A neon-drenched rhythm game which invites you in only to let you down. The Finger Guns review of Music Racer: Ultimate.
Is there anything greater in life than music? It can inspire, deflate, provide hope and be an outlet for everything in between. Music is awesome, so in theory, games based on one of mankind’s greatest pleasures should be awesome too. Right?
By no means am I an expert in all things musical, nor can I confess to having an especially artistic mind (read: at all. My dear old dad has never been more disappointed in me than when he had to drag me around the Tate Modern – “it’s just a grey canvas, it cost 13 million!!”). However, VR gems like Beat Saber and Synth Riders show that I can seriously appreciate the musical arts in the video game medium. Nevermind all of my other various rants regarding game soundtracks and how they elevate good titles into great ones – what did you do to my mind, NieR?!
I’m sure you can guess where this is going – Music Racer: Ultimate doesn’t hold nary a minor note in contrast to the greats of the genre. There’s something to be said for its excellent selection of synth and dubstep-esque tracks, but it’s more of a one-note Crazy Frog in comparison to a master like Led Zeppelin in video game terms.
What makes this melody fall apart under the strain? Let’s dive into this carcophony of loud yet underpowered beats.
Ride The Synthwave
The basic premise of Music Racer: Ultimate is so straightforward it could make a ruler appear curved. You select your avatar vehicle, choose from a variety of cyberpunk, synthy type maps, pick your poison of bass-busting track, then head in. No tutorial or in-game tips necessary. As your songs sets off, you’re tasked with hitting the notes across three lanes ahead of you – right, left and centre. If you’re playing on standard, there’ll be frequent obstacles in the form of tall pink towers, hitting which dents your score and briefly slows you in an animation of demanifesting.
Now, far be it from me to determine what constitutes deep gameplay, but what I’ve just described is the entire game you have ahead of you. There are no racing type mechanics: no boosts, score multipliers, powerups, leaderboards, no alternative roadblocks to progress or challenges to overcome. You hit left and right on your D-pad or if you’re adventurous (and crave a clumsy time) your analog stick. It’s as bare-bones as a game can get away with mechanically. To be fair, this approach isn’t inherently a negative one. I’ve enjoyed many a basic-as-sin walking simulator and the saying does indeed declare that “less is more”. Music Racer: Ultimate does push it’s luck on this front though, probably too much.
Games like the aforementioned Beat Saber, Synth Riders, as well as gaming icons Guitar Hero and Rockband weren’t universally popular by luck. They garnered massive appeal from a high skill ceiling which demanded so much of players who wanted to develop their skills. Whether through modifiers, gradual increase in demands for reaction time or just an offering of different modes, they had the longevity to keep the core gameplay fresh. Music Racer relies so much on it’s aesthetic and music, it seems to have forgotten that the act of playing the game should be fun in and of itself too, which is mightily tough to do when you’re only input is to mindlessly hit left and right without respite.
It isn’t helped by the fact that the notes are not as tightly mapped in beat with the songs, a source of massive satisfaction from other titles. There’s nothing quite like nailing a song in perfect harmony, smashing each beat in tune with your inputs. It’s sorely lacking in Music Racer and with nothing else to consider, you have to wonder what kind of game would be left without its stellar soundtrack and punchy visuals.
Stuck In First Gear
I’ll be the first to admit I can get suckered by cyberpunky and synth visuals. Something about the contrast of ludicrously bright colours against the backdrop of deep voids of space just works wonders on my eyes. Music Racer: Ultimate has a solid amount of maps, each with its own unique style, colour scheme and background effects. New Tokyo in particular looks awesome and seeing each song’s track style was a cool experience.
What undermines the visuals however, is the issue with how playable some of the map types are. Certain songs don’t lend themselves well to good gameplay by the fact the track will swoop up and down nauseatingly with such abruptness it’ll bug the hell out of you. On a couple of them I even just stopped and quit out as I could barely make out where the tokens I was supposed to be hitting were. The gameplay is so simplistic and yet when level design is this mechanically flawed, it makes playing it enjoyably nigh-on impossible.
