I love a good racing game. I love a good flight simulator. Applying a natural algebraic progression to these two declarations means that I had pretty good time with Xtreme Air Racing 2. What Victory Simulations has achieved with this title is a pleasantly esoteric ride through single races, dogfights, and race seasons based off of prop plane competitions, and a national club based in Reno, Nevada.
As the follow-up to the unique first XAR game, there doesn’t seem to be a broad spread of improvements in XAR2. Although the second one features new environments and a host of new aircraft to fly (a total of over 70, after all the newcomer planes are tallied up), XAR2 really doesn’t noticeably improve the quality of the graphical backdrop, nor is the sense of speed as blistering as one would expect after reading the features list. Despite all this, XAR2 still manages to be an above average game once you climb into the cockpit.
I remember playing other flight sims in the past. Most of them were open-ended, bland adventures as a mid-air drifter, and after a while, I was only entertained by experimenting with the different manners in which a plane might hit the ground. XAR2’s control settings are decidedly skewed to be a simulator, but the sim feel is supplemented nicely by the competitive edge that the racing aspect brings in. XAR2 also remains as the exclusive example of a prop-plane racing simulator, presenting a depth in competitive nuance that is effective, yet not crucial. It’s an aspect of the game’s balanced learning curve that allows “experts” to fine tune their craft to the environment they’ll be racing in (taking into account the duration of the race, engine durability, altitude pressure, etc.), and junior birdmen to simply jump in and try to keep their plane from crashing.
There’s a great deal of room to grow here, for players of all types and skill levels. Menu selections range from free flight through a rather extensive number of varied “tracks” allowing you to get familiar with the control of any given plane, to season races that offer the thrill, challenge, and pursuit of victory. Dog fighting has its own forum as well, though you’ll probably want to get very comfortable with your planes before taking this on; accuracy is critical in dog fighting, and prop planes just aren’t built for the agile, serpentine flight patterns required to take down your opponent.
Speed seems to have been an issue with the first XAR, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t think it’s truly been addressed in the sequel. While I’m aware I may be jaded by my many thousands of hours logged in arcade-like jet simulators and modern aircraft games, the sense of speed in XAR2 really doesn’t impress or enthrall. Although prop planes aren’t supposed to be terribly fast in the first place though, and I easily forgave this minor shortcoming. If you’re considering this title for fast action, look elsewhere – this one moves at a pace suitable for the elderly (no offense to our exalted elders).
Your control options are pretty distinct, and equally as disparate. Think about it: would you rather control your plane with a mouse, or a flight stick? The mouse felt so unnatural to me, I couldn’t justify any great length of play with it. If you’re into these kinds of games, you probably already have a decent flight stick. The entertainment margin is wide on this – the flight stick makes that much of a difference, so if you don’t have one for XAR2, I would advise going out and getting one.
Racing is generally an exercise in banking. Staying low to the ground while flying is part of the vicarious thrill of this type of racing, but for the most part, you’re flying in a circle, rounding pylons without hitting or cutting them, and trying to stay out in front of the pack. The Season racing section is a great place to try out the different plane types (biplane, Formula 1, or AT-6 models), and there really is a difference in how each one handles in flight. If you have enough flight-savvy friends, there are LAN and internet multiplayer options, which is always preferable to duking it out with the game’s AI.
One of the greater deficiencies with XAR2 is the visuals. I was surprised to see how rudimentarily the racing grounds had been decorated, whether it was the ground patterning or building structures. I’ll admit that a flight game doesn’t necessarily need to focus too much on this negligible veneer, but XAR2 really doesn’t move so fast you can’t stop and appreciate the view in between turns. The game does redeem itself with well-constructed and realistically articulated aircraft, from landing gear to tail rudder. I would only mark points against the graphics for the fact that more effort wasn’t put into the “life” of the backdrops. The sounds? Eh. You hear two things when you’re in the game: the announcer with his witty race banter (who was, in my opinion, a former lounge singer), and the steady drone of your prop engine. In a simulator, I would expect little beyond this, since realism (despite the corny announcer) is the focus.
And finally, if there was one thing I would have addressed right form the start, it would have been the atrocious load times. Even with the varied complexities of any given landscape’s topography, there’s no element of these racing environments or plane models that should take longer than five seconds to load and render. I almost felt like keeping a book handy for the empty intermissions between the selection screen and the races. Fortunately, this was the most discouraging portion of the game, and it’s ignorable after you get into the flight racing.
Xtreme Air Racing 2 actually does a very good job of representing the sport that inspired the game. This also means that unless you’re really into the air racing scene, many of the minor demerits (bland graphics, the scarcity of the sounds, the extensive load times) will discourage rather than delight. Warming up to XAR2 takes a little time, but once you’re into progressing through the seasons and trying your hand at the different planes and modifying them for peak performance, the gameplay depth will hook you. After that, sitting down for a quick race or two becomes an involved and entertaining aside, rather than a flighty chore.