Pros: It's Ridge Racer on Xbox! Sorta...
Cons: The computer intelligence is from Pole Position on the Atari 2600! Sorta...
Despite the glut of racers on the Xbox these days, game publishers continue to release more of them, hoping to create a unique title that commands attention. Thankfully for Atari and Italian Developer Milestone, Apex is that racing game. As a cross between the numerous arcade-style racers such as Ridge Racer or Need for Speed, Apex does a solid, if not spectacular job of delivering on the promise of an original premise in a racing game; the numerous flaws and quirks end up overshadowed by what ends up being a fun game at the end of the day. While there's definitely better racing games on the Xbox, Apex will do fine if you've played most of these superior titles already. Just a bit more fleshing out for a possible sequel and Apex could wind up being in the Xbox elite.
The Facts - 4.0 out of 5
Where Apex stands out is in the main single player mode, the Dream Mode. This is a basic career mode with a twist - you're in charge of a newbie automobile company, out to make a name for yourself and your creations. You don't come alone, instead you bring along a friend who's your typical grease monkey. But hidden inside this building you've bought for your startup, is 3 different blueprints for assorted concept cars. How convenient. Anyway, you then can pick from one of the 3 cars to begin your career, and start making a name for your company.
Dream mode is deep in this way, as your main job is to build up your company legacy and continue developing cars, from roadsters to dream vehicles. Along the way, you'll see your company expand in size and employment (you add a hot secretary/receptionist, then a brainy British woman who manages production, and a mad-scientist looking guy who creates the new car designs to bring out. That's 3 slapstick cliche stereotypes in Apex. 4 if you count the token grease monkey), until you've reached the very top.
But you do end up with a lot of racing action, as each class of cars (roadster, sports car, supercar, dream car) forces you to start at the bottom and prove yourself by winning, or at least qualifying. As you are rewarded with car sales with each good performance (car sales equals research points which equals new car designs which equals a loop-de-loop that never ends), it's best to go out and win races instead of just place or show. Naturally.
The Dream Mode is solid, but unfortunately it has some unrealized potential. Originally when Apex was revealed it was to feature the ability to design your own cars from scratch. Apparently that means you can pick from some blueprints, but hey, you can design your own cars! While it's possible processing power & time wasn't there to let you customize a car on your own (though Sega GT on Dreamcast let you, in limited function - one of the few redeeming features of that game), it's disappointing that something like this was promised but never delivered on.
The other mode of play is a basic arcade mode that lets you use other cars (taken from a sample of real cars like the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Ford Mustang, and a Camaro, amongst many others), as well as your concept cars that you created, in either a single race mode or a time trial. However, to fully unlock the cars and tracks in this mode, you have to progress in Dream Mode first. Games that make you earn stuff? The hell you say!
The Playtest - 3.5 out of 5
There's a reason why the names of Need for Speed, Ridge Racer, and Burnout were mentioned in the title of this review - it's because Apex easily graduates from this school of racing. While not as over the top in style as a Burnout, it does have a strong NFS feel to it in terms of direction. The cars handle somewhat realistically, but the powersliding is more akin to Ridge Racer when going around a corner. It's a delicate balance, and it evens out by an eyelash. It might seem as if the game is unsure of its arcade roots, but it really is an arcade racer.
The strongest arcade elements involve the actual racing with opponents. Along with the vehicle damage (more on that in a second), the battles with cars definitely feel like Ridge Racer, where bumping another car from behind won't help you, instead it gives the other car a burst of speed. Cheap? I suppose so. It would work a lot better though, if the computer AI was just a little sharper. Apex employs the arcade-style of intelligence called "rubberband" AI, where you can really never get too far ahead, but at the same time, you never really can get too far behind either. It both creates a challenge and also keeps the difficulty level down - but once you get good enough to just stay in the pack the challenge does go away (and it seems the more you progress the easier it gets, believe it or not).
