Racing on the Xbox Live Arcade is something of a niche market. There isn’t much on offer, although Micro Machines could easily fill the void. Up steps Mad Tracks then, a game similar to Micro Machines but with a very different approach. Does Mad Tracks successfully fill the void, or will gamers have to wait for something more complete?
Firing up Mad Tracks is a pleasure gamers across the globe have been waiting for. What with previews and a constant flow of news about the game, the day when the game would finally be made available couldn’t come quick enough. With hype surrounding the game reaching unseen heights for an XBLA game, it had to be something special. It’s a shame then that the feeling of anticipation immediately turns into disappointment at the realisation that contained within Adventure mode are only fifteen races and mini games. Broken down, that makes six races and nine minigames.
Saving presumably the best until last, opting for the minigames is the first port of call. Ranging from pool games to table football, to bashing things off the edge to avoiding rubber balls, at least one minigame out of the nine should be fun and enjoyable. Not so. Pool is a horrible minigame that just builds up frustration within your inner self. The camera angle never quite works, and potting more than one ball (which you’ll have to do if you want to win the game) becomes a tedious chore that you won’t want to play again. Similarly for “Beastie Balls”. Here rubber balls ping around a bowl which players have to try and avoid whilst also driving around. Without even trying, getting Gold is all too easy, regardless of difficulty level. The only thing that makes the minigames hard is the ludicrous requirements for a Gold medal.
Winning a game of Table Football 3-0 is incredibly hard, thanks mainly to the impossibility of hitting the ball in the required direction. Couple that with an AI partner intent on smashing into your car, and the frustration builds up all over again. Beastie Balls was by far the easiest of the minigames to get a Gold on, with Pool or Table Football fighting it out for the hardest. For a gold medal in Pool, the AI has to pot only one ball, with the player potting seven. This is harder than it sounds thanks to a camera that doesn’t want to play ball and would rather find the most useless position available to you.
Enough of the minigames. Some proper racing to be had is on the cards after the less-than-enjoyable stab at the supposedly fun small games. Fortunately, this is one area where the game shines. Not as bright as the sun or the moon, but it’s certainly a highlight. Most races see four other AI opponents racing for the finish line after two or three laps, depending on which race you do. Dotted about each track are pickups which hold all manner of different weapons that can be utilised to blow other racers up, or used to enhance your own car with speed increases. You can store up to five different types of weapon at a time, and each of the five can hold a countless amount of ammo. Switching between the weapons is easily done with X or B. The developers have been clever with the weapons, because thanks to the huge amount of ammo that is possible to collect, some might hope to fire off all rockets like a semi-automatic rifle. Thankfully a longer than average reload time is in place which may seem annoying at first, but more races prove that it is definitely needed.
The racing itself is quite fun. The tracks are cleverly designed and give a very competitive feel to them. None of them feel too long or too short, thanks to the maximum number of laps being just right. Throughout each race a frantic battle will normally ensue for the coveted number one spot. The game is best played on Hard difficulty though, because anything else and the races tend to become a bit too easy. If you manage to learn each course after a few plays through then race again on Medium or Easy, there should be no challenge in coming first. Hard makes it more enjoyable; the AI are more intelligent and they seem to use better weapon choices depending on their individual status in the race.
There are however two noticeable problems with the racing though. It doesn’t matter whether you have come down a massive ramp or are going up one, there seems to be no sense of speed at all. Unless you switch to first person view, it feels as if the car is doing the same speed with or without acceleration. You’ll notice this more thanks to the second annoying feature. Because you drive toy cars, they have a spring. This spring needs recharging every so often so racers have to release the Right Trigger and stop accelerating. Whether this idea was to be innovative and create something different is anyone’s guess, but it’s about as fun as racing through Burnout only to find you have run out of fuel ten yards from the finish line. If you don’t realise this at the beginning, then when you do realise, frustration builds up all over again. It adds nothing to the game when you just want to get on and race. But even when you release the RT to build the spring back up, you won’t be able to tell that some speed has been lost anyway, it’s just annoying. Especially when you never see the AI let up on the gas at all. Perhaps they do, but it isn’t noticeable.
Thankfully AI isn’t the only competition. Mad Tracks allows up to four people to play on the same machine via splitscreen, or up to four people across Xbox Live. Racing games in splitscreen are very rarely a problem, and this is no different. It works how it should and generally it’s fun. Xbox Live works just as it should too. There was no lag at all, whether it was a minigame or a race. Hardly anyone will talk during the XBL session, but that’s not a problem unless you play a minigame that requires team work. The biggest fault online is the lack of a post-game lobby. After every race or minigame, you get booted back to a menu where a new group of temporary friends has to be found. This is annoying when attempting to play with friends, because although it doesn’t take an age to set up a game, it’s a hassle inviting everyone back in. Post-game lobbies should be standard in any unranked multiplayer mode, but sadly Mad Tracks is lacking there. Racing with friends is undeniably fun, and it is online where Mad Tracks really shines, as it should. With no lag whatsoever it makes for a generally flowing game so long as no-one drops out half way through. And thanks to the shortness of most races, no-one does.
Lag-less online play seems to have come at a cost though. The graphics are less than flattering. The graphics don’t affect a great deal since there is little time to look at scenery anyway, but the car models don’t look anywhere near as good as perhaps you might expect. The choice of cars is nice though. There are twelve to choose from, but you can’t use all of them in any race you want. There are three classes of cars; the Sport, the Light and the Heavy. Sports nip around the track; Lights take corners brilliantly; Heavy are good for pushing things but not so much turning. Within the three classes you can change the model of your car by selecting a different country before the game starts. There isn’t any noticeable difference between cars except the class, but it’s nice to have a variety of different choices.
There is also an Arcade option for the customising fans out there away from the online mode. Distancing itself from the Adventure mode, Arcade mode allows you to choose any of the events and have up to seven other opponents (or team mates) racing with you. Other things selectable are the type of cars you can use as well as the AI difficulty (that’s also found in the Adventure mode). It’s a nice addition that, should you have no online access, should see you through.
The Achievements are also nice to have in this game. None will strike you as impossible, but there are some that are very challenging. Finding all five golden flags on Blackout is a real challenge, because it won’t be immediately obvious to you where they are. Nonetheless it’s good fun trying to find them, although several guides will help you on the internet if need be. The different Achievements will also ensure that the minigames get played. Trying to win Pool without potting the black is a challenge worth going for.
But alas, Achievements cannot hide the shallowness that is Mad Tracks. It is true that in a few months, two new add-on packs will be available, but they come at an extra cost and aren’t included in the version being judged here. Mad Tracks goes to show the limitations and constraints Microsoft put on XBLA developers with the 50 MB limit, which sadly Mad Tracks had to comply with. And you can tell. Six races and nine rather less-than-stellar minigames won’t keep many entertained for long. Playing the game in a one hour session will see all fifteen events at least have a medal by their corresponding picture, at the very least. The minigames are better served for an online audience, and six races won’t be enough of a single player experience for most. The online works as it should, but the lack of a lobby and the lack of variety means it becomes tiresome quickly. It won’t take long before the void that once seemed certain to be filled is quickly uncovered again, with XBLA gamers still waiting for the clinical racing game. Sadly, Mad Tracks just isn’t what we thought it would be.
Final Score: 5 out of 10 - Below Average (How do we rate games?)