FAST Racing NEO is a game that seeks to fill the F-Zero-sized hole in every Nintendo fan's heart. Shin'en's racer is quite different from Nintendo's classic franchise, but it still does a great job at giving that high speed racing fix that some Wii U owners are desiring the most.
The first thing we should note about FAST Racing NEO is the fact that this is not your average racer. Its controls are precise and require a gentle touch; leaning too hard on your analogue stick will almost certainly spell your doom. The game is also unforgiving of mistakes but rewards dedication. Once you're familiar with the tracks and understand the potential trouble spots it's easy to plan your lap and chase a new personal best.
Mechanically, FAST Racing NEO is similar to its WiiWare predecessor FAST - Racing League. Both games contain three leagues, each of which represent a level of speed and AI skill, similar to the Mario Kart franchise. Its racing mechanics are also similar as well. Players must still look for boost pads all over the track and shift their vehicle's phase - a mechanic which involves changing the colour of the vehicle's thrusters between blue and orange - to match the colour of the pad they're crossing and get a boost, while also looking for boost orbs to fill their meter for those times when they need to gain some ground.
Not everything is the same, however. Boost pads no longer magnetically lock your vehicle to the track, thus making it possible to lose your boost midway through your path. The game's single greatest new innovation, meanwhile, is its crazily challenging Hero Mode - this is available after placing at least third in the Hypersonic League, the game's most difficult speed class. In Hero Mode your vehicle's boost gauge doubles as a shield gauge, meaning one simple mistake can make your vehicle blow up; on top of that you must finish first in each race or else you must start the track over. Each track is a mirror version of one of the 16 original tracks available in Championship mode, effectively doubling the number to 32.
Speaking of tracks, the star of the show has to be Shin'en's terrific course design. The tracks in FAST Racing NEO are nothing short of surreal, and are almost as fun for spectators as they are for players. Zipping under Sandworm-like creatures in Scorpio Circuit or weaving between the legs of a spider mech in Kamagori City never gets old. Every single track is gorgeous, bursting with detail and full of life; each course is full of edge-of-your-seat, hold-your-breath moments. Jumping between sections of track never feels safe, in just the right way. The threat of an opponent boosting with perfect timing and spinning you out in midair is omnipresent and is enough to keep even the most seasoned racer on the edge of their seat.
When you aren't worrying about your opponents, you'll have to worry about the track itself trying to take you out. They range from threats as malicious as the fire pots in Sunahara Plains bursting under your vehicle to benign problems such as Sunahara Desert's lack of guard rails, where one over-corrected turn will send you careening off the track. Every time you dodge an icicle, drift under a boulder or boost through a meteor it feels like an achievement, and all of it is stunning. Fast Racing NEO is also a great looking game on the Wii U, representing a level of polish that is rarely seen outside of Nintendo's first-party offerings. It also runs at a nearly solid 60 frames per second, which is impressive considering the speed at which elements on the track are zipping by; some brief dips do occur, but the general gameplay performance is top-notch.
FAST Racing NEO also boasts a good amount of replayability, thanks in no small part to the game's multiplayer options. Like the original, Fast Racing NEO sports four-player splitscreen multiplayer. In it, the full compliment of 10 vehicles, tracks and leagues is available, provided you have unlocked these in Championship Mode beforehand. Unfortunately the game's visual splendor just can't be maintained while simultaneously rendering two to four screens. The game's frame rate becomes somewhat erratic with four racers playing on one console, in particular, with graphics losing some detail as well. It's not enough to completely destroy the experience, but it is markedly less enjoyable than having the screen to yourself. We were disappointed to discover the GamePad renders all four players' screens - just like in Mario Kart 8 - thus making it almost unusable in split-screen multiplayer. We would have preferred to see the player on the GamePad get a full screen of their own, but it's a minor issue all told.
Unlike its older brother, Fast Racing NEO also supports online multiplayer, a first for the series. Online matches are seemingly lag free, a good sign for any online game, but especially those in which twitch reflexes are required. Nevertheless Shin'en has made some choices in the implementation of the online mode that left us a bit puzzled. Upon choosing to play online you'll be prompted to choose between a match amongst friends or one open to the general public. From there you'll select a vehicle and drop into the lobby area.
You'll be presented with three randomly selected tracks to choose from. Each of your opponents, up to seven of them, will receive a different set of tracks; after everyone has voted for a track one will be randomly selected, similar to how Mario Kart 8 operates. There's no option to select which league (speed class) you'll participate in, nor is there any indication made by the game to clue players in to what speeds to expect; the online races we took part in felt like Subsonic League races, the game's slowest. Winning races awards points to your profile, so it'll be interesting to see whether greater numbers online, with increasingly high rankings, will prompt faster speed classes in online races. As it stands the online system is extremely simple, apparently designed to ensure quick match-ups for potentially limited numbers of players; this is an eShop-only game, after all.
In addition to its two multiplayer modes, Championship mode and Hero mode, FAST Racing NEO also includes a Time Attack mode. There's nothing different or special about this, but it's a lot of fun to play - getting alone time with any of the game's tracks and racing to your heart's content is great. Another nice added touch is Shin'en including its own developers' best times on the tracks for you to beat. That's a neat inclusion, but we'd like to see our friends' or other online times on here as well; the Championship mode, for example, takes your overall time in a Cup and places it in a global leaderboard.
Though much of the experience is terrific, not everything is absolutely perfect. In some instances, such as when multiple vehicles explode in front of you, the frame rate can take a brief but noticeable dip. There's also no mini-map, nor does the announcer call out how far ahead or behind you are, unlike its predecessor FAST - Racing League. These features are certainly missed, as it's often hard to tell if a race is worth continuing when you have no idea whether or not you're closing in on your opponents. It's hard to fault the game much for these problems, in the end, as they're seldom on your mind when you're caught up in the heat of the moment during a race. It's possible that adding any further UI elements may become more of a hindrance than a help, too.
The Wii U has been an excellent platform for download-only 'Indie' titles, but few have been able to stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo's first-party offerings. FAST Racing NEO is one of those few. Its gorgeous graphics, incredible sense of speed and steep challenge make for a unique racing game on the system. If you love racing games - and maybe even if you don't but are willing to try - be sure to pick this up. We don't think you'll be disappointed.