Race a flying car through the crowded 3D skies above a futuristic metropolis in Similis Software's Beam Breakers. In a future New York City, flying vehicles move through traffic lanes set at multiple levels rising up between the imposing skyscrapers that define the landscape. Traffic patterns are regulated by guide beams that keep the floating cars moving slowly ahead in a set manner. Though this keeps private transportation safe and organized, it also takes all the fun and skill out of driving the advanced anti-gravity cars of the future.
As in any time period, however, there are a few rebels willing to break the rules. Gangs of racers push the skybound vehicles to their performance limits for glory and profit. As one of these thrill-seeking gang members, the player races through three-dimensional courses set in the bustling heart of the crowded city, weaving in and out of the nearly stagnant traffic, avoiding skyscrapers and overhangs, and escaping capture by numerous able law enforcement officers. The game offers over 30 vehicles and players can join one of five different gangs, each with its own logo and style.
If I were from York and then settled in a different land I sure as hell wouldn't call my city New Amsterdam. Likewise, if I were a Yorkman from the future, I wouldn't rename this New York, Neo Amsterdam. And so ends the story of how Neo York came to be Neo York. It's not a long or particularly interesting story, but then it doesn't need to be. Neo York is the cliched urban sprawl that Beam Breakers takes place in.
In some damn year A.D. that's far ahead of us, the disenfranchised youth of the nation along with ruffians of all types will get their kicks from illegally racing flying cars through the flying streets of a sky-high city. It's prefixed with Neo because it's a pretty word that the daft have come to accept implies "future." You are a future kid with a Honda Prelude, circa 2173.
While Beam Breakers isn't as fast as Wipeout, it's a brisk, cluttered, and enjoyable, daredevil kind of an experience. Best described as a flight racing game, Breakers of the Beams allows for forward/back, strafe, and vertical movement, but there is no real pitch. Slide up and down, move forward and back, slide left and right.
In one way, this limited control scheme keeps the races from ever being too demanding and challenging. There are no loops, insane twists, plummeting dives, and twitchy ascents. Somewhat limiting, especially to avid racers who were expecting something a bit more akin to Starlancer in a city, or the plane mode from Diddy Kong Racing (terribly lame examples, I know), the control scheme opens up after a good bit of play. This stripped down, boost all the damn time movement style works, and works well.
A mouse pivot function would have been nice, but since standing on your ass and flying straight up into the air isn't ever an option while careening through traffic and splitting pylons, a strictly horizontal mouse control would seem ineffectual. Still, there are those who would prefer to play that way, for them it should have been included. For us, keyboard mashing action works fine, but the real thrill comes from plugging a caressed and comfortable gamepad into any one of those numerous shiny and free ports on the back of the machine, unbuckling the belt a notch or five, and going wild.
Gamepad or not, real play happens in one of two ways, since the third and fourth ways are broken, like that window you just flew your flying car through. Yes sir, multiplayer and survival mode (last as long as you can while many distraught policemen chase you and bump into things) are either aggravating or lacking modes no racer should be without. It's unfathomable how, with a premise as grand and entirely unoriginal as this, the developers at Similis managed to forgo including a multiplayer component of worth. No in-game browser and few too many modes are unthinkable crimes these days.
And survival? Well, like I said, if you enjoy being relentlessly bumped to the ground by a swarm of crash happy policeman as you desperately try to avoid their electric blue fuzz of doom, knock yourself out. Those cops are vicious. The moment the round begins your poor car is being brutally molested by legions of these coffee swilling protectors of the peace. That blue terribleness around the windshield means the fuzz are fuzzing you up good. It's really frustrating. It's then that the true sense of hopelessness sets in as you glance at the overlay map and realize that every square inch of this area is covered with the pulsing blue orbs of detective death. Maybe if the cops didn't want racing in their city they'd clean up all those checkpoints and get rid of all the power-ups that line the streets. Did the idiots ever think about that? Even switching the anti-gravity unit off, effectively turning off the ignition and plummeting to the earth, will not save you.
