Review: Freefall Racers (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Freefall Racers
Genre: Racing
Developer: Smoking Gun Interactive
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: 09/06/13

Mario Kart might be a successful franchise for Nintendo, but even when a developer can manage to hit all of the right notes in their own interpretation of the franchise, that doesn’t mean they’re going to catch anyone’s eye with it. Games aimed at kids, like Wacky Races and the Sonic & All Stars series, and more “serious” releases like Blur have all competed to varying degrees of success, and even Squaresoft got into the act at one point with Chocobo Racing, but few have been able to attain the success with their idea that Nintendo has. Today we have another challenger to the throne with Freefall Racers, a cartoonish racing game that tries to make itself unique in two ways: by focusing on aerial racing, and by using the Kinect as its control system instead of a normal controller. While aerial racing games aren’t a bad idea in the least (as Diddy Kong Racing and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed proved), the Kinect has a spotty history with sensitivity that might make one look askance at such a game. Racing, after all, can rely on sensitive turning in order to bring home the gold, and controls that are over sensitive or insensitive can spell the difference between winning and controller throwing. Well, Freefall Racers actually manages to work with that fairly well; while it’s not without its flaws, its racing mechanics actually work fairly well all in all, and it’s certainly a worthwhile experience if you’re a fan of shooting rockets at people to steal first place from the jaws of defeat.

If there’s a plot to Freefall Racers it’s very well hidden, so it’s up to the play modes to carry the bulk of the experience, which is easier said than done to be honest. You can play the game either alone or with a friend in split-screen co-op, and the options for play between the two are generally similar. Both modes offer conventional single race play that allows you to jump into one race for fun, as well as a competitive Circuit to play through that tasks you to be the best in three (or, for the first circuit, two) races. Solo play offers you a Time Trial to jump into that tasks you to beat the best time on a current track, while co-op play offers a cooperative Team Circuit where the two of you compete against the CPU and try to be the best together to win races. There are also Leaderboards to check out if you want to compare your times to those of others on the net, but otherwise that’s about the extent of the game in terms of mode variety. What’s here is fine and works out well enough, but simple additions like an online component or other kinds of oddball race types would have helped out immensely.

On the visual front, Freefall Racers is cute, but not terribly technically inspired. The various flying squirrel racers you can take control of all have different designs to them, and they’re suitably outlandish, such as Unna the squirrel in a Unicorn costume or Nutasha, the secret agent/Batman squirrel. The environments are also very colorful and suitably varied from one another, so even when you’re racing in thematically similar areas, the ice caverns look different enough from the snowy mountainside to make them stick out as being different. The game is noticeably angular in design, and it’s not pushing the tech limitations of the 360 by any means, but the artistic merit here is enough to make the game interesting to look at if nothing else. Aurally, the game is adequate but never manages to be much more than that. The music is fine, featuring upbeat sounding tunes that keep the game feeling cheery, but nothing here is memorable and you’ll likely not remember it an hour later. The squirrels all have somewhat different vocal effects they use when you select them and as they race around the track, but they’re not extensively different from one another such as to be interesting, and the remaining audio effects work well enough, but aren’t anything exciting all in all.

Interestingly enough, the mechanics of Freefall Racers are what make the game stand out, not only because of the fact that this is a Kinect game, but because this is a surprisingly playable Kinect game. The game only has five body motions it expects you to use: holding your arms out allows you to glide, pulling your arms to your sides allows you to dive, kicking with one leg deploys power-ups, raising both arms and bending at the elbows kicks in air brakes, and leaning forward uses Adrenaline, AKA turbo. That’s basically everything you need to know, so you won’t be expected to bounce around like a crazy person to progress, and further to the point, the simplified controls actually work as intended most of the time. The game is generally very good at recognizing what you’re trying to do more often than not, and you’ll find that you can usually do pretty well in races without too much of a learning curve or any great difficulty. The game explains its overall mechanics in the Help and Options menu, but it also pops up the basic controls every time you start a race so you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to do from jump as well, making this very accessible for people of all ages. In short, you’ll be able to play pretty easily from the first race, and you’ll likely find it won’t take much practice to figure how things work and what you need to do to win.

