FAST Racing NEO, still due this year, is almost certainly among the most highly anticipated Wii U eShop releases of the next two months. In fact, among the hardier and most dedicated band of Wii U devotees it may be one of the most exciting upcoming releases on the system full stop, helping fill some retail-sized gaps and also providing pacey futuristic racing that Nintendo itself is seemingly resistant to reviving.
It's the successor, of course, to FAST - Racing League on WiiWare, though the jump to HD technology, the stronger infrastructure of the eShop compared to its predecessor and the growing reputation of Shin'en Multimedia all contribute to a sense that this title has captured the imagination of a larger audience, despite the relative userbases of Wii and Wii U. It says much for how the eShop has become an integral part of the Wii U experience, moreso than WiiWare was able to achieve in years gone by.
When speaking to the project's Art Director, Martin Sauter, he was keen to emphasize to us that much as changed in this title compared to the original:
This isn't like part two, it's a completely different game. It's built up from the ground - it's the same engine but we've added and changed a huge amount. It looks and feels different and we've focused on the feeling of speed. We had a great reaction to FAST - Racing League so we thought it was a good idea to revisit when we started three years ago.
Sauter highlighted how invaluable the vocal fan-base was with the WiiWare title, and how it taught the design team vital lessons that have been carried across. One notable feature is the need to switch colours (between orange and blue in the demo we played) with a button press - if you have the right colour selected you can benefit from numerous boost areas on the track. Gathering orbs is also vital to accumulate boost energy, but whereas the first game had a fiddly requirement of picking up colour-correct orbs, in FAST Racing NEO this is streamlined with all pick-ups being for both boost colours.
Sometimes people don't know to switch colours to match the boost pads, so we're implementing that and strafing - which are important - in tutorials. Strafing is important in higher speed classes, for example, as if you get the boost start you can perhaps strafe quickly around those in front of you, or lean into curves to go faster as strafing doesn't reduce speed like normal steering.
In Fast Racing - League you had to have the right colour to pick up the orbs, but it was a little frustrating - we've scrapped that aspect of it in this version.
Sauter oozes a very natural enthusiasm for this project, rather than the answers-by-numbers that can sometimes be dished out by larger development studios or those making a game primarily to remain profitable. This is clearly a passion-project for the team, and that shines through in the intricate design that's already evident here. Sauter speaks a lot about depth and the desire for players to learn and improve with each passing hour of play. His description of a rhythm when racing seemed particularly apt.
We want to focus on the F-Zero vibes and fast racing, not worrying about pick-ups. It should feel like a rhythm, like Boost-Boost-Boost-pick up. So if you know where the pick-ups and boosts are you can effectively boost all the way around a lap. There's a lot of depth, such as boosting into or landing on others to spin them around, or boosting while flying to land quicker. There are various things you don't know in the beginning which don't necessarily matter until to take on Time Trials or online races. We really want this to be a deeper game, not just a shallow arcade game - though we like arcade games too!
When going hands on for a short spell with FAST Racing NEO, we were struck by the performance fidelity on offer. It's a good looking game, albeit with some sacrifices to the visuals when stood unnaturally close to a HD demo screen, yet when stood back and flying through courses the graphics look terrific. What helps this is not only the stylish art design but Shin'en's devotion to 60fps performance. That's where the rhythm - as mentioned by Sauter - becomes so prominent.
At first there's a learning curve in switching colour to match boost pads, for example, especially when whizzing through a track - even in the slower difficulty setting. Yet when it clicks, and your fingers naturally start to obey your instincts, the concept starts to shine. Stringing together boosts off the track and with a full gauge can be exhilarating, and track familiarity and more rapid speed classes will surely only add to this. Even in a short spell with a demo build the rewards from playing the same track twice felt obvious, and there's certainly a perceivably addictive hook that's only possible because of the attention to detail from the development team.
The game will be structured to encourage players to tackle the campaign first, too. The different kinds of ships - from light to heavy and various configurations - are setup to be gradually unlocked, and before leaping online it seems advisable to play through the core content and unlock items. The comparison is made with Mario Kart - the idea is that unlocking everything shouldn't take excessively long; most hours of gameplay come with mastering the mechanics and tracks.
You start off with one cup and three ships. The early ships are easy to use but the heavier ships behave differently and drift, so you have to use strafing and so on. It's harder but they are faster, for example. So in the single player campaign you unlock different ships that are harder to use but faster, and then you access faster speed classes. The top speed in the expo demo (at EGX) is about 400, but in the fastest ships - it's too fast for me but I'm told by someone else in the team that it's good - you go at about 1000. It's fun for the player to progress and unlock more stuff.
I think people usually play the single player campaign first, and I'm pretty sure many will go through - initially - in an hour or two. So one cup might take 30 minutes and it's quite arcade-like. We just want the players to understand the mechanics first, so not everything is unlocked at first. It's a little like Mario Kart - it's not too hard to unlock stuff, but it is difficult to achieve the top times in the higher speed classes. We want to encourage players so they have fun, so everything can be unlocked pretty fluidly.
There's a hope that progress in single player, and also learning from some local multiplayer racing, will ultimately lead to lots of racers heading online. It can be tricky for any download-only release to successfully keep servers busy and races flowing, so Shin'en's approach is one of simplicity - you accumulate an online score, but jumping into races should be easy.
It's not totally finalised, but there might not be a lot of players online all the time - we hope lots! - so we're keeping it quite simple. You just choose ships from those unlocked and choose any track you've unlocked, then just like in Mario Kart others jump in and you race. You collect points which make up your online score, so you can see if someone's pretty good or not, and you can try and improve on the leaderboard. We're keeping it simple for fast races.
We closed our chat with Sauter exploring the importance of the release to the company, and its potential to satisfy fans of sci-fi racing. It's a genre that's suffered a great deal in recent years with the continuing absence of F-Zero, while WipEout seems to be on a lengthy hiatus following the closure of Studio Liverpool. Mario Kart 8 may partially satisfy speedsters with its 200cc mode, but futuristic racing is also about the aesthetic and soundtrack, areas where FAST Racing NEO is undoubtedly showing potential.
Shin'en Multimedia is understandably keen to distance itself from direct comparisons, but is also happy to accept that its title could be an outlet for fans of long-departed franchises. The studio has seen this in reactions to its game, and has learned the value of sharing its efforts more to build pre-release hype.
From the very start we've had a lot of reactions where people have said "finally". We appreciate those franchises so much, we prefer to say we stand outside that and this is our take on the sci-fi racing genre. We're not F-Zero, we're not WipEout. We would love to see a new F-Zero too, but this is our game, but for sure we hope that those wishing for these kinds of games will come to us - this is a kind of game for them.
The response to E3 was tremendous. That was a first time for us. In the past we'd just make a game and release it, but Nintendo were saying to us "show the game, do something with the people". It's so important to show the game, there are so many people surprised to see a new game, so we're happy to show it and get their reactions. We're pretty sure we're on the right track.
We are much more present, doing these shows and showing the game. We've really focused on going to shows and showing footage - it's been almost three years of development and it's been the biggest production for us. We're sure it'll pay off.
The studio's recent efforts at shows included IndieCade IndieXchange in California, and as we head towards the end of the year excitement will surely build. It's hopefully just a matter of weeks away, and it could be a true highlight of the year on the Wii U eShop.