If, however, you are a normal person pleased by non-infuriating or not so substantially deficient play, mission and championship is where the majority of your time will be spent.
Mission mode is all about fist taking on menial tasks (throwing pizzas at the sides of walls) and then progressing far enough along to actually race someone. The somewhat slow start only worsens the limited, but functional control. Beginning the game at the lowest levels and then having people work their way up is a classic approach to racing, but not always one that works. Without any real excitement from the get go, and in fact with quite a few perfunctory trials and objectives, the game takes a while to switch into full gear. By the time it does, none of the races or challenges seem particularly hard or exciting. This only really applies to the mission mode. Championship is a pick up and go race that takes players through each of the title's locales. If you want to see what Beam Breakers has to offer and be done with it, pick this type of play. Even if you lose, it's still possible to advance far enough along to get a good taste of the game.
It's really not bad, but then savvy racers or just players with keen reflexes will be able to blast through it in no time. To its credit, little trial and error is required to beat championship. Fail and try again remembering what happened last time is a convention I'm rapidly tiring of in gaming and happy to see excluded here. On the more negative side of that, since it's possible to blast through the most enjoyable part of the game unabated, it's also possible to bore rather quickly.
But there is strong appeal in this one.
Like Midtown Madness, Beam Breakers takes place in a city. Only this city has more verticality than breadth. Intricate catwalks, pillars, jutting sides of buildings, floating lampposts, and any number of other environmental hazards fill the road that stretches from point A to point B. It's not quite as freeform or open-ended as Midtown Madness. There is no blitz mode that sets a time limit and urges players to find whatever way they can to the exit. And, this game's races, the equivalent of the checkpoint mode, are not nearly as approachable.
The problem comes from the sometimes tightly spaced, shortcut unfriendly checkpoints. Later tracks open up a bit, but a lot of the game is fairly linear. In addition to the aforementioned environmental dangers, five racers (there could and should have been a bunch more) and a bout 500 other motorists, liven things up.
A few classic power-ups dart the land (a shield that shoves everything the hell out of its way, a repair kit, and a turbo booster pack), but the real joy comes from the dodging and the weaving. Plowing into traffic is exhilarating and not at all stifling because it barely impeded progress. Mowing into other cars slows your own, but does not bring one to a jarring, restart worthy halt like the glory days of the original Ridge Racer. You can clip a wall or a strut or some such crap and get stuck for half a second, but on a whole, I found crash recovery to be very quick and relatively painless.
Even though tracks are fairly constricted, it's still possible to get lost in all the clutter and movement. Because of this, Similis thoughtfully included a tunnel path that clearly shows a moderately transparent route through each track. More thoughtfully, this tunnel can be switched on or off at the discretion of the player. Or, as an incredibly thoughtful addition, only the straightaway portions can be shut off, leaving the turn indicators in place. Because there's a greater sense of free, unrestricted movement with this middle ground, and there are still helpers in place to indicate a necessary right or left swing, this is my preferred way to play. Very considerate and cool stuff.
The inclusion of the guide track, or at least its option, is there because the levels are so grand, cluttered, detailed and vibrant that it's easy to get turned around.
The first time I played I thought fondly of G-Police. Clearly it has been quite a few gaming generations since Psygnosis' wonder wowed us, so this city is significantly more detailed, but the same initial impression of wonder and awe struck me. Look at the cars! They're moving! And there's a whole hell of a lot of 'em! It's like I'm in some kind of strange wonderland.
Racing through these not so varied, but still distinctly colored, designed, and recognizable environments is not the fastest thing around, but it feels pretty slick. For one, everything is in motion. The sun shines, blazes, and burns the sky, sometimes creating a bright, atypical flare, and other times creating a dense light that fills the horizon and impairs vision. It's hard to describe. My best analogy would be looking up at the sun in August on a misty Louisianan morning.
