Heading Out

Review: Heading Out Is A Fantastic Road Trip

Heading Out,  developed by Serious Sim, is an immersive driving game, part Driver and part visual novel. You play as the Interstate Jackalope, equal parts a myth, and someone just trying to escape the mental hell they’re stuck in. Haunted by dreams of crashes, the Jackalope sets out to defeat the greatest racer ever, travelling across the United States multiple times across four acts. The game is divided into two main segments: the map, where you’ll pick routes, engage with chunks of story, make decisions, and the races. While the game does have some technical issues, it’s an exciting racer, and unlike anything else, it has an interesting story and tight controls.

Each act begins the same in Heading Out. You’re given a few questions to answer in a choose-your-own-adventure style, colouring in the Jackalope’s past and informing story choices for the act to follow. These are cool and make the road trip feel your own, whereas the Jackalope feels like an extension of yourself. Do you drive for yourself, others, or from a dark past? Are you running from addiction, regrets, or mistakes? Every act has different choices to start out, along with choosing your car. Once you hit the road, you’ll control your speed on the overworld map. Speeding will make you go faster but puts you at odds with the police. Sometimes, a badge icon will pop up, and you’ll have to slow down quickly enough for them to drive past you without noticing. If you fail, you must sacrifice time or run from the police. Running will raise that state’s overall wanted level. The higher it goes, the more police and aggressive tactics you’ll have to contend with.

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Heading Out on the road

Heading Out is a constant balancing act between fear, wanted level, money on hand, car condition, and focus. Fear is the main antagonistic force,  a red force constantly on your tail as you move across the map. Your time is displayed in the top right, and as you make decisions, it gets closer. Helping someone may sacrifice one hour, bringing the fear ever closer when you may only have 5 hours left until it catches you. There are ways to mitigate it and buy more time, but if it catches you, it’s game over. The other two main factors are car condition and focus. Driving too recklessly and slamming into everything will lower your car’s condition, meaning you’ll have to stop and make repairs. Focus is the Jackalope’s ability to stay awake; if it gets too low, you’ll start to blink and lose control of the car, potentially in critical moments. Your wanted level will impact how many cops are after you, but this resets when you cross state lines. The amount of money will let you buy items to help with all the above, along with paying for gas.

When you’re at a stop in a city on the overworld, there are a few choices you need to make. Exploring the city is always a must, as it often leads to one of the story segments that help fill in the world around you. There isn’t too much setup aside from knowing that Canada is in a civil war, and things seem to be worse for wear in the US as well. The bits of the story are always interesting. One segment may have you dealing with punks trying to set animals free from a zoo. Do you help them at the cost of a higher wanted level? Do you scold them, raising your reputation and fame but taking time? Some are purely story-based, as you meet a war veteran lost on the road but doesn’t want any help. These segments are well written and impact your travels, as you may get missions that have you going to specific spots on the maps for delivery, making more money in the process. They can be surprisingly heartfelt and human and are one of the standouts of Heading Out. I always found myself picking the map routes with more bits of story, even if another route would provide more money or other interactions.

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While in a city, you can also do a combination of shopping, resting, or fixing your car, depending on what’s available. Shopping lets you bring items on the road for a quick way to boost time or focus, resting raises your focus level at the cost of money and time, while fixing your car will raise your car’s condition, but also impacting time and money. The following primary choice is the direction in which you travel. Longer drives will cost more gas and money to refill the tank but may offer more story bits or races to make money. The worst pieces of content are easily the radio segments. Different channels pop up after a racing segment or on the road, but every single one reminds me why I stopped listening to the radio years ago. From a loudmouth Alex Jones-type to a “seriously cool” jockey who is more grating than funny, I almost skipped these every time. There’s an excellent idea in the center of this, as they comment on your notoriety and choices and help build up the legend of the Interstate Jackalope. The issues stem from the writing and delivery, as neither hit home. It’s so bizarre as the writing for the main story and road story bits are so well done and well written, while the radio segments feel straight from the worst bits of edge lord radio. It’s a disappointing piece that could have elevated world-building but failed instead.

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The driving in Heading Out is fantastic. I prefer more arcadey-feeling racing games when compared to simulators, and Heading Out feels perfect. The driving never feels too heavy or floaty; hitting a perfect in-between is just fun. A new car is unlocked after every act, and each feels different. The muscle car may be slower but is better offroad, while the XXX accelerates faster and has a higher top speed but slows down considerably when offroad. Learning each vehicle at the beginning of every act was always a joy, as you can’t rely on the same driving in the previous act. It helps that a race is never more than 3 or 4 minutes long, using songs as the basis of each race. There aren’t any laps but a stretch of open road in whatever state you’re in. This helps each race feel different, as the terrain and geography change depending on where you are in the country. You’ll race through flat plains, winding mountains, and everything else.

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The music and graphics are two easy standouts. The music ranges from country twang to jazzy bops to dad rock, each bringing a different personality to every race. The graphics elevate the package further, as the greyscale of the environment introduces splashes of yellow in objects on the road or red in the sky as a constant reminder of the fear chasing you. The overworld map matches the aesthetic perfectly, as the red used for the fear is constantly threatening.

Performance in Heading Out is generally solid. I split my time with the game between Steam Deck and PC. This feels like a perfect Steam Deck game, and while it is still unverified, it does work mostly well. The frame rate across Deck and PC fluctuates between 30 and 60 fps, falling on a higher average on PC and lower on Deck. I had a handful of hard crashes on Deck that lost progress every time, which was frustrating. One thing to stay aware of is detours during races. These offer great ways to get ahead or catch up to competition, but I lost several races that ended on a detour as the game didn’t correctly track my progress with the other racer. I knew I was ahead and could see them further behind, but because the standings only update when you hit the road again, taking them in the final 5-10 percent of a race can be risky. Whether it’s intentional or a bug is uncertain at this point, but hopefully, it will be something that will be changed.

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Verdict

Heading Out is a fantastic surprise this year, with its driving, gameplay, story, and art style being clear standouts. Each Act is unlike the previous one and offers a lot of replayability as you can play them again with a different car. I did not encounter the same story segment once on the map, which is impressive considering how many unique instances I saw. Heading Out is about the journey, and the road trip is well worth your time. Heading Out is out on PC on May 7th; the wishlist is on Steam here.

Recommended

[The publisher provided a copy of the game for review purposes.]

Reviewed on: PC & Steam Deck

Heading Out
Review: Heading Out Is A Fantastic Road Trip
Summary
Heading Out is a fantastic and immersive driving game mixed with a visual novel, with thoughtful story pieces and great gameplay.
Liked
Great story breakouts
Fun driving
Beautiful art style and music
Didn't Like
Performance issues
Radio jockeys are annoying