I don’t think my love for the Fast & Furious series, AKA The Great Works of Dominic Toretto, is ironic any more. I think I just really enjoy bald men punching lumps out of each other. That and the physics of the world being flicked off so that cars can be catapulted out of buildings/at submarines/into space. I will fight anyone who sneers at Fast 5 onwards (honestly, what kind of series gets good only after its fifth movie?).
My problem with Fast & Furious: Spy Racers, the animated TV series, is that we have differing ideas about what makes the franchise great. There are no bald men in sight. Instead, it focuses on similar things to films one, two and three: Spy Racers is all about the racing, the car shows, and the hulking cans of nitrous strapped to the back of the car. There’s no Jason Statham anywhere, which just doesn’t feel right. But it’s on Season Six now (six!), so we’re clearly wrong. And now we have the tie-in game to prove it.
And – would you believe it – for all our grumbles and cynicism, Fast & Furious: Spy Racers is the best Fast & Furious tie-in so far (as long as you discount the Forza DLC). You can feel confident in purchasing it for the younger player who enjoys the TV series.
First of all, we should be clear what Fast & Furious: Spy Racers Rise of SH1FT3R isn’t. This isn’t a story-driven game. If you love the series for its spy games, and the dynamics between the team, then you are going to emerge disappointed. There are some scrappy little cutscenes that – if we’re being honest – could have completely excised without damaging enjoyment at all. And if you want to spend time with the series’ characters, then ditch that notion too. The best you’re getting is a couple of quips and their repeated, annoying chat from the cars themselves.
What you are getting is an extremely robust, generous little kart game (in the same way that Blur was a kart game: you are driving realistic-ish cars that can fire missiles and drop mines on each other). Anyone who has played Mario Kart will feel at home and cosy here. There are Missions which act as the game’s campaign, with four lots of four courses available to play. A Quick Race lets you play any track, and Online Multiplayer allows you to race against randoms.
The Missions can be played solo or split-screen co-op. There’s some bumpf about you needing to infiltrate SH1FT3R to stop some kind of apocalypse, but it’s so entirely skippable. It’s all the flimsiest of framing for some racing. Then you get to choose your character – Tony, Layla, Cisco and Echo – and hop into your first race.
Fast & Furious: Spy Racers Rise of SH1FT3R is a bit of a looker, which surprised us. We did a kind of double-take on the environments and cars in particular, as they were far better than expected. This isn’t Gran Turismo – get close to some of the more boxy walls on the harbour levels to see why – but it’s closer than it had any right to be. There are even moments when we were tempted to screenshot, as we came to the peak of the Ship Graveyard level, for example.
Next to surprise us was the handling. The cars feel great: responsive to the degree that you can slalom between opponents or powerslide close to a bollard and feel confident that no shoddy collision detection will deny you. The powerslide itself is also generous: we had our finger hovering over it for most corners, as it both swings the car round well, but also gifts you a generous amount of energy. And the speed is pretty significant. While this is a kids’ game at heart, it’s not afraid to send you hurtling through its courses.
As you push through the course, you accumulate energy which can be spent on one of four different abilities. Each one costs incrementally more than the last: there’s a paintball gun, a paintball mine, a boost and the character’s special move, most often a boost with some supplementary effect like a shield or shockwave. Use an ability and the bar goes down again.
Opting for a replenishing roster of abilities rather than item pick-ups is a big call. In our view, it doesn’t work. With every car able to generate a paintball shot with the smallest amount of powersliding, it creates complete chaos. If you’re near the peloton (let’s call it that, because the AI can’t help but cluster round each other like synchronised cyclists), then you’re going to get blasted by paintball bullets. The higher the difficulty, the worse it gets, and throw in a strong second player, and it becomes all too much. When the paintball gun happens to both slow you down and cover your view, it’s too frequent a frustration.
Luckily, Fast & Furious: Spy Racers Rise of SH1FT3R gives you three different difficulties, and you can switch them down between races. They don’t factor into the achievements, either, so you can put the difficulty onto its lowest setting and not miss a thing. As long as you have house rules about not shooting each other – recommended, if you want to retain the love of your young’un – then the chaos can be mitigated a wee bit.
There are a fair few tracks for your money. There are seventeen in total, spread across five cups (the last of the five cups is a one-vs-one race against the game’s boss in a VR suite, so it kind of counts), and they have the decency to be reasonably different from each other. There are no wild or weird mechanics at play on each track, like you would find in a Mario Kart, but they have differing backdrops, varied layouts and – most impressively – a network of shortcuts and different routes. It’s not unusual to find shortcuts stacking on top of each other, with you appearing ahead of a pack that you had trouble passing before.
It should be noted that there’s a compromise to all of the shortcutting. It can often be very difficult to tell where you’re meant to be going. Watching our six-year old play, it was all a bit much: the main route would take you through walls that looked like they would cause you to crash, and the left-turn/right-turn signs were either missable or not there at all. As we played, we found ourselves scanning the map for where the next hairpin would come from. For a younger player, that’s just not possible. We’d argue that Fast & Furious: Spy Racers Rise of SH1FT3R is more for the eight-plus crowd, which is fine – that’s likely the demographic of the series anyway. But we can’t help wonder why Fast & Furious: Spy Racers Rise of SH1FT3R didn’t go overboard on UI, telling you which way to go.
The Missions would have been enough content to keep us happy, but there are a few other additions to note. There’s a shop, fixed out to be a vending machine, that gives you something to spend your winnings on. The biggest draw is new characters and cars but, frustratingly, they aren’t playable in the campaign. Sure, they are mostly bad guys, so it makes sense to omit from a story perspective, but unlocking them becomes particularly hollow (and the story didn’t amount to much anyway). There’s also Online Multiplayer, but we never saw another player. It’s a surprising inclusion for a family game, but – meh – it’s there if you want a guaranteed match with a long-distance friend.
Coming from the same publisher as Blaze and The Monster Machines: Axle City Racers, which did such a poor, hollow job of bringing karting to younger players, it’s a joy to play something so substantial and well crafted in Fast & Furious: Spy Racers Rise of SH1FT3R. Sure, Forza will trump this in every way, but for the younger player – particularly one who’s bought into the TV series – this is an unexpected gift. Just don’t bully each other with the paintball gun. It’ll break up even the most tight-knit of families.
You can buy Fast & Furious: Spy Racers Rise of SH1FT3R from the Xbox Store