Windows reflect and as they're passed they dance and shimmer. I'm reminded of the opening to Project Eden, only infinitely better. Each car here is intricately detailed and smooth. Artistry is faithfully Fifth Element, with autos exhibiting an almost retro like quality to them. Glass shatters. Nearly imperceptible miniature sprite people walk about. Rain falls. Some tracks take place at night and others during the day. The sky moves. And, all the while, each and every color is masterfully placed. I truly applaud this game's visual luster. It's a rich and lively product not at all reminiscent of the drab, washed out, static environments we're used to seeing in so many other games.
Granted, districts have little immediate difference to them. Slight changes in coloring and some subtle touches to the architecture build distinction. Chinatown is more soaked in reds and uses a lot of jutting angles, while Little Italy is brown and filled to the brim with piping, rubble, and so forth. The bustling downtown, my personal favorite, is loaded with reflection, huge buildings, and some truly dense flows of traffic. Textured apartment interiors pasted onto some of the windows shows how far Similis has gone.
Tossing in my own tunes to kick while I ride through these visuals and modes is cool, I only wish I could also toss in my own effects and voices. One of the characters in the game is perhaps the most annoying voice I have ever heard in any videogame, ever. Even managing to beat out that whiny punk ass crybaby of a kid in Zone of the Enders, Arnold Schwarzen-surfer, as I like to call him, amounts to a few choice sound clips of brain damaged Austrian sounding like he just caught a wave. "Awesome!" He says. "What the hell was that?" I wondered. "Awesome!" He says another fifty freaking times.
His and every other voice in the game being compressed into oblivion doesn't help much. But it does add to the cheese ball music that likes to wail and thump-thump without any real beat, just like every other low-budget techno future I've seen in a videogame since I purchased my Caleco. If it's in the future, it must be crappy techno because crappy techno is short for technology and the future is made of technology. God bless logic!
Then there's the ambience, or lack thereof. For all that's happening and for as large as a city as this is taking place in, Beam Breakers is a surprisingly quiet, muffled game. Cars honk as you approach them headlong, even veering and flashing their headlights, but the whole thing sounds like a recording of that home next to the freeway. There's a constant rush of wind -- an ever-present noise -- but it's not appropriate or indicative of the kinds of speeds that are being encountered here. More whooshing, whizzing, and quick effects based on what's being passed (a cafe, a tunnel, a mess of cars, etc.) should all logically be present, but aren't.
It's not the precise, balanced, speedy brilliance of Wipeouts of yesteryear. Nor is it by any means the definitive racing package. But, Beam Breakers does manage to create and admirably deliver an enormous, believable, and simply awesome sense of scale and liveliness. Being able to barrel through George Jetson and kill Judy on her driving test has its allure. Couple that with an outwardly broken but actually intuitive and functional control scheme and some rather killer level design, and we've got a contender for quality.
Even though Beam Breakers' mission play and voice work (not to mention the rest of the audio) try desperately to obliterate its appeal, the fun remains. Later course layouts with tighter turns and excessive traffic weaving make things complex and interesting. What's better is that this is not a game of unskilled memorization. A player need not study a map and play a practice run six times before jumping in, always careful to handbrake at that exact moment the indicator line turns red on that one, horrible, hairpin turn. No, Beam Breakers is crafted and balanced in such a way that on skill alone, avid and even casual gamers can partake in and enjoy its many pleasures, while naturally being subjected to several of its shortcomings and a few of its glaring faults.
Not perfect, but commendable, respectable, and certainly worthy of a look, Beam Breakers is a lot like those floaty, quirky, unpopular people you reluctantly dated in school. It's going to take some time for it to grow on you, but when it finally does latch on, you'll likely be glad it did.
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Ballistics, B-17 Gunner: Air War Over Germany, Bang! Gunship Elite, Big Scale Racing, Battlecruiser Millennium, Beetle Crazy Cup (a.k.a. Beetle Buggin), Beanotown Racing, Armored Fist 3
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