for a $40 game… as long as you don’t mind a broken multiplayer experience.
More Than Just Reflexes
As with Wipeout and other anti-gravity racing games, Pacer has you piloting vehicles that move at hundreds of kilometers per hour. The main challenge comes in keeping up that speed amid the sharp twists and turns in each of the game’s 14 courses. Your performance will depend on how well you know the layout of the track, your mastery of the drifting controls (known here as airbrakes), and whether you can successfully avoid the deadly weapons that opponents will use against you.
It’s a lot to think about at once, but Pacer does a good job of gradually introducing these concepts within its Career mode. Brief text descriptions set the stage for why these races are happening in the first place, but it’s not that important to read them. The only thing you need to know is that various teams want to recruit you, and you’ll need to pass a gauntlet of challenges to gain their favor (and unlock the next part of the campaign).
These tasks can be relatively simple, like finishing within the top three at the end of a race or destroying a certain amount of ships using your weapons. However, you’ll also get races with dramatically different rules. In a Storm race, for example, you have to stay inside a constantly moving force field as you drive through the track. Over time, the force field will shrink in size, so it’s important to maintain your speed without falling behind or barreling too far ahead.
Some challenges even change the way you control your vehicle. In one matchup, I wasn’t able to use my left analog stick to steer my ship and had to rely on just my throttle and airbrakes to get over the finish line. These gimmicky races don’t pop up too often, but they made me appreciate the developer’s willingness to experiment with the different rulesets in the game.
They add some fun variation to the standard races that make up the bulk of Career mode, and I liked being tested in ways that didn’t just involve pure reflexes.
Win or lose, you’ll always earn credits for completing races, and these can be used to unlock new content. You can use credits to purchase courses and course variations (like changing the time of day or reversing the track) for Quick Play mode, as well as a ton of weapon and customization parts for your vehicle in the Garage.
In the Garage, you can buy items that’ll augment a vehicle’s performance, but they usually come with some sort of trade-off. Equipping Open Engine, for instance, will increase your top speed but reduce your maximum health, while Atomic Brake will increase your brake strength at the expense of weakened shields. The Garage allows you to save multiple ship performance loadouts, so you have a lot of room to experiment. Altering your ship is the key to winning the more difficult races in Career mode, as boosting certain stats over others can make a huge difference.
I found that having a high acceleration helped me get a good head start in Elimination races, where the person in last place is destroyed if they linger there for too long. And it was always a good idea to prioritize my health or shields in Destruction matches, where the main goal is to kill my opponents.
I had a performance loadout for almost every type of race, and it was the same for my weapons as well. Pacer also allows you to save weapon loadouts, and you can purchase dozens of modifiers that affect their damage output, how many targets they can hit, the amount of ammo you have, etc. It’s impressive just how granular Pacer’s customization systems are. You can spend a lot of time just building ships to fit different scenarios.
No Point In Playing Online
Career mode will keep you distracted for a while, but at some point, you might want to test your know-how against other players. Unfortunately, this is where Pacer falls apart. Despite having mechanics that would be great for online multiplayer, there doesn’t seem to be enough people playing the game on PS4. Matchmaking only worked once for me. I had better luck through using the game’s server list, but even then, I never saw more than one open lobby at a time.
I also joined a Pacer group via the PS4’s Communities feature so I could have a better chance of finding people online. It worked, but the few multiplayer games I jumped into weren’t great. I had terrible lag in a couple of races, which made it nearly impossible to play. Other times, people were inexplicably kicked from the lobby right before a race would start. That happened to me as well: I’d either get a server error and have to rejoin the lobby (and thus spectate the rest of the race), or the game would crash and send me to the PS4’s home screen. It was frustrating.
As of this writing, R8 Games is planning on releasing a patch soon to address some of the PS4 version’s online bugs, which is great news. But until Pacer gets a bigger community on console, multiplayer might as well not exist. It mars what is an otherwise addictive racing game, one filled with a ton of challenges and a smorgasbord of customization options.
But if you’re itching for a decent anti-gravity racing game and are fine with having a mostly solo experience, then go ahead and pick it up. Otherwise, it’s best to wait this one out until the multiplayer is fixed.