This being a Mario Kart style game with aerial play, there are some novelties to consider that make the game its own. From the genre side of things, as you fly around the tracks you’ll see various power-ups you can collect, represented as yellow acorns, which give you a power-up you can use on your opposing racers. The standard power-ups you’d expect are here, such as Wind Gusts (turbo boosts) and regular and homing missiles, but you’ll also see some fairly unique power-ups, such as the Zapper, an electric shock that slows racers briefly, or the Trap Net, which throws a big net behind you to slow up racers or force them to evade. You’ll be able to figure out what does what quickly enough, and none of the power-ups seem useless or overpowered, so you’ll find that everything more or less works well in this regard. You’ll also find purple acorns that feed into your Adrenaline meter, which you can also fill by racing close to walls and such, and you can use this for a quick turbo boost if you want to pass an opponent or hold the lead in a tight race as applicable. As the game is based in aerial mechanics, you’ll also find that there’s a bit more to consider when racing beyond the normal genre fare. Since you’re gliding to the finish, you’ll want to consider altitude as getting too close to the ground means you could crash, and since it’s all downhill there aren’t laps to worry about, though the races are generally long enough to compensate. It’s not difficult to adjust to the mechanical differences at all, thankfully, and the gliding and turning mechanics are actually interesting and fun to play with as you get used to them.

Most of the courses can be completed in a couple minutes, and you can probably plow through most of the Circuits inside of a couple hours, but there are some things in place to keep you coming back. Local multiplayer is a part of that, as being able to race with a friend, competitively or cooperatively, is entertaining, and since you’re not bouncing all over the place even players with limited space should be able to manage this fine. You can also unlock a total of nine racers, eight courses and six Circuits by playing through the game and taking first place on the various different courses, so you’ll find that there’s content to unlock that can keep you interested. There are also three different difficulty modes to play with depending on the challenge you’re looking for, Leaderboards and Time Trial scores to best, and Achievements to earn that can keep you engaged for a while, depending on how interested you are in these things. Given the price point for the game is just shy of ten dollars, there’s a decent amount of content here relative to the price tag, so you’ll probably get your money’s worth out of Freefall Racers in terms of time spent if nothing else.

Which is not to say that it’s not without its flaws. While the game is mostly able to recognize your motions, it has its moments of lacking recognition (which is likely the Kinect as much as the game), and Adrenaline especially can be a pain to kick on when you need it. You can also really unlock everything the game has to offer inside of a couple of hours if you have a friend handy, as nothing that’s locked up here, Achievements or otherwise, is that hard to earn, so you’ll only see so much replay value based on unlocking content. The game could also use a bit more personality; while the racers look different from one another, they don’t do much different, and some unique special moves or a story mode or something similar would have gone a long way to making the game feel more special than it does. Finally, it also bears noting that the act of holding your arms out for extended periods of time gets painful after a while, so even if you’re enjoying the game there’s only so much of it you can play before you get sore and need to stop for a while.

For its price point, though, Freefall Racers is a pretty solid piece of work for Kinect owners, as it does the Mario Kart style in an interesting and functional way, and while it’s not the most in depth game on the market, it justifies the cost just fine. There are enough play modes to offer up some solid variety, and while the game isn’t terribly technically astounding, the visuals and audio are solid enough that you’ll enjoy what’s here even if it doesn’t stick with you. The mechanics work surprisingly well given the control medium, as there are only a few movements you have to worry about and they mostly register well, and there’s enough fun between the genre mainstays and the unique elements the game has to offer to make playing fun. You’ll find that there’s a decent amount content to unlock as you play, and with the ability to play alone or with a friend locally, there’s certainly motivation to come back to the game for more. That said, the game can have the odd control detection hiccup, the content can mostly be unlocked in its entirety in a couple hours, the game could stand to have a bit more personality to make it really memorable, and you can get sore quickly with the way the game handles its play mechanics. If you don’t mind taking a break now and again and you’re looking for something new to do with your Kinect, though, Freefall Racers is a fun and inexpensive time, and anyone who enjoys combat racing games should find that this is easily worth the asking price if you can accept some minor flaws along the way.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Freefall Racers is a surprisingly solid Kinect combat racing game that’s worth checking out for fans of either, so long as you can ignore some minor hiccups along the way. There are a decent enough amount of play modes available to keep you interested, the game is visually and aurally acceptable even if it’s not a technical marvel, and the Kinect gameplay works surprisingly well given the limitations of the hardware and how testy it can be. The game does enough within the genre and within the mechanics of the Kinect to keep it interesting for a while, and there’s a decent amount of unlockable content and challenge options to keep you coming back if you like what it does as well. There are still some control detection issues now and again that pop up, you can really unlock everything there is to unlock inside of a few hours if you’re diligent, the game could use a bit more personality to make it really pop, and holding your arms out hurts after a while, making it hard to play for any good length of time. If you’re okay with taking a few breaks now and then, though, Freefall Racers is just fine for the price point, and anyone who enjoys combat racing or Kinect games should absolutely check this out, as it’s a solid entry that fans of either will enjoy.



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