FAST Racing League hit the WiiWare store in 2011, at a time where Nintendo players had been craving a follow up to the GameCube’s F-Zero GX. Here we are in 2015, and we’re still waiting for that new F-Zero game but once again German developers Shin’en Multimedia have come along to try and fill this big old futuristic anti-gravity racing game sized hole in our hearts. While I don’t think it quite lives up to the legacy of the racers it will inevitably be compared to, FAST Racing Neo is still a fantastic entry to the genre.
FAST Racing clearly takes inspiration from the likes of Wipeout and F-Zero. Racing around tracks at blistering speeds in FAST Racing’s machines feels particularly Wipeout-esque in how the ships handle. They have a distinct weight to how they turn, and the weights of the different vehicles will make a huge difference in how well they take corners. FAST uses the expected jumps and boost pads you’ll expect from an AG racer but changes things up by giving each ship two ‘phases’ to switch between. In a nod to Ikaruga, the ship’s engines can be in blue or orange phases, which correspond to blue and orange boost pads and jumps on the tracks. Driving over a boost or jump with your ship in a matching colour and you can use the boost to reach a higher speed or jump to a new section of track. Even on the lower difficulties, you’ll have trouble doing well unless you take these phases into account.
Littered around the track as well are small collectible orbs (which look an awful lot like Pepsi balls) which fill up your boost meter, and you can spend this meter to give your ship a speed boost on-demand. There is a lot to keep track of with phases and orb collection and managing your boost meter and this will take some getting used to for sure, but it’s something that becomes more natural over time. It’s an interesting metagame that makes FAST feel distinct from it’s contemporaries. It gives the tracks themselves another dimension to conquer, as well as working out an optimal racing line and remembering the track layout, remembering the placement and colour of boosts and jumps becomes incredibly important.
There are multiple difficulties to work through in FAST Racing. There are three different speed classes, with only the slowest available from the outset. Each speed class has four cups to work through, each consisting of four tracks. Completing one cup, unlocks the next in the sequence and so on until the next speed class is unlocked. The first speed class Supersonic is far from easy, and the races only become more challenging as you move through the classes. Once the three regular speed classes are done there’s a final Hero Mode which unlocks, which makes some changes to how the racing works to add even more challenge. In this mode, in a clear nod to F-Zero, your boost meter acts as your shield meter as well. This means you need to carefully choose when to boost to make sure you have some shield left just in case you goof up a corner. This is extremely important in Hero Mode since if you come off the track or wreck your machine it’s game over. I suspect that Shin’en made Hero Mode specifically for the fans who loved F-Zero GX’s ridiculous challenge, and have been craving more.
When comparing the feel of racing to it’s bigger contemporaries, FAST Racing Neo can feel a bit less polished. The handling of the racers is not horrible, but lacks the finesse of something like F-Zero GX. Landing a jump well feels near impossible, where every landing brings with it a heavy clunk onto the track and a shaky camera to accentuate the impact. Where everything else in the game is about sleek smooth movement, the crash after a jump landing feels incredibly jarring. The track designs too can at times feel quite derivative of F-Zero. It’s good design to be sure, but seeing the same kind of fork in the road forcing a choice between boost pads and boost charge orbs can feel like it’s all been done before. It’s one issue I found with FAST’s racing that doesn’t affect the experience for newcomers greatly, but for veterans of the games Shin’en is trying to serve can feel a little too familiar.
As well as the expansive single-player modes, FAST Racing Neo includes all the multiplayer modes you could expect from a racing game. Two to four player split screen is available, along with up to eight players in online matches. Split screen multiplayer is a wonderful addition that makes perfect sense for this kind of game, though it comes with some graphical concessions that I’ll detail a little later. Online though, is done superbly. I never noticed any kind of lag during matches, no obvious rubber banding (though at these speeds I’ll admit that I was more focused on keeping my own racer on the track rather than where the other racers were around me), it works well. Each time I started an online session I was matched with one person initially, but after a race or two the session always expanded to a full eight players. It’s hard to say whether the online community will persist for long, but for now it’s not difficult at all to find other players.
The visuals of FAST Racing Neo are incredible, so much so that I feel the game wouldn’t look hugely out of place on one of the more powerful consoles. Shin’en have aimed for a solid 60 frames per second during gameplay, and for the most part they have achieved it. There have had to be concessions made to achieve this, but mostly they don’t hinder the experience. You’ll notice during slower introduction scenes that there is a lack of antialiasing, which means you’ll see jagged edges on objects, but these are all but unnoticeable once the game starts moving. It really is quite impressive how much performance Shin’en have been able to coax out of the Wii U’s relatively underpowered hardware. The only place where graphical concessions actually affect gameplay are in the split screen modes. During two-player split screen, game’s rendering resolution is lowered and this has a pretty big impact on the visuals overall. It becomes much harder to see the track coming up, and the game just isn’t as visually appealing. In four-player split screen even more concessions are made, and the game runs at 30 frames per second rather than the usual 60. This is something we’ve seen in Mario Kart and some other multiplayer Wii U games so is not a surprise. It’s clear that concessions had to be made to include these split screen modes at all, but it really is unfortunate how they negatively affect the game experience overall.
FAST Racing Neo, like FAST Racing League before it, has taken a genre seemingly left behind by the big names and brought it back with some unique twists. The phase and boost systems seem complicated at first, but given practise they become essential tools to victory. It looks gorgeous in single-player mode, and the inclusion of both split-screen and online multiplayer modes is appreciated. While handling and track design isn’t quite up to the feeling of the genre’s best, it’s still great fun to zoom around the tracks. If you’ve ever found yourself enjoying Wipeout and F-Zero, or even if you’ve never given this kind of racer a try, FAST Racing Neo is definitely worth a look.