Hands On Mantis Burn Racing’s Pure Arcade Driving

Depending on how far back your gaming memories go, the first thing that might pop into your head when you see Mantis Burn Racing is Micro Machines. That’s obviously an influence to the developers at VooFoo Studios, but get it into your hands and a much, much better comparison would be to MotorStorm RC, the miniaturised hit game that came out from Evolution Studios for PlayStation 3 and Vita.

As a top down arcade racer, this game’s a lot of fun. The controls are exactly as you’d expect them to be, with left analogue stick steering, the two triggers for accelerating and braking and a boost, once you’ve charged up the metre. It’s really easy to just pick up and play, with tight and precise handling that makes drifting a skill to learn, as opposed to a given of going round corners.

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The three different vehicle classes are nicely varied. My personal favourite is the light and nimble buggy, but there’s also a middling rally-esque car, and then a larger, faster but more sluggish truck. If you’re the kind of racer to occasionally tap the wall or mess up an apex, the buggies will be your friends, with their faster acceleration, but certain tracks will be better suited to the trucks, with their higher top speed and slipstreaming letting you go much faster.

Working your way through the campaign, stepping up gradually through three speed classes – Rookie, Pro and Veteran – you earn a bevy of unlocks for your vehicles. There’s an interesting system of slots which can be filled with your choice of upgrade, whether you want to throw acceleration boosts at a truck or improve the handling of the saloons. It’s up to you how heavily you stack upgrades in a particular path, but you’re reliant on unlocking a randomised but endless series of upgrades.

“We kind of tell people it’s more of an RPG,” Shaun Read, Creative Director explained, “in that, if you get a sword, you have a certain amount of slots in it sometimes. […] As you progress through the game, you go down an infinite XP line and down that line come upgrades, and then you can add them to empty slots or scrap a slot and add a new one.

“Once you’ve filled them all in, you’ve got the option to pay [in-game] money to level the car up again, and what that’ll do is add more slots and actually change the appearance of the car as well.”

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The upgrade system is one I find quite fascinating, but perhaps the main thing that helps differentiate the game is the camera. There’s none of Micro Machines’ ability to fall off the edge of the screen and lose a life, and you don’t have the fixed viewpoint of RC either. Instead, the camera tracks and follows your car to varying degrees of rigidity. The choice is yours, and I certainly preferred the more dynamic and adaptive of the cameras, letting me see into a corner just a little bit more.

Shaun said, “One of the main pieces of feedback we got when we first came out on Early Access was, ‘Oh, can we have a fixed camera option?’ The backgrounds haven’t been designed for fixed camera, because they’ve got lots of elevation, but there is one!”

It’s not just elevation changes, but also there’s a lot of tall scenery that can obscure the view. It’s unsurprising that Shaun continued, “To be fair, the feedback we got after we added it was that actually they preferred the chase cam.”

A fun little tidbit about the physics engine is that it’s actually borrowed and repurposed from VooFoo’s Pure Pool and Hustle Kings games. “You can imagine it has to be pretty accurate to make a pool game,” Shaun says, but it’s strange to think how well it handles various different cars on the streets and dirt tracks of Mantis Burn Racing. He continued, “Although it is an arcade game, it’s still based quite firmly on real world physics regarding the handling of the vehicles.”

If there’s one minor failing – bearing in mind this is all from a small team of eight, and that the lion’s share of the artwork was made by a single artist – it’s that there’s only two themes at launch, with a third planned as a free addition down the line. You either have those dusty reddish brown dirt tracks of Sand Town – a locale rather reminiscent of the original MotorStorm – and New Shangri La, a city or industrial theme in the twilight hours. There’s some good variety within those themes, such as when the tracks descend into pitch black caves, but there’s plenty of scope to broaden the reach to include jungle tracks and much more besides. Some tracks are just so large and overlap that I simply couldn’t figure out how far round a lap I was.

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What ought to help keep things interesting are the nine different kinds of event in the game. Of course there’s straight up racing and time trials, before more typical twists like knock out, but there’s some more inventive ones as well. Hot Lap in Mantis Burn is like F1 qualifying, with other cars on track, all trying to set a fast lap, while accumulator awards all racers a steady stream of points depending on their current position, until someone reaches 10,000 points.

Of course, the real question is if there’s a Micro Machines-like mode with players trying not to fall off the screen. “No, is the quick answer, but we had one!” Shaun said. “We had an event called Spotlight, but the reason it worked so well with Micro Machines was because of the fixed camera, so because fixed camera in this is like an easter egg for people that really want it, it never really worked. We may go back to it, but…”

There’s also some minor technical concessions, such as cars not having headlight beams. That’s more to do with how it makes the game’s backgrounds look under dynamic lighting and could be added in a future update. “We didn’t want the game to look really nice and then have really crap looking headlights,” Shaun said. Either way, the game runs at a solid 1080p60 and should even handle four player split screen without breaking a sweat. Certainly, the two player was silly smooth.

There’s an online system, based off player lobbies and hosted races for up to eight players, which ought to help with the game’s online longevity to a certain degree. Without matchmaking, it’s up to the host to decide the track and rules, not to mention whether they’ll allow upgraded cars or not, to keep the playing field as level as possible.

Shaun explained, “What we are doing, and I guess it’s a kind of rubber banding for upgrades, is that there’s diminishing returns. So your first engine upgrade will give you, say, 10% boost in power, if you add another one, it’ll give you 9% boost.

“What you can do, and our test team was saying it’s a bug, is you can make cars that are extremely unbalanced. If you’ve got 18 slots and you put 18 engine upgrades in, your wheels will spin and you’ll literally take 5 or 10 seconds to start moving because you’ve got so much horsepower. That’s the bit that’s based in real world physics.”

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And when it comes to the PlayStation 4 Pro, VooFoo get to proudly proclaim that this is running at a fully native 4K resolution, without the need to fall back on the hardware checkerboard upscaling tech of other games.

“We got [PS4 Pro dev kits] quite early, so they kind of fell into our development line.” And for a team the size of VooFoo’s, Shaun added, “It’s not a big deal [to add PS4 Pro support]. We had it up and running in a day!”

Really if all comes down to the racing, and that’s where Mantis Burn Racing shines in my opinion. I wasn’t always winning against the AI – far from it in cars that hadn’t really been upgraded too heavily, and without rubber banding AI – but I was definitely enjoying the feel of the top down driving.

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3 Comments

  1. This is looking pretty good. I’ll probably download it depending on the price.

    The fact its in native 4K makes me want to buy a new TV, but I’ve got some major issues on selecting a new TV which I’ve mentioned in the forums if anyones interested – maybe someone can help or lend me their expertise.

  2. I bought and played Reckless Racing 3 on my Android account and enjoyed it immensely. Mantis Burns looks very similar in terms of gameplay but obviously having physical control will make the game so much easier to play. Really looking forward to having a go on this at EGX on Sunday!

    • I had a really good go on it today and had a chat with the team who were showing it off. Very impressed with this title. I’ve promised them I’ll be getting this as soon as it’s out in the PS Store. :-)

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