I've gone on something of a local co-op bender in the last year, having upgraded my living room and refurbished an old i5 and GTX 660 Ti into a perfectly serviceable Steam box. It's made me keen for a variety of party games and games that can be shared with friends. Casual but competitive experiences, if you will.
One such game that never quite worked out was last year's Toybox Turbos, an attempt by Codemasters to revive the spirit of the Micro Machines series. It never quite captured the thrill or sense of speed of the earlier games, however, and there was a whole process that made the experience a tad monotonous.
Two things stick out prominently when I think about Codemasters' top-down racer, however. The first is the elimination-style boss battles, where players lose or gain lives depending on their ability to remain on the screen, and the second is the handling.
Both these things came to mind when I stopped by Space Dust Studios' booth at PAX Australia to try Space Dust Racers, the top-down combat racer built on Unreal Engine 4 that supports a staggering 16 players at any one time. The developers don't recommend that, mind. Senior artist Stephen Honegger told me the sweet spot was between 10 to 12 players, although whether that's suitable for a home Wi-Fi connection is another matter.
The Wi-Fi connection is important, since it's the main way you'll get more than 4 players to play. I stood behind a random group before my appointment, which allowed me to overhear director and senior artist Stephen Honegger telling PAX attendees that the game issued a QR code for your mobile.
That launched a browser plug-in — a little like the Jackbox party games — and each controller thereafter, Honegger later told me, was then detected as a separate Xinput controller. It's a neat setup that opens up a world of possibilities, although without seeing how well it handles in the real world — Wi-Fi connections were disabled on the show floor, given the severe amount of interference — it's impossible to get excited.
What remained, then, was a four-player elimination kart racer with the focus on attacks and power-ups. Players weren't immediately eliminated upon dropping off the screen, although a red bar appeared at the bottom giving some sort of indication where the invisible players lie. Only the winner received points for a victory, which was tracked by a slowly filling name bar at the top right that is supposedly being reworked.
The handling and speed — even with a modifier setting the maximum speed — felt akin to Toybox Turbos, a fraction too slow and stiff for my liking although not uncommon for other games of this ilk. Each car, all of which are cosmetic, also comes equipped with a shield that can be used to deflect projectiles, bullets and nearby cars for a short period. It slows you down for a fraction, but it beats getting blown skyward.
There were four playable maps, with forward and reverse variations and three weather modifiers. Honegger confirmed that was the amount Space Dust Racers would ship with at launch, which might be a touch short for some, although that number will probably expand from launch. It's worth adding that the weather impacts your grip and handling, and each track has various parts or elements that take time to learna on the
All this seems well and good and it certainly ticks all the metaphorical boxes outlined in Space Dust Racer's Steam description. But the PAX demo didn't replicate the advertised chaos of 12 to 16 players slamming into each other, and it showed in the reactions of the people I saw playing.
It wasn't their reaction, or mine afterwards — it was the lack of a reaction. And that didn't change when I tried an alternative game mode, or two of the other tracks, with fresh players and the developer. Space Dust Racers might be too chaotic with a full crowd of 16 — I don't want to think about 10+ mobile devices slamming my home Wi-Fi — but with just a few people, a few who I'd never met, it wasn't exciting either.
How you change that, I cannot say. It'd probably help if the elimination mode was tweaked so that players received points for finishing first, second and third, so at least players were more invested throughout the course of each round. Honegger suggested that the game also had AI opponents, and perhaps auto-populating matches (or allowing for the choice) to create more action might be more lively.
I'll still check Space Dust Racers out come release. But what I wanted walking away from the booth was to be wow'd and excited. I was neither of those things. Content is probably the most accurate feeling — and in the dog-eat-dog world of local multiplayer indies, content probably doesn't cut it.