Slipstream may be the most nostalgic game we will get to play this year. It’s not just interested in reclaiming the thrills of Outrun and, more specifically, Outrun 2: it casts its net so much wider and manages to catch the entirety of the 1990s.
The ‘90s are there in the game menus, which – aside from flickering and skipping, as if we were playing on a CRT in the back of a camper van – has the same technicolour pattern that we remember from the carpet of our local bowling alley, circa 1991. The racetracks all, slightly bizarrely, reference Sonic the Hedgehog levels (Emerald Hills, Marble Gardens and Chemical Plant, to note a few), and we twice got overtaken by celebrated painter Bob Ross.
Wherever there is an opportunity, the ‘90s are invoked (the audio tracks are all cassettes! The soundtrack feels ported in from the movie Drive!) with a kind of gleeful joy. You can tell that the developers are looking to marinate Slipstream in the sounds, sights and gameplay of the period and they do a bodacious job, albeit doing it in an entirely unsubtle way.
Nowhere is this more true than in the graphics. Using a crossbred of 2D pixel art and polygonal landscapes, it feels completely authentic to a Sega Saturn or PS1-era racer. What’s probably more impressive is the sensation of speed that it offers. Somehow, in the alchemy of 2D and 3D, Slipstream manages to feel incredibly fast, and it’s entirely possible to find yourself leaning into corners and turning your controller like a steering wheel.
As with Outrun 2, Slipstream is all about the power-sliding. The courses tend to meander quite a lot, so mastering the power-slide becomes essential. But that’s easier said than done: the powerslide is so unconventional and demanding that it’s entirely possible to hit a wall (both literally and figuratively) for the first hour or two. To power-slide, you have to quickly tap the LT button (the game’s brake), and then return to the RT button in quick succession. There’s an incredibly small window in which to pull off the slide. Do it early and you will careen into a wall. Do it late and you will careen into the opposite wall.
It sounds easy on paper but it’s supremely difficult in practice. We are, finally, there, but we only began ratcheting wins after an hour or two. Be prepared for that difficulty curve. We should note that there is an ‘Automatic’ mode, where power-slides are applied on every turn, but we’d suggest that it makes the game trivial to complete. If that’s what you want from Slipstream, then go to town.
Most of the races are dense with traffic and competitors, so the mid- to end-game challenge is in power-sliding without bonking them. They have a habit of spasming into different lanes without warning, so – again – that’s easier said than done. Most of the time it feels random. But the density of traffic can also give you some of Slipstream’s finest moments, as you navigate seven or eight cars without putting a bumper out of joint.
Crash into them, though, and you have the option to Rewind, a mechanic that seemingly has to be in every modern racing game. It works as you would expect here, offering a limited amount of rewind time so that you can avoid a corner or an over-eager car. The cooldown is slightly longer than your average Forza, so some conservation is needed. We felt lukewarm on its inclusion: it felt like it was papering over some of the game’s lack of visual cues (more on that later), rather than offering any genuine strategy.
The only remaining intricacy to describe is the titular slipstream. Sit in the same lane as an upcoming car and you can quickly fill up a bar, eventually giving you a drafted speed boost. Keep chaining together slipstreams and you can remain in a hyper-accelerated state for several seconds, and this becomes essential when chasing down the leading cars in certain modes.
Talking of modes, Slipstream is absolutely loaded with them. Our favourite was Battle Royale (jacked up to include sixteen opponents, of course), which chooses not to opt for the Fortnite flavour of Battle Royale, and instead goes for a relatively simple elimination mechanic. You’re chasing down each of the game’s characters (represented by lovely 2D pixel busts above their car), and working through every single track that the game offers. But there’s also a Mario Kart-style Grand Prix, a more Chase HQ-like takedown mode called Grand Tour, and the traditional Time Attacks, among others. It’s safe to say that there are plenty of ways to play Slipstream, whether in single player or multiplayer.
Writing all this, it’s hard to describe why Slipstream left us a little cold. It is fully featured, and once the power-sliding becomes second nature, it can also be exhilarating.
It might be because we’re so blessed with similar racers right now. Slipstream may have the confidence of a game that thinks it’s owning a niche, but it’s really not: the stellar Hotshot Racing comes to mind first, but Retro Highway and Horizon Chase Turbo are also in a similar weight division. That’s without various reissues of classics like Daytona Racing and Outrun itself.
Slipstream, outside of its superlative presentation, is also too simple and one-note to compete with some of its brethren. It really only has corners and traffic to throw at the player, and it soon becomes clear that there are only so many ways that you can turn left or right. Without a meaningful or interesting meta to slap on to it, like upgrading the cars in our garage, the races also don’t significantly change. You can up the difficulty and therefore the speed, but it didn’t feel like enough to offer long-term mileage.
And we can’t shift a sense that the game’s difficulty comes from places that it really shouldn’t. It’s incredibly difficult to anticipate what’s coming up. There’s no course map, the radar-like UI in the bottom-left of the screen is absolutely useless for judging where cars are behind you, and turns aren’t broadcasted particularly well. At speed, it can be hard to discern if a turn is coming, and it’s even harder when a turn quickly follows another turn. The Rewind is a get-out-of-jail-free card, but those are rarely fun or empowering to play. It becomes clear that you have to do a spot of memorisation, but tracks are repetitious enough to make that process difficult.
We enjoyed Slipstream, we really did. There’s a pure exhilaration in its speed and the way that we barely kept our tyres on the road as we drifted round a hard corner. We could close our eyes and imagine ourselves back in a 90s arcade, clutching the wheel of Outrun 2. For long periods, particularly once we nailed the drifting, we had a whale of a time.
But that feeling didn’t last for long. Slipstream is full of bad-calories. The too-simple races became repetitious, and the multiple game modes struggled in vain to make them interesting. As a distraction from Hotshot Racing, it was welcome. As a replacement for it? Nah, it certainly has enough speed, but – having exhausted it of its charms – we’ve lost the need to play it.
You can buy Slipstream from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S