In the era of FPS games, one genre that has fallen to the wayside in the last two console generations has been the arcade racer. Some notables have come along, such as Hydro Thunder Hurricane and of course there is a Mario Kart for the Wii (I’m sure there is a law that states a Nintendo system must have at least one Mario Kart game), but the overall supply and quality has been lacking. As someone who has spent as much time playing Mario Kart 64 as some have spent seeking higher education, it is a genre I sorely miss. Keen Games, probably best known for their movie-tie-in release G-Force (or their N64 game Armorines), and publishers dtp entertainment seek to fill in the genre a bit with their latest offering on XBLA, TNT Racers. Standing for “Tracks ‘n Tricks” does TNT Racers do the trick, so to speak, or are we just left spinning our wheels in the mud?
The game is colorfully designed and quite vivid, reminiscent of the arcade racers of the 64-bit era, which both works for and against the game. While I do not hold to the idea that colorful games are inherently “kids” games, the colors and atmosphere definitely is more likely to appeal to younger audiences; but the controls are likely to prove difficult for younger gamers to grasp (more on that later). The tracks, which all seem to take place near cliffs, largely vary between jungle, snow and dessert settings, and every track essentially works in forward, reverse and can be literally flipped left to right mid-race. It is no small matter to make the tracks so pliable, and the development team deserves credit for doing such; as a gamer though the flipside of all this track flipping is that you are often familiar with the tracks (i.e. the “I’ve seen this track before” feeling) while at the same time completely unfamiliar with the actual track layout. While this does present a challenge when playing again the computer, which automatically knows whether a left or right turn is coming next, this can be frustrating. Especially considering the camera is top down and sometimes is so tight on the cars that the next turn will literally pop-up out of nowhere. After a couple of tries in any particular challenge you are likely to get the track down, but the juxtaposition of both knowing the maps without knowing the variant, till you are already mid-race, makes it difficult to really “know” the tracks. And while a minor complaint, the lack of diversity in the soundtrack was disappointing. You are resigned to hear nearly identical music pretty much from beginning to end, and while the music is a well produced up-beat 40’s waltz type arrangement, greater variation would have been appreciated. Luckily the fix is simple enough by playing music from your hard drive to create your own soundtrack to the game.
In terms of game-play, Keen has added a slew of variant game types to help keep things from getting stale. Game types come in three levels of challenge modes: Normal is painfully slow and bound to be dull to gamers who have played arcade racers before, Fast which had increased speed and what felt like decreased handling and Turbo which is the best combination of speed and handling and without a doubt the most fun of the three. (Normal is the only challenge mode available immediately with the other two unlocking after you have beaten enough challenges) Some of the game types excel, such as “Mine Field”, in which you must complete a set number of laps in a limited time frame on a track littered with mines and only one life, while others fall flat, such as “Smash Route” where you must crash through a pre-determined number of objects on the track before time runs out. The game largely focuses on “Knock-out” and score game types though.
There are several variants of both types, but they mostly play the same. “Knock-out “ mode consist of trying to knock-out the other three racers, whether by bumping them off the track, using weapons to blow up their car or simply leaving them so far behind they “fall off the camera”. The last car standing gets three points, 2nd to last two points, 3rd to last one point and the first car knocked out receiving no points for the round. When one player is left the race starts a “new round” with all 4 cars back on the track to race and fight each other yet again. The first two cars knocked out return in “shadow-mode” in which they have several unique power-ups they can use to torment the cars still standing. The mode is a novel idea that ensures gamers who get bumped out early don’t get stuck watching the race for long periods of time with nothing to do, but it is poorly implemented. Since the camera follows whoever is leading the lap, the game must race your car back into view, but there is no clear indication of when you receive control over your car again and often in any area with many turns your car will become available just in time for you to fly off the track and be left behind yet again. (I once had this happen for almost an entire lap). In this mode the game usually ends when a player hits a set score limit, in many cases 12. Score mode is a bit simpler. Whether limited by time, score cap or laps, the goal is simply to have the most points at the end of the game. Players gain points by performing certain feats (such as jumps, completing a lap), using power-ups and collecting coins (coins being pretty much the only way you can win score based games in the later challenges).
