Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Gateway Interactive
There are some days that involve me simply sitting here and banging my head off the keyboard in disgust. Not because I’ve played some damn terrible game, although that is a common cause – see my review of Medieval Mercs as an example – but because my already questionable ability to write has vanished entirely and I can’t think of a damn way to actually get into the review proper. I can manage the actual reviewing part usually, but the initial paragraph is elusive, taunting me, and possibly hunting me for lunch, too. Today is very much one of those days. Look, the game is called Spectra, it has some lovely graphics, awesome music and involves driving along pretty straight courses while dodging obstacles, all in a bid to score points. Got all that? Good, let’s do get this done before I completely lose the ability to even form coherent…uh….crap…
The star of the entire game, the part that shines brightest by far, is the soundtrack. Spectra features ten levels with each one based upon one of the ten songs contained within the album 2013 album Spectra, created by the Northern Irish chiptune artist Niamh “Chipzel” Houston. The music is glorious, and is combined with a clean visual style of purples and blues that serve to create an initially beautiful game. Having been brought up on a diet of Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, AC-DC, The Who, Cream and folk stuff Chipzel isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but from a musical standpoint it’s wonderfully put together and provides a stellar, nostalgic soundtrack for a game which very much feels like something I would have played in an Arcade back in the day. It’s a challenging twitch racer built around a phenomenal soundtrack that captures the sense of nostalgia while doing something entirely its own as well. Spectra should be brilliant, really, but the truth is that around the strong audio is a fun but unspectacular racing game marred by a few serious flaws.
The track itself is essentially two lanes that you drive along, the goal being to grab the yellow pellets for points and avoid the bumper-like obstacles scattered along the route. Acceleration is handled automatically, and the game gets fast and faster with each passing level. If you tumble off the edge then its game over, although you’re given a small window to quickly steer the craft back onto the track. It’s quite telling that you only need to completely 25% of a given track to unlock the next stage – Spectra knows it’s difficult at times. That difficulty, though, can be unfair; your craft has a slight floaty, sluggishness to its movement which when coupled with its position at the very bottom of the screen and your own point of focus at the very top make it awkward to achieve the high levels of precision needed to pass through bumpers. You get used to it after a while, learning to anticipate the crafts slightly slow response time and position on the track, but even then you’ll likely find yourself feeling that half of all the crashes aren’t your fault. Nowhere is this more apparent than tight sections that leave no room for error or require multiple fast, precise changes of direction. The way obstacles on the track are generated can also cause some problems because the system, which is a mixture of pre-created sections and randomly generated chunks based on the music, occasionally throws up walls of bumpers that no human could seemingly navigate, although I have no doubt that by now there will already be someone on Youtube proving me wrong. If that wasn’t enough there’s also little hills that obscure your view from time to time, leaving you unable to dodge any potential obstacles sitting just over the rise. These problems can prove annoying, making the game feel less skill-orientated at times, but when Spectra gets it right it’s quite a lot of fun to weave madly between bumpers and snag those little pellets of points. It’s the kind of game you love when you’re in the flow, and hate when that flow is interrupted.
The catch to it all is that points you’ve nabbed keep building and building, but won’t wont be added to your total score until you stop grabbing pellets for a few seconds. Should you happen to run into an obstacle before the points are added to the total you lose them, creating a nice risk vs reward system that forces you to choose between risking your growing stash of points for a bigger payoff or banking them by deliberately avoiding pellets. So, to get the highest scores you need to risk your points, except there isn’t actually a reason too. It’s a real shame that there’s no in-game global leaderboards so you can compete with other people, although I suppose the randomized nature of the tracks precludes this, sadly. Meanwhile points don’t go toward unlocking the next track, so really they’re only there for personal satisfaction. In other words if you’re like me and enjoy chasing high scores then great, but if you don’t then an already very simple game is even simpler.Throwing some extra spice into the mix are boost pads which not only send you speeding toward the nearest obstacle at breakneck speed but also bump up your score multiplier, encouraging you to risk it all by trying to dive between bumpers when you’re going much faster than normal. Hit a few of them in succession and you’ll rack up the points, but sometimes it’s best to avoid them, like when there’s a wall of obstacles coming toward you. I really liked how the points and twitch racing combined to create a constant stream of small choices, where you have to analysis the track in a split-second and decide if you can grab those extra points safely or if it’s best to simply bag the points you’ve already accumulated.
The game feels conflicted, though, the slightly randomized tracks clearly attempting to bring replay value to a package which can be completed in around 40-60 minutes, depending on your skill level, and to ensure that you can’t completely memorize a track. Yet the points system so strongly hints at a score-driven racer that needs a global leaderboard so that players can compete with themselves and with others. At the end of each track the game mentions whether you’ve set a new personal highscore or not, but the randomization always meant I was unsure of whether I’d truly beaten myself or whether I’d just gotten luckier with the layout than I did last time. Spectra also misses a trick by not having your personal best score displayed on the HUD to help drive you forward, and again misses another one by not having the scores of your nearest competitors also displayed. This is a game crying out for leaderboards and competition, and honestly I’d happily forgo the slight randomization of tracks in order to have more courses and leaderboards, especially since the randomization system doesn’t hide the fact that each track feels almost exactly the same as the last one. With direct competition available and more distinctive tracks to race on this would have been a much better game.
A secondary mode is included, too. Aptly named Hardcore mode it throws in a lot more potential points and a crap load of bumpers to dodge and crash into. Naturally high scores on the Hardcore version are kept seperate from those of the regular track. It’s not enough, though, as Spectra’s amazing first impressions fizzle out quickly, leaving you with a racer that’s fun in very short sessions only. The initially beautiful aesthetics aren’t enough to hide the fact that every track looks identical, and thus the lovely combination of blues and purples lose their appeal well before you’ve finished the final stage, while the gameplay struggles to hold your attention once you realise that not only does every track look the same, but it plays the same, too. Only the music fares better, the bouncy, melodious audio tempting me to go out and actually buy the album, despite it not being my usual genre.
I like Spectra, for all of its many flaws. There’s a frantic brilliance to the game when you get in the groove, the ever-growing sense of dread that your perfect, beautiful run of points is going to come to an end creates powerful tension and gets you sweating. And then it happens; you crash, and you lose the points. Suddenly you’re smacking into everything because the rhythm is gone. But that feeling is fleeting, lasting for just ten or fifteen minutes, after which repetitive track design and visuals begin to drag your enjoyment down. Every race feels exactly the same as the last one, and that means there’s no defining memories that linger with you. There is, however, feelings that stay with you, born of hair-raising, sweat-inducing moments of panic as you deftly swish through a series of tight gaps. You won’t remember anything specific about these moments as each one blurs into the next, but the feeling stays with you.
It’s not enough for me to slap a full-blown recommendation on the end of this review and urge you to rush out and buy the game. Truth be told Spectra is just a good, simple game that’s best enjoyed in short stints, ideally of about one track per session. For your first run through the courses it is heaps of fun, and then that fun dissipates quickly. It needs more variety in its tracks and its visuals. Still, worth a purchase.