Even though it mostly plays like an endless runner, Race the Sun isn’t really an endless runner. Despite the structural similarities, this is no mere jetpack joyride or temple run. Sure, you’re trying to get as far as you can along an infinite track before you screw up and die. But an important difference is that Race the Sun, as befits an unfettered PC game, isn’t just infinite out to the horizon. It’s also infinite left and right, ranging as wide as your reflexes will take you. It’s like skiing down one of SSX’s open mountains. I can go wherever I want, as long as forward is one of the directions.
After the jump, if 2001 and early Dynamix games had a baby…
Unlike its more modest endless runner cousins, Race the Sun taps into a different sensibility and a different set of gameplay skills. It’s speed based. It has the thrill of an arcade game rather than the accommodating modesty of a time waster. Got reflexes? What about keen risk/reward instincts? What about the caring-about-your-high-score gene? And how do you feel about visuals?
Race the Sun is far too gorgeously hypnotic to be an endless runner. It’s alien and simple and infinite with possibility. When I was a kid, I wanted to reach the volcano in Battlezone’s wire-frame vector graphics world. There had to be something there. There just had to. Even if I never reached it, I wanted to believe there was something worth reaching in the volcano. So it is with the setting sun in Race the Sun. I have to reach it. I’m not a kid and I understand how games work, so I know I won’t reach it. But it’s the constant goal as I hurtle towards the narrowing gap between the sun and the horizon, possibly a metaphor for faith. In front of me are unseen alien regions, and I burst into them like the pursuer in an interdimensional chase scene. Eventually, the setting sun will doom my solar-powered craft. Assuming I don’t crash first. I’ll probably crash first.
The graphics are a latter day version of Damon Slye’s Dynamix games or the cool open expanse of Midwinter, where flat-shaded polygons breathed life into virtual worlds that felt so very real because polygons were more fluid than sprites with their abrupt perspective shuffle. Alien worlds aren’t halting staccato stage plays. They’re liquid dreams. Race the Sun is a harshly lit liquid dream. It is a hypnotic monochromatic desert noon glare. But the sun is setting, throwing longer and longer shadows like knives. It even bleeds hues into the world. Noon white turns to evening orange which turns to the blood-red and oblivion black of doom. But Race the Sun never compromises its clean edges and the sense of heat and purity in that unseen distance. It is the reflection of infinity in Dave Bowman’s faceplate.
Race the Sun posts a new world every day, built from a combination of procedurally generated terrain and hand-built modules. Although it’s online, it’s a single-price self-contained game that won’t pester you for micropayments or free-to-play gimmicks. A leveling system based on missions gates some of the gameplay mechanics, so bear with it as you unlock some of its mid- to late-game charms. It also includes a friendly world builder so players can post their own levels. But these feel sadly empty given that they’re divorced from the high scores and progression system. An aptly named apocalypse mode is ideal if you just want to play for a handful of seconds. At a time. Because ironically, you’re liable to throw yourself at apocalypse mode far more frequently than the normal mode.
As a score chase, Race the Sun is 90% ingenious, with multipliers pulling you around the map to places that you would otherwise steer away from. A daily leaderboard puts you in your place. A handful of powerups will be a significant factor in how far you get and how many points you score. The mission-based leveling system will be familiar to anyone who’s played Jetpack Joyride, or even a recent Call of Duty. You can even stick perks on your ship. The more you play and level up and unlock new gimmicks, the higher you can push your score. A relay race option gives you and another player four lives to get as far as you can on a separate leaderboard. There are also decals for your wings, and for some reason I have two of them that I don’t want. It’s a bit like getting an involuntary tattoo, and what’s worse a dopey tribal armband tattoo someone else picked out. But once I figure out how decals work, I intend to do whatever grinding it takes to pick my own. But in the long run, Race the Sun mostly comes down to your score. I’ll always remember the time I hit a million points. Which happened just now, while I was writing this review. Next stop, two million.
However, as a 90% ingenious score chasing game, Race the Sun is also 10% missing the point. I don’t go to leaderboards to see who’s #1, because that’s never going to be me and it’s always going to be that nyarla guy, who easily beats the #2 spot by several million points. Seriously, dude, give it a break. I only care about a select group of people I know. That’s just how games work these days. If I can’t filter a leaderboard to show only my friends, it’s a leaderboard not really worth my time. As such, the Race the Sun leaderboard isn’t worth my time, and it won’t even show me where I am on the ranking. Instead, it assumes I want to look at nyarla’s name again. I don’t. And given how the leaderboard changes every day, I’m surprised there’s no way to track my ranking, or even just my score, over successive days. Developer Flippfly has gone to the trouble to set up a scoring system, but it needs work to more effectively tap into what makes scoring systems work.
(Listen to the Qt3 Games Podcast with the Race the Sun developers here.)