The Action-Racer is one of those weird genre mash-ups in video games. The first one I remember was Spy Racer, whose break neck speed and wonderful inclusion of spy gadgets at more then a handful of quarters in my formative years. More recently Renegade Ops filled that niche. Though more action and less racer, it was still the story of fast vehicles strapped with weapons going from point A to B and blowing stuff up along the way. Pressure manages to successfully capture that core, A to B driving and shooting, though it’s the other outlining elements that leave the whole package feeling… well, a little wet.
Pressure is the story of Morgan (I got his name from the promotional materials on Steam, as I did not see them mentioned anywhere in the story or game), a slightly big headed young man who likes to sleep in. Upon waking on what could be/probably is a nice spring day, Morgan finds that there’s no water in the river outside his home. It’s been stolen by Snidley Whiplash-lookalike “The Count” so he can, are you ready for it, pass the water through a series of tubes down a whole he drilled to the center of the planet so it is heated to steam by the underground magma core and then pumped back up to provide steam to his “uber-spa” (it’s important that go back and try to say everything after “are you ready for it” in one breath).
So the story is thread-bare, and it’s only really explained in two animated cut scenes, but those cut scenes are actually pretty cute. In fact, I kinda wish there was a bit more mention of it, because “The Count” and his plan are, as I described to my wife who is exposed to the same level of child programming that I am, Doofensmirtz evil, which is to say, yes it’s evil but also so dumb, it’s kind of endearing. It can also be tackled both by yourself, or with a co-op partner.
Beyond the paper thin narrative, Pressure is both fun and mechanically satisfying. The driving is floaty yet controllable, giving the buggy you drive a feeling of being in and out of control at the same time. When combined with the game’s boost mechanic, I often found myself shooting (literally and figuratively) from one side of the track to the other, only to slide and shoot back across, the buggy teetering that line of doing both everything, and nothing, I wanted it to do.
What’s never fully explained about the buggy is the game’s concept of pressure. The buggy has two meters on the left side of the screen, a green one that serves as your health, and a white one that indicates how much “pressure” you have left. Pressure is constantly depleting, and can only be refilled by crossing checkpoints and defeating enemies, though the later is hardly enough to keep you going indefinitely. Now, I assume, that pressure is simply the games artificial time constraint, as running out before the finish line leaves your buggy stranded and takes you back to the beginning of the level, but certain tooltips left me feeling that there were ways of manipulating the pressure that I was missing.
The buggy itself is customizable in between levels at “this dude’s” traveling garage. I say “this dude,” because it’s another character who simply isn’t expanded upon. He’s there, will occasionally spout nonsensical lines if you ask for his input, and that’s about it. The garage he gives access to is neat though, giving you access to a variety of primary (guns), secondary (skills like insta-repair and homing missiles , Rams (my personal fave!), and Buggy Upgrades (which turns the vehicle from dune buggy to the Pressure equivalent of Batman’s Tumbler). Everything is unlocked through coins which you earn by both collecting them along the various race courses, and blowing up cronies.
“The Count’s” cronies are pretty varied, with some specialized variants showing up as the levels go on to provide some extra headaches. One particular headache, the “Sucker,” steals pressure from you as long as it’s within range. None are hard to get rid of, and once you get over the “that’s neat” factor of seeing them the first time, they’re never really that special again. Very few take any actual thought to blow through or drive around.
In opposition to the variety of enemies you face, the tracks on which you face them are utterly heartbreaking in their monotony. It’s a real shame too, because there is a lot of promise in the art design. The vibrant colors of the starting prairie area, with it’s green grass and dirt roads, are followed by some beautiful tracks of a city/castle scape, complete with fun track transitions through stained glass windows. Everything is reused ad nauseum though, as the three themed areas are made up of only three different tracks, which are then recycled three times, before facing off against a mini-boss on a specialized track.
The boss tracks are well done, and the designers go out of their way to make the bosses unique, requiring a combination of environmental tricks and good old fashioned weapon damage to take down. The only exception to this is the last boss, who, while I won’t spoil it, is a master class in what not to do with a final boss. It forces you to re-learn how to drive the buggy, and caused the type of controller breaking anger in me that had been absent since last year’s Page Chronica.
Outside of that final boss, the rest of the game was enjoyable, but I can’t say I would go back to it anytime soon. Clocking in at just over three hours on medium, the majority of that time was split between that horrendous last boss run, and levels 5 through 8, where pressure was at such a premium I had to experiment with multiple weapons to find which ones I was most effective with. I don’t know whether it was designed that way, but those beginning levels were some real ball breakers, and I don’t know if I would have pushed through had I not been reviewing it.
I also would really like to be able to change the button scheme. They recommend using a game pad, which I did (XBOX 360 controller), but the layout of the buttons, namely the A button to fire the guns and the X button to dash, really dug into my thumb joint. Though a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things, I would have loved to have switched the two, thereby placing the… pressure… of holding down the gun button (of which there is no reason to ever let go) on the thumb proper rather then the joint.
All that being said, the core of Pressure is a fun ride. Good mechanics go a long way towards making a great action-racer, but the bumps along the road end up bogging this down at the end of the race.