The games are frantic and often quick, and due to this, especially in the higher level challenges, one or two rounds not going your way is enough to ensure you simply can not win the game (especially since the game seems to identify one CPU to “be the best” and will win most rounds). Getting knocked out early is very common as the controls are incredibly sensitive, with no option to adjust them. Tiny nudges of the joystick in any direction often results in drastic movements in game. I often found myself doing small “taps” to the left and right to try and stay on the track. This is particularly difficult in the mid-range challenges when your handling and speed are most at odds. You may find yourself breathing a sigh of relief every time you make it past a dangerous area. This is where, as I mentioned before, the game seems to have an identity crisis between the art design and game-play. TNT Racers looks like a kids game, and as such is likely to appeal to them on a visual level, but when I handed the controller briefly to my 8-year-old nephew he was unable to even score a single point in the first tutorial level of the game, and found it so difficult he simply had no interest in trying it again. While I was eventually able to master the controls, the learning curve is obviously sharp and likely to alienate those most likely to be drawn by the artistic styling of the game. Additionally the game is unique for being the first racing game I think I have ever played where “being first” in the traditional sense simply doesn’t matter. Crossing the finish line first essentially means nothing in the game, and a straightforward race type isn’t even offered as one of the many game types. (This isn’t necessary a criticism of the game, but rather a unique attribute many would almost certainly not expect in a racing game) Lastly, in the traditional arcade racer format, you unlock tracks and cars as you play. Sadly though, there is no indication as to how to unlock these cars and tracks and after having finished the game’s challenges I still had 2 cars and several tracks locked.
Most of TNT Racers’ quirks are just that, but the true pit-fall is that already less than 2 weeks into being released the online multiplayer is simply dead. Most likely a victim to low sales, this is most unfortunate as playing against people rather than the computer is likely to be the game’s highlight, and if the marketing is any indication, it is also the developers main intent for how the game is to be played. After nearly 30 attempts at various times and days I was unable to find a single online match, and as such completely unable to gauge the game’s multiplayer component. This is not likely to improve as the game gets lost in the next few weeks of XBLA releases. The game does offer a local multiplayer mode, so if you have 3 friends on the couch next to you, this mode could still be salvaged, but I unfortunately did not have that option while conducting my review. None-the-less I am confident that if you are able to get three friends over to your house for a few rounds the game will be a fun nostalgia trip for older gamers who remember the days when Mario Kart was king. (Also, a brief FYI for achievement hunters, the lack of online multiplayer puts about half of the game’s achievements as completely unattainable without boosting in some form.)
In short, TNT Racers is a fairly unique arcade racer with many different game types to help keep the game as fresh as possible. The challenges do offer just that, a challenge that will at times take several attempts to pass, but are also at times dull and clearly not what the developers figured would be the focus of the game. (Most likely intended to be a distraction while you waited for friends to get online) Multiplayer would almost certainly be a blast, if it were at all possible to find a match or if you have people to play with locally. I’m so confident of that I would even go so far to say that if multiplayer had been available to me I would almost certainly raise my final rating by a full point. (And if I get the chance to do so I will revisit this review) The artistic design is charming and fits the needs of the game, even if it seems slightly at odds with the game’s difficulty. For the parents out there (or any gamer who likes to game with their younger brother/nephews/etc.), do not let the design fool you into thinking the game is for children as they are likely to find it frustratingly difficult to get the hang of. (At least that was my personal experience) TNT Racers really isn’t a bad game; it suffers more from just not being particularly notable. So with that, if you do not have people to play the game with locally, I personally suggest waiting to see if the game goes on sale. This is especially true since the online community is already dead and thus the main draw back to waiting on a game like this has already come and gone. If you are a fan of arcade racers of old you will likely find yourself able to enjoy some time with the TNT Racers, but without the online community it just feels incomplete.
Final Rating: 6.5/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360
Approximate Time to Completion: ~5 hours
Gamer Score Earned: 65g
Price Bought at: N/A – Furnished by Keen Games
Current Price: 800 Microsoft Points ($10)
Recommend Purchase Price: 400 Microsoft Points ($5)