Good thing I liked New Tokyo then, as it was one of very few maps that didn’t have this issue and even on supposedly less bumpy songs, the actual maps themselves just don’t lend to you having a good time. You can somewhat circumnavigate this by playing on Cinematic mode – where you don’t have to do anything – but if the solution to your level design is to not have to play the game. Well, it ain’t much of a solution, is it?
Drop The Beat
Obviously, any game based on music is going to live or die based on its selection of tunes. Music Racer: Ultimate has a surprisingly long setlist to select from at the get go. Most are based in the electric, synth, and dubstep type genres, usually more about blasting base than soaring lyrics. I found the majority to be pretty good and well worth a run just to hear them out. A couple were a little too bombastic for my tastes, but I also found a couple of gems I’ve listened to outside the game.
Compared to the offering of say, Synth Riders, I’d say Music Racer hasn’t compiled the best nor the worst, it’s not quite as carefully curated, but what’s here is a pretty expansive offering. The addition of being able to download tracks that have been uploaded also provides scope for nearly endless amounts of playtime, provided you can hack the endlessly repetitive core design. It’s a cool idea, one that’s long been outed as the peak of rhythm games, but it’s sort of wasted on a game which fundamentally isn’t that fun to play, especially for long periods.
Pimp Your Ride
Apart from swinging your avatar left and right to avoid obstacles, you’ll also be earning points as you play, which can then be spent on new levels and vehicles. Later cars can get seriously expensive (Santa’s sleigh certainly don’t come cheap!) so if you’re aiming to unlock everything legitimately, you’ll be playing a while. I appreciated quite a few of the designs, with Raven_Zero being a personal favourite. Again, they don’t bring anything different to gameplay, but they are cool to look at.
Levels tended to be cheaper and like I mentioned before, quite a few were horrendous to play if you were trying to hit notes and rack up a score. You’re marked at the end of each song/level on a 3 star basis, but there wasn’t any apparent leaderboard or benefit to what rating you received so it’s largely superficial and pointless. Even the combo system is poorly thought-out, instead of taking your highest consecutive score or a median of them, the game only rewards you with the points of your combo if you finish the level with it. If you smash a song for 99% only to hit the last barrier, your combo resets and you get zilch at the end. It’s a weird way to implement this and I still haven’t quite got my head around it.
There are a couple different modes to try out as well – standard has barriers as well as tokens, with score dropped for each barrier you hit. Hard ends your song immediately if you hit any barrier. Cinematic has you just… watch the track while the song plays, and Zen removes all barriers, allowing you to just enjoy the scenery and hit notes as you please. I ended up mostly playing Zen, as it gave me the most relaxing chance to appreciate the music and take in the sights.
Let Me Down Gently
I was excited when I picked up Music Racer: Ultimate. Having watched the trailer I was enticed with the idea of losing a few hours to some good music and entertaining rhythm gameplay. Instead, I found myself bored within just a handful of songs. I liked what I saw and what I could hear, but while I could see and hear no evil, I could definitely speak some evil about how bland it was.
The customisation options are nice and the selection of tunes is pretty great, especially with the option to download an almost limitless number of tracks. But the whole thing is so painfully designed, whether it be from map or level conception, minimal input for the player or a fun bug where it would only play the first song on hard no matter what else I selected in the menu. Music Racer: Ultimate seems determined to abruptly cut the beat of it’s own song far too early.
It’s not the worst rhythm game you’ll ever play, there’s just little to justify going for this one when other superior titles already exist.
Music Racer: Ultimate looks awesome and sounds great, but it flatters to deceive with mind-numbingly bland, unengaging gameplay mixed with some shockingly bad level design and poorly thought out structure. When the solution to making your game more fun is to only listen and look, but not play, it becomes the video game form of “should have been an email”.
Music Racer: Ultimate is available now on PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox Series S|X and Xbox One.
Publisher: Sometimes You
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, a copy of the game was purchased. For our full review policy, please go here.
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