Review: Heading Out – A Thrilling Journey On the Open Road

Running on Empty

Everyone is running from something. Whether it be from our past, our future, responsibility, or just boredom – everyone has their own internal war they face every day. Saber Interactive and developer Serious Sim’s Heading Out uses a blend of racing, roguelike, and resource management with a choose-your-own-adventure style framework to explore this theme, placing the steering wheel in the players’ hands and sending them off onto a unique road-tripping journey across America.

Highway to Hell

There’s speed. A blinding glare. A car crash. The final roar of an engine dying. The pain. Then you die. The first thing that hit me when playing Heading Out was the monochromatic comic book art aesthetic that it boasted. Speed lines that shake as you race down the highway, small panels that pop up conveniently whenever a turn is coming up, and the splashes and dots of yellow and red denoting important elements of the environment. The dark, scarlet sky looming above is a constant reminder of the fear that is chasing you, ever advancing.

Changing Lanes

Locales mix gameplay up by changing the look and feel of racing tracks. Arid deserts feature burning trees and giant skeletons left by enormous beasts, while the snowy areas twist and turn – making it more difficult to speed through the courses with little care. The UI is always moving but is never intrusive, keeping the most crucial information in the eye line while shrinking the rest down.

Choose Your Own Adventure

At the start of each of the four acts of Heading Out, the game asks you a series of personal questions relating to your past and present, including things about your first lover or your biggest regret in life. The answers you give shape part of your experience through the game, mainly extras such as radio hosts’ stories and interactions with the main antagonist: Fear. Heading Out touches on numerous serious topics with a large degree of sensitivity through these interactions but can fall short when working with such a broad interpretation of these themes while trying to relate to the player through their choices.

Catch Me If You Can

You portray the genderless “Interstate Jackalope,” a mythologized racer to some and a criminal delinquent tearing up the highways to others. Your goals are simple: beat the best racer in the country and don’t let your fear catch you. Each run consists of two main beats, the first being a cross-country journey through America; darting from city to city, avoiding (or seeking out) patrolling police, and managing resources like cash, focus level, and car condition – and the second being an arcade racing minigame with various hazards and detours.

Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire

Each resource affects your run differently, like your vehicle having a lower speed cap if your car condition gets too low or leading to awkward encounters when being short on gas money while trying to leave town. While none of these are wholly detrimental on their own, they can lead to you failing a run by letting your fear reach you or your end goal – represented by crimson slowly and consistently encroaching across the country like blood spilling down channels.

Roadside Attractions

As you go from location to location, you may come across a ‘Glimpse from the Road.’ These moments provide the player with roleplaying opportunities along with potential boons and impediments based on the resolution of that specific situation. If you’re looking for a more RPG-heavy experience, I highly recommend that you go into the options and turn off visible consequences. While having the ability to make an informed decision about which action to take in any given scenario, I felt like it detracted from my narrative experience when choosing an option counterintuitively solely based on what resources I would obtain by doing so.

Life is a Highway

Core driving sequences may not be enough for the hardcore racing fan but will keep the casual driver entertained, whether that be in a race against NPCs, escaping the cops, or weaving through a traffic jam. Instead of a set finish line, races are based around the length of various songs. Usually 2-3 minutes long, this allows the tune to be played in its entirety, evoking that feeling of being on a road trip and allowing the player to fully appreciate the soundtrack. With 19 songs spanning multiple genres, there is more than enough variety to keep the player engaged for the long haul.

Crash and Burn

While level generation is diverse enough to keep the player on their toes, the NPC AI and generation fall flat. Other drivers on the road have little to no life to them, seldom swerving to avoid collisions – likening them to any other stationary hazard. Rival drivers aren’t much livelier, and rubber band back and forth to prevent the player from ever getting too far ahead. This can feel jarring, even frustrating at times, as a single crash can spell doom regardless of how perfect the rest of the drive was. I also found that if a run went on for too long, NPC spawning became unruly – giving some racers a 3,000-mile head start and then somehow ending the race almost 10,000 miles behind me.

Endless Road

As you progress through the story, more interactions can be unlocked, including police barricades, traffic jams, legendary racers, and more. There are also three cars to unlock by successfully completing runs with the previous vehicle, with each driving only slightly different from one another. There is a small degree of replayability in Heading Out with its reputation and fame systems dependent on your actions throughout America, affecting everything from prices at hotels and mechanics to narrative options during glimpses. NPCs on the road can also shout praises or exclaim when driving past you during a race. The game is very receptive to your actions, and while moment-to-moment consequences remain static, the secondary ramifications that affect popularity follow you through until you finish your run.

Conclusion

Serious Sim has done an impressive job blending genres into an exciting, replayable experience. With a bold aesthetic, constant building tension, and an immersive storytelling framework, the game engrosses players in a world packed with stories to tell. Heading Out may not be for hardcore racing fans, but casual gamers will relish its strong narrative flair and core gameplay loop.

Heading Out code kindly provided by Saber Interactive

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