Does the world really need another futuristic racing game?
I found myself asking this question more and more as I glided down the myriad tracks of Kinetica. It felt like I had fired these same weapons and done these same power slides hundreds of times over, only in a slightly different form. I felt like I could check off every element I was seeing from a component list from other, more revolutionary games. General concept: F-Zero, check. Weapons-based gameplay: WipEout, check. General aesthetic: Extreme-G, check. Trick system: SSX, check.
In short: I felt like I had been down this road before (pun probably intended).
This isn't to say that the game is badly done. On purely technical merits, the game shines with fast, slick graphics, decent sound effects, and tight, intuitive controls. This also isn't to say that everything in Kinetica is a carbon copy of any older game. Little touches like a "siphon boost" system and land-based tricks make it stand out just a little bit. But nowadays it seems like all but the shoddiest of games have some PlayStaion 2-powered polish behind their uninspired gameplay. And the changes Kinetica introduces into the formula are so miniscule, for the most part, that only a true connoisseur would notice or care.
After playing for a few hours, I began looking for something in Kinetica that made it stand out; something that truly separated it from the games that are its obvious influence. The most apparent, even to someone who has just seen the screenshots, is the nature of the vehicles. Replacing the genre-standard hovercars for humans in exo-suits might at first seem like a great opportunity for the genre to introduce more characterization into an unlikely area: the vehicles.
In practice, though, Kinetica drops the ball by treating each unique character as just another car, with attributes like acceleration and grip instead of feelings like love and hate. I couldn't find any stated motivations or stories behind any of these characters. No traits were revealed through sound clips or dialogue boxes. It's as if the characters gave up all sense of identity the moment they decided to put on a racing suit.
Perhaps it's unfair to ask for complex characterization from a racing game, but I'm dumbfounded as to why else I should care about these humans/cars. Why should I treat this feature—the only one that really sets the game apart—as anything more than a cheap marketing gimmick?
I can try to guess a little bit about their character from their name and from the tricks they perform. I can glean a little more from the lovingly detailed art that adorns the instruction book. But the game gives me little other reason to treat these racers as anything more than lists of attributes—stereotypical gameplay archetypes that have bodies but no souls.
And it's the soul behind the game that counts more than anything. It has to. There has to be something there behind the character design and the track design and the boost meter that makes me invest my time—myself—into a game. The developers have to make me care about what's happening on the track. There has to be something that makes winning the race about more than the stupid obligatory rotating trophy screen. There has to be something that makes me want to keep playing.
As I grab the "infinite boost" power up and rocket myself from third to first place at the end of yet another race, I realize that Kinetica doesn't have that something. It has all the component pieces that a futuristic racing game should have—aesthetics, speed, weapons—but there's nothing behind them. I have nothing invested in the experience except a vague desire to maximize my speed as to minimize the time it takes to finish the race. But I have that feeling in any racing game. There nothing in Kinetica that that makes playing feel more important than completing the standard racing game goal (finish first) for another few hours.
Does the world really need any more futuristic racing games? Of course it does. A better question would be: Does the world really need another futuristic racing game without a soul?