Graveyard: APEX

Watch your step, for you’ve just entered the Graveyard. Inside, we’ll be digging up games that have long been without a pulse. You’ll see both good and bad souls unearthed every month as we search through the more… forgotten…parts of history.

The original Xbox was a haven for racing games thanks to franchises like Sega GT, Project Gotham Racing, and Forza Motorsport, but one game that doesn’t get much love anymore is APEX. This was an early 3D racer from Milestone, who just put out the excellent Hot Wheels Unleashed 2 and its predecessor and have been a bit hit or miss overall, but I had fond memories of APEX and wanted to revisit and see what if anything from that game’s DNA was visible in their newer games.

It’s fascinating to go back and play it because it’s a title I got for the system back in the day and just haven’t played much of in recent years. Even at the time, it honestly got lost in the shuffle with the PGR series and Forza and time passing didn’t do it any favors due to being an out of sight, out of mind series that’s been dormant for decades. Going into it not quite blind but also looking to it as a blueprint for the future made it even more interesting to play now than it was back then. The game’s unique approach to its campaign mode stands out now too.

You’re not only just a new racer starting out, but you’re also starting a new car company and garage, which comes with interesting caveats. You actually choose your starting car via blueprints and also create a company name and logo out of a template using the first letter of the company name — which winds up being a cool idea and a concept you don’t see anymore. APEX has plenty of real-world licenses for trackside sponsorships, but no real vehicles, resulting in being able to make vehicles of a similar style to real-world cars, but with a unique spin. I opted for a sporty car that had great overall specs outside of braking and wound up having a lot of fun with it.

Races have a gradual curve to them with a lot of visual differences from location to location to help make every major area stand out. One problem that even high-quality games like R4 have is that they use very few overall track templates, so you can have a large amount of tracks technically, but most of them feel familiar to one another due to shared asset pools between them. That’s still the case here for things like some buildings and trackside balloon displays, but there’s a ton of environmental variety on display across the board and it results in a fresher-feeling campaign mode and then more variety in regular exhibition races too.

The racing action itself is exciting and races have a rewarding amount of speed to them even early on without any vehicles feeling slow or clunky. One thing that was annoying about a lot of racers of this era was the reliance on slower cars to start a campaign out and then you had to build up to using vehicles you would actually want to use. Here, having more variety to start out the campaign by choosing the vehicle type and overall racing style allows for a better flow from race to race. Each one has the same core goal of doing well with a pole position finish if not a first-place one, but how you get there can change depending on how you race.

Playing too recklessly with a vehicle that is prone to spinning out because it’s fast, but has poor gripping strength, means that you’ll have to retry a lot of races until you learn the vehicle. Unlike a lot of modern-day games, there’s no rewind feature to work with here, so you have to get things right maybe not the first time, but hopefully by the second time. Playing cautiously in a fast car can also be risky because you could wind up wrapped up with other cars and getting shoved around the course and that’s another recipe for a lost race and more time spent getting into a solid ending position.

The core racing engine is a lot of fun and feels a lot like what we would get many years later with the Hot Wheels Unleashed games and less so like a lot of their other racing games where controls were touchier. Here, the controls are a good mix of responsive while still allowing the focus to be on having fun with the game and not getting bogged down in a ton of different settings. You can still go in and switch parts out for a smoother ride and faster vehicle down the road, but without doing that, you still wind up with a fun experience that makes each upgrade feel like an accomplishment.

Visually, APEX looks gorgeous even today. The vehicles and environments have a lot of detail and things like the cityscape area shine with not only bright reflections off of skyscraper windows, but also impressive balloon displays near the tracks and each area stands out with things like different materials being used for the roads. Driving on pavement leads to areas that look different than driving on dirt roads with things like farms all around and it gives each racing environment its own look and feel. For an early Xbox game, it’s impressive just how well the graphics have held up and given its lack of licensing, it’s a shame the game hasn’t been preserved with Xbox One/Series backwards compatibility over time.

While APEX shines brightly visually, it does falter audio-wise. The soundtrack is full of generic rock that sounds like something you’d get on a stock music CD from a bygone era. There are a couple of good chase-style songs in it, but nothing sticks with you. The sound design is nice from a racing perspective, though, with satisfying collisions and tire screeches, and there’s a lot of voice acting on display with your assistant in the career mode to liven things up. The acting isn’t incredible or anything, but work was clearly put in to make this feel like a bigger release and it’s interesting to see so much effort going into a AA-level game’s career mode when so many modern-day racers just have text bubbles and static images to work with.

APEX is a fascinating game to cover in 2023 because over the decades we’ve seen the rise and fall of many racing franchises since this released over 20 years ago and yet there’s no nostalgia for it. The idea of making your own racing team and car company hasn’t truly been done since and the core racing action is a lot of fun. This era of gaming was full of companies being willing to take chances and even if they paid off, you still got a full experience to enjoy and APEX feels very much like that. It didn’t become a series — it was just a one-off that wasn’t even all that loved in its time and yet it has held up nicely.

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