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Spectra / 17th of July 2015

Gateway Interactive began life in 2013 when the core team met in Hull in 2013 at the Global Game Jam there, together they utilised Microsoft’s Azure cloud services and Ventures Accelerator program to craft a space faring adventure, Pure Space, and an 8-bit racing extravaganza, Spectra, which launched last year on Windows 8. At the time, the team assured their fans that they would take the chiptune driven game to the Xbox One, and now, one year later, they have fulfilled that promise. Released earlier this month, Spectra, costs a bargain basement £5.99, but on a console swamped with quality racing titles, should you really splash out on this one?

Although pulled from its marketplace for some reason, Spectra – I believe – began life as a mobile game, and this shows in the game’s simplistic design, minimalistic presentation and control scheme, which amounts to no more than navigation (the player does not control the speed of the vehicle in any way). There are ten music driven tracks to race upon, but unlike most racers, the goal is not to beat an opponent to the finish line, but rather to simply stay the course and reach the end, racking up a score in the progress. The courses themselves are quite simple, as I said, these amount to ten, which grow in complexity as they go, and are actually procedurally generated (though replaying one immediately after failing results in the same course layout). The goal, therefore, for the player, is to navigate each course’s array of tight twists and turns, collecting pickups and avoiding the numerous obstacles that are dotted all over the place. Simple, right? Yes, in theory, anyway.

In addition to its retro fuelled looks, Spectra, is also a rather unforgiving experience, it is all too easy to bounce off of an obstacle on the track and find yourself careering into nothingness and the game over that this results in, meaning that it’s not really a game that players will likely put very much time into, yet there’s certainly enough charm about it to entice you back to dabble in it from time to time. The excellent soundtrack, provided by Chipzel, is definitely the main allure here, with each tune providing the length of the course, though not necessarily the difficulty, it would certainly have been nice to see the team slyly copy Nana On-Sha’s Vib Ribbon, allowing the player to utilise their own music as well, and see the game generate a course based on it. This would surely have added an immense amount of replay value, beyond the search for an earth shattering high score. Unfortunately, it is also here, at the core of the game experience, where we find Spectra’s weakest aspect.

Given that the game is driven purely by the search for better and better scores on each of its ten tracks, you’d think that online leader boards would have been one of the first features that the team planned to include, right? Wrong. The game features nothing even remotely close to this, not even an offline version, it merely tracks the best score on each level, and whilst this may tie in with the retro feel of the game, its limited scope is surely going to result in very limited sales, and this is quite sad because there is definitely potential to be discovered here.

The score system that the game utilises feels somewhat similar to the Kudos system that Bizarre built Metropolis Street Racer and the Project Gotham Racing series around, with points stacking up, waiting to be banked after a period of time. Unlike the games mentioned, however, the score multiplier stems from the number of speed boosts that you drive over, this effectively gives Spectra a rudimentary risk versus reward mechanic, as an increase in speed results a far greater probability that you’ll take your vehicle rocketing off of the edge of the track. Score multipliers don’t last very long and are also lost after colliding with obstacles. From my experience these boosts have a rather nasty habit of being placed directly in front of these, which means that high point scoring streaks are quite rare, though in its defence, it does also manage to make them feel quite rewarding when they do happen (though it certainly is rare).

Complementing the retro style is the game’s visual approach, which is very basic, and evidently Tron inspired, though it is worth pointing out that the vehicle that the player pilots is in fact a turbo powered GameBoy Pocket! Initially, the visuals come across as reasonably attractive, yet it soon becomes clear that there are no aesthetic differences between the ten courses, no varying themes and no difference in colour palette. Again, this lack of variation will stifle replayability, and likely reduce players to simply picking a course based on their affinity for the accompanying music track, rather than for the course itself.

To further add to the problems for Xbox One owners, not only can the game be difficult to play, but the achievements are likewise rather difficult to unlock, and mixed in with the other issues mentioned earlier, makes Spectra a very difficult beast to try and sell. Of course, with a patch or two, most of its problems could possibly be alleviated, and with the addition of online leader boards, it would probably become something of a must have release anyway, and for that reason, along with its sublime soundtrack and simple, yet fairly addictive gameplay, it’s certainly worth a look. Just don’t expect to get much out of it.

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