Written by: Rik

Date posted: October 23, 2015

You get a glimpse of scenery – in this case generic futureland – on each track.

It’s another futuristic racer! As I don’t like to repeat myself – unless sufficient time has elapsed between reviews that I don’t actually realise this is what I’m doing and instead start congratulating myself on another masterful piece of retro-games writing – let’s just skip the context and go straight to a world where, for whatever reason, motor racing takes place on hover-bikes (called ‘speeders’) that are magnetically attached to the track, which is a long metal tube. Oh, and it’s all incredibly fast and dangerous, of course.

Putting aside the general naffness that comes with the whole genre, if you imagined a bunch of people sat around a table trying to come up with the key ingredients for a new futuristic racer, they’d probably be very happy with this as the end product. It’s more like the version of Wipeout that featured in the film Hackers than Wipeout itself. (If you’ve seen that bit from the film, you’ll realise that this isn’t perhaps as good as it sounds, but you could well imagine someone from the 90s thinking Ballistics was the kind of thing that the kids might be into, however misguided that might have been.)

As mentioned, racing takes place in a tube, one that your speeder is attached to. There’s no steering as such; instead, you sort of roll around the inside of the tube in order to avoid obstacles and hit pick-ups. One of the pick-ups is a speed booster which, when activated, can make you go extremely fast. The manual claims that there’s actually no limit to your top speed, which I’m not sure is possible, but it can certainly be cranked to levels beyond those of most racers – and certainly past the limits of my decaying eyesight and dulled reflexes.

You have to detach from the tube in order to grab some ‘bonus’ pickups, like this one. I’m not sure it’s worth the hassle.

Under such circumstances, you’re more likely to crash into one of the many walls or barriers dotted throughout each tube. The faster you go, the more likely it is that your engine will overheat (bizarrely, crashing also causes your engine heat to increase, which doesn’t seem right, although in terms of mechanics it does seem sensible to have high speed and crash damage consolidated into a single gauge). Heat can be reduced by passing over a cooler pickup, which allows you to maintain speed, or by using your speeder’s manual cooldown feature, which also acts as a brake. Fail to keep it under control one way or another, and your race will be over.

That’s pretty much all you need to know to get going, and after that, it’s largely a case of relying on your reactions to get you through. Going as fast as you dare, you slide around the inside of the tube, keeping an eye out for colours approaching you at high speed – red means a barrier, blue means a cooler, and yellow means speed boost. On rookie difficulty, the lowest of three available, that’s literally all there is to it, but on the two higher levels, you do need to also pay attention to the racing line, staying on the outside of the tube in corners, otherwise you’ll become detached from the tube and lose speed – and time – while you reattach. Fortunately, a purple indicator on the HUD gives you guidance in this regard, although it won’t help you avoid walls and barriers.

Ballistics holds up pretty well; it works on Windows 8 without any problems and gave me the option of choosing 1920×1080 widescreen resolution. Obviously it’s a little bit dated visually but, a few issues with draw distance aside, it still looks pretty good. As we mentioned, hitting the booster can produce some genuinely unsettling results, not only in terms of the rapidity with which the track whooshes towards you, but also – thanks to some effective screen shake effects and engine sounds – a real “She cannae take much more, Captain” feeling while you’re hurtling along, barely under control. (Elsewhere in the sound department, the less said about the cheesy techno and overenthusiastic voiceover, the better, although I suppose they could be considered genre appropriate.) Certainly, the sense of speed – and danger – is enough on its own to keep you interested in the early stages.

Close encounters with AI opponents are actually fairly rare.

Having said that, such a feeling can only sustain a game for so long, and I personally went from a position of thinking that this was a genuinely exciting racer that could possibly be championed as an unfairly overlooked PC-only underdog, to one where I was actually feeling quite bored and that I’d pretty much seen everything Ballistics had to offer, inside the same evening. I gave it a bit more time than this, but I reckon you could be done with it inside a couple of hours and have no regrets.

The featured single-player modes are single race and championship, with the length of the latter determined by the difficulty level (there are 7 tracks in all), and with each difficulty level needing to be unlocked by winning the championship on the one below. The first two championships (on Rookie and Pro difficulty) should present no problems to most competent racers. On the highest level (known as ‘Ballistics’), the frequency with which you become detached from the track becomes irksome and your opponents seem to race off into an impossible lead, but – and I don’t know whether this was a bug or not – I often found myself in first place without even noticing, and having secured that position my opponents were, again, nowhere to be seen, with no amount of terrible play on my part ever causing me to lose the lead. [It must be a bug, you dummy, they didn’t make it like that on purpose – FFG reader].

You can upgrade your speeder, but this feature is hidden off to the side of the main menu rather than being integrated into the championship mode, and you can pretty much forget it’s there, certainly on the first two difficulty levels. It’s probably just as well you don’t really need it much, because the upgrade screen seems to have been laid out in a deliberately confusing way, but it should play a bit more of a part than it does. Also, there’s no information on your opponents, or their speeders, throughout the game – which is, perhaps, telling.

Losers get no $$$$.

My copy of Ballistics was a donation from Stoo – most likely in exchange for some dusty strategy title that I bought in a fit of overenthusiasm – after it came bundled with his graphics card. As a showcase title for a new card, I imagine it was a great choice back then, and there’s no doubting that it retains much of its visual impact even today. As a fully-fledged game, though, it leaves much to be desired, and the appeal will probably last as long for the curious retro racing fan as for the person from 2001 showing off his new GeForce. Fun for an evening, but destined to be shoved in a box and forgotten about thereafter.