This is all fine and dandy - the rubberband isn't wound too tight in Apex, and winds up being pretty decent and competitive. It's the other problems with the AI that hurt this game. While Milestone did program in some outstanding intelligence for computer cars battling out other computer cars, they seemed to forget all about setting up how the computer cars handle a human player. The great MotoGP for Xbox had this exact same issue - the computer opponents completely ignore your existence and it feels like a race against a bunch of ghost cars (well, except when you bump them and they yell at you, outside of that it's quite lonely). When you race around, the computer cars don't even realize you're there, they just run in their set patterns. Sometimes they swap paint with other cars, but it's yet another pre-set pattern that does nothing for a human player. Hitting a computer car registers nothing - they just ignore you like you don't exist. With racing games getting much more intelligent nowadays, Apex's AI is disappointing. Sega GT 2002 has outstanding AI all around, as does the early Xbox game Project Gotham Racing. Unfortunately, Apex doesn't fall into this category, knocking the quality of the game downward a bit.
On the other hand, the other part of a challenging racer, the tracks themselves, are well-done. Every one of them features a load of difficult turns that aren't easy to navigate the first time around, since you just never know how much or how little braking is necessary to make the turn in minimal time (and avoid the other cars from catching up to you or passing). The tracks consist of stadium courses (NASCAR-style tracks), regular race tracks (for F1, CART races), and road courses on city streets. Many are based on one single track design, but fleshed into many different parts of the area you're racing in, so it never really feels repetitive - instead you think of where they're going to challenge you next.
The controls in Apex are spot on for an arcade game - the cars feel pretty good, but not overly loose, and you don't feel like you're handling an out of control beast when taking corners or navigating tough stretches. As with most racing games on the Xbox, the triggers on the mutant-sized Xbox controller are much better for Apex than the Controller S triggers, but you can manage with a Controller S; just not as tight a feel.
In terms of replay value, Apex is strong here, since the Dream mode is exceptionally deep. With Amateur, Semi-Pro, and Pro races to do in 4 different racing groups (though the final 2 brackets are devoid of Amateur races), there's a long game in store for anyone hooked into the idea of building a huge car company. The game's shortcomings manage to be offset by this gameplay mode - but barely.
The Looks - 4.0 out of 5
No question, Apex looks pretty - but not always in the right places. Given that it was built up for the Xbox hardware in mind, it takes advantage of most of the features the console has, but while it looks great, it could be better. The cars themselves look nice, though a bit small in the chase camera view, complete with a lot of reflection on them, for an overly glossy look. The damage model is well-implemented, with assorted parts of the car falling off after brutal hits (hit a wall with the side of your car and a side mirror might fall off, get front-ended enough times and the car gets dented in good).
The best looking part of the game is the stuff you really can't see unless you're ignoring the racing part - the off-track details. Every track is completely loaded with details like video billboards, traffic on other streets (your streets are closed off to race on), and numerous things you'd expect in the area being raced in. The problem is, where do you find the time to take it all in? Since you're going so fast and things are whizzing by, getting a chance to admire the scenery is non-existent. Sure, the replays are stunning as well and lets you see what's going on, but that's a waste of time just to see graphics. Racers like Gran Turismo 3, Colin McRae Rally 3, and Burnout 2 are awesome looking not because of roadside scenery, but what's on the screen directly in front of you; things you actually have time to take notice of.
Lastly, one big positive - the lighting effects. Special effects like the sun and how it reflects on the ground is excellent, and sometimes it gets so bright (or dark depending on if a shadow is cast in the right place), that it's tough to see what's going on. You could complain about that, sure, but it adds a touch of authenticity to the visual presentation.
The Sounds - 2.5 out of 5
Being nice, Apex sounds are lackluster at best. Easily the weakest link here, Apex features a boring soundtrack that pumps out overused techno "beats" that are so cliche nowadays that it's expected. Thankfully the game supports custom soundtracks, so worrying about that isn't really an issue. The only problem here is the tracks just repeat, so a long race might force you to hear the same song on a loop again and again.
Also, Apex features cheesy voice acting by our company friends - while it's not really terrible, the lines said are repeated a hundred times over, and are super lame. At least when you play the Arcade mode you don't have to hear these silly remarks.
The Bottom Line 3.5 out of 5
While Apex isn't the most awful racing game, it's not the best either. It's slightly above average, with a fun Dream Mode, and good track designs, knocked backwards a bit by unfulfilled promises of creating your own cars, and uninspired AI making some races an exercise in boredom. Still, racing fans will enjoy Apex and it's small innovations, as well as hope for a future sequel that's tweaked out with Xbox Live play (for not only online racing, but also car creation sharing), smarter computer opponents in single player modes, and yes, being able to finally create your own vehicle that's truly yours.
The Adjusted Epinions Final Score: 3.0 out of 5