During this generation, the Kart racing genre has exploded. Mario has been joined at the starting line by Crash Bandicoot, Sonic, SpongeBob and even Garfield lining up alongside a myriad of other weird and sometimes wonderful racers looking for a slice of the kart racing pie. Some of these are great. Some are terrible. None of them are free to play however. This is how KartRider: Drift will initially differentiates itself from the competition. At launch, it’ll be free to download and play.
It’ll be interesting to see how KartRider: Drift does “free-to-play” when it launches. What we could glean from the Closed Beta is that developers Nexon have adopted the bold strategy of building a game people will enjoy without any pay-to-win mechanics but, much like Fortnite Battle Royale, have a plethora of cosmetic items you can buy and unlock via seasons. The selection in the beta was wide enough for each of the 8 karts on an online start line to have cosmetically different looks. I hope this continues to expand as my kids had fun messing around with the look of their kart. They changed it up after each race, in fact.
The customisation almost reminded me of the vastly under rated Modnation Racer. Characters and their clothing, karts, their paint jobs, wheels and stickers are all interchangeable in KartRider: Drift via an impressive customisation suite. While there’s a lot you can change, there’s still a small focus on the characters personality. The character you choose isn’t wholly yours and that might be wise. Having the cute and colourful, almost Funko Pop-esque characters still retain a little of their individuality might mean some of these become fan favourites like Peely and Jonesy have in Fortnite.
The Kart’s themselves have different stats which make a minor yet notable difference in the way they handle. Acceleration, max speed, drifting and boost speed are all differing attributes which make a difference when racing. Each kart has their own strengths and weaknesses which mean they’ll be stronger around different parts of race tracks. The Karts with the highest top speeds will lose ground to those with better drifting and boost around the corners and vice versa. This is my only concern with the monetisation with KartRider: Drift – so long as everyone has access to all the available Karts, the game will stay balanced and fair. If certain vehicles start to appear behind pay walls or as part of season passes, this could potentially upset the balance they’ve managed to strike in this Beta.
After an in-depth tutorial which runs you through the basics, you’re off to the races. KartRider: Drift will be instantly familiar to those who’ve played a karting game in the past few years. The objective, of course, is to cross the finish line first but you’ll need to know the nuances of the game if you hope to place. Getting a boost off the start line, drifting for long enough to get a speed boost when it ends and finding that racing line are all aspects that have been borrowed from other franchises but work very well here. It’s a system that’s worked for years and still works now so if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Easy enough for my 7 year olds to pick up and play but deep enough for me to attempt to master (Do I let up on this drift and carry this boost into the next corner or do I attempt drift the whole way around that turn too?) it’s fun to play.
I spent most of my time with the KartRider: Drift Closed Beta in the Time Attack and Speed Mode. In both of these modes, the focus is entirely on speed and using the grounded measured feeling of the drifting to get you around the track as quickly as possible. In the former mode, you race alone for the first lap but then race against the ghost of your fastest lap thereafter. The latter is a race, either online against up to 8 opponents or locally in 4 player split screen, that’s pure racing. No gimmicks or battling. It’s all about starter gun to chequered flag speed and over takes. It was entirely refreshing to play a Kart game that allows these options and were still as entertaining to play as when the track is packed with pick-up powers.
My kids? Well, they love throwing blue shells at one another so they spent most of their time in the Item Races. On the surface, these look like any other kart racing game with regularly spaced pick-up’s which will grant you a random offensive or defensive powers. Most of these will feel mechanically familiar but visually unique. The Water Bomb and Wisp trap karts that are hit by them forcing them to quickly press buttons to escape (or use a shield to quickly escape). A magnet slows down the target while it draws you towards them, ideal for overtakes. The Missile blasts the racer in front of you while the seeker missile takes aim at whomever is in first place. The banana skin does exactly what you’d expect it to do while the Barricade, a favourite of my kids, raises 3 barriers across the race track which stops any racer that drives into them. There’s a shield and angel armour (which protects your team mates in team events too) too. Lastly there’s the UFO which is quite ingenious. Like the Seeker missile, this item isn’t given to the racer out in first place but has the same effect – it attacks the player in first place. The kicker here is that you can counter a UFO attack with a UFO of your own. This means if you manage to get from the rear of the pack to first place with a UFO still in your inventory, you can protect yourself. It’s a smart implementation of weaponry and buffs you’ve seen before but with subtle tweaks that make it feel like they’re not just cribbing someone else’s homework.
A nice touch that has a surprising thematic impact is that on each track, the pick up’s come in different themes. On the tracks with a forest theme, the items are encased in an acorn. On a haunted forest track, they’re inside jack-o-lanterns. This might feel totally inconsequential but when playing, it really helps reinforce the theme on the tracks. This only effects the visuals of the game but it was nice to have item boxes that weren’t one vanilla flavour throughout.
The tracks in the KartRider: Drift Closed Beta were varied enough to show off what the game can do. Some tracks were short and simple, others bobbed and weaved around sending you around corner after corner. Some tracks had shortcuts allowing you to close the distance on those out ahead of you while others were purely for racing without any of the trickery. There seems to be a little something for everyone and hopefully the selection and variety continues when the game launches.
One aspect I should mention is that the cross play during the Closed Beta worked seamlessly. When the track was loading, you could see which players were playing the game on Xbox or PC via a symbol next to their name and, while I imagine a disparity might emerge in the future, I didn’t ever feel disadvantaged playing the game on the Xbox One against PC players. This might be one genre when both platforms have equality of control inputs and can’t get an advantage but only time will tell.
Then, before we know it, the Closed Beta was over. The levels of grumpy that my kids gave off when they tried to load up KartRider: Drift after it had closed only to get a message saying we couldn’t connect went unabated until I told them we could play it again when the game actually launches. Even I was a little disappointed I didn’t get more time with it, to be honest. That’s my main take away from the KartRider: Drift Beta – The cross play might break new ground for the genre but elsewhere, it’s simply a well-designed, fun to play kart racer. It’s not trying to revolutionise the karting genre but there’s some refinements here that other franchises might want to take a look at. The fact it’s free-to-play means my family and I will be on the starting grid the day it launches (or maybe earlier if there’s another Beta test before release). So long as a big enough community with differing skill levels and abilities gravitates to this game and it stays balanced without any pay-to-win elements, it could become a real contender. Will it knock Mario off the top of his podium? I guess we’ll have to wait and see…
KartRider: Drift is scheduled to launch on Xbox One and PC in 2020.
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