Top down racing has gone slightly out of fashion in recent years, with developers preferring to take the whole ‘look at our huge open world’ racing sim approach that utilises the full power of the current generation of gaming machines. But there’s still a place in this world for a game that has me harking back to the glory days of top-down racing. Especially one that looks unbelievably good.

Mantis Burn Racing IS that game.

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Now, you may be able to hop onto the Xbox Games Store, head off to the Playstation library or browse through your Steam account and download all manner of other top-down racing titles, but you’ll struggle to find any that brings the same enjoyable, tight, physics based racing that Voofoo Studios have created in Mantis Burn. Coming from the team behind the visually stunning Pure series of games – Pool, Chess and Hold’em – it may seem like a strange route to take. But racing is obviously in their blood and they’ve managed to pull off a hugely detailed, graphically polished racer with some of the best physics I’ve seen in a long time.

The game revolves around three main sections; a single player career, a local co-operative option and some glorious eight player online multiplayer racing. Oh, and should none of that suit your needs, then a weekly challenge sits quietly in the corner giving you the opportunity to test yourself against the best in the world.

Delving into the Career and you’ll find a huge array of events, cars, tracks and unlockable upgrades to keep you busy. With seven seasons initially in place (although it does seem very open for downloadable content at some point), you’ll begin to race your way through the Rookie seasons; drifting, boosting, smashing, overtaking and basically doing whatever is needed in order to finish in the top 3 so you can unlock the next stop on your career ladder. Eventually you will move on to the Pro and Veteran circuits, where you will rinse and repeat until your fingers bleed. Doing so will ensure that your journey progresses nicely.

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Podium spots, credits and XP are all awarded depending on your efforts and these see you gaining either the G cash which holds the whole world of Mantis Burn together, or the experience points which allow your levels to increase over time, unlocking faster, beefier cars and plenty of upgrades as you do so.

Running alongside these are Gears – a currency which is earned by completing challenges in each race. With six available through every event, you’ll find Gears are collected for winning a race, drifting a specific distance, getting to the end without crashing and more. These may not help or hinder your overall progress, but if you ignore them, will eventually find yourself coming a cropper and being left to go back over previous races in order to unlock further races. The whole Gears system may seem a quickly tacked on addition to Mantis Burn Racing to allow for replayability, but the more you progress, the keener an eye you’ll be taking on them and they really do bring that ‘just one more go’ attitude to the game. It is only when you reach the halfway point of the Pro section that your Gears collection will finally start coming into play though, and you’ll find yourself needing to go back through previous races, over and over again in order to hit further challenges and obtain more precious Gears. That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s this replayability that will ensure your time with Mantis Burn Racing stretches well into double figure hours and beyond.

Vehicle-wise and there are three classes of racing machines available, all of which have three separate models. The Rookie cars are your standard ‘learn the ropes’ racers, coming with little torque and hardly any speed. Move your way through three seasons of Rookie racing though and you’ll stumble upon the Pro circuit where both your own, and the AI vehicles are faster, tougher and downright trickier to drive. Become a successful Pro and you’ll eventually end up in the Veteran series, with cars which blast off from the grid at the drop of a hat, bulldoze their way through multiple barriers and drift like the very best sideways racers. With Light, Medium and Heavy vehicles dropping in to each of the various categories, the vehicle roster may seem small, but it works well enough to allow for a little experimentation. Although that said, once you’ve mastered the drifting aspects of any of the Light cars, then you’ll rarely feel the need to hop behind the wheel of anything else. They are just so much damn fun.

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Cruising along in the background is also the opportunity to upgrade your vehicles, with tyre, suspension, engine, gearbox and boost upgrades all allowing for a bit of unique customisation. Whilst each model of vehicle has its own specific stats, the upgrading option allows you to amend much of these to your own liking. Want to drive as a speed freak that can’t take corners? You got it. Prefer a big bulldozing truck that takes forever to get up to speed but is near on indestructible? It’s yours. The upgrade system really is very clever and allows for a whole range of personalisable options. You will of course need to earn cash, and progress through your career events, in order to make the most of the upgrades though.

With there being only a small number of cars to need worry about purchasing, you may initially find that the content on offer in Mantis Burn is limited. In a way, you’d be right as there is a fair bit of repetition. But the career mode itself is massive, and with events ranging from the likes of standard racing, through to Time Trials, Knockouts, Accumulators and League racing, you’ll need to drop many a day of solid play in order to reach the end. You should never get bored either as the mix of events, car types and upgrade options keep things pretty fresh.

In fact, there is only really a limited number of tracks available too, but again it never really feels like that as reversed circuits double the amount of offer, whilst your car type for each race will dramatically change the way you head on through each race. Whether you’re pounding the streets of a midnight race round the Metropolis in a road-racer, caning it down the straights of the Harbour in your truck or taking the buggy out for a drift and jump down the dirt lined tracks of the Caves, you’ll worry little about anything else. It’s all so much fun and each track, circuit or layout that has been included is quite obviously in place for a reason…to show off exactly how well-defined racing can be accomplished and for Voofoo to bring us some superbly detailed arenas.

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But it’s not all great news and whilst it’s obvious that there are a load of positives, unfortunately a few little negatives have managed to creep in to Mantis Burn Racing.

Now, I’m very quickly prepared to overlook the incorrect spelling of ‘fastest’ in one of the race descriptions, as we’re all only human. But there are other issues which really do grate.

The biggest, and the most annoying actually isn’t something that is integrated into the gameplay at all. In fact, many may see it as something minor (and I’m certainly hoping that is the case), but Voofoo Studios really need to implement some kind of screen resizing mechanic. As it stands, there is an scrolling info box along the bottom of the Mantis Burn menu screens which is cut off by my screen. I can read it, just. But that’s only because I’m a magical wordsmith. A quick shift up just a few millimetres will see the fix in place and ensure the strange slackness is cut out.

Edit: Even though we had messed around with numerous screen settings prior to going live with this review, I switch of TV has seemingly fixed the scrolling bar issue. I still stand by my initial thoughts that a screen resizer would be preferable, but have to point out that you may not experience the issue mentioned above. 

Additionally, and this is something which affects the actual game, but the sides of the screen are also cut off. As a solo player, this is usually fine as all race positions and timings are just about visible, whilst the entire action takes place slap bang in the centre of the screen. But dare to take to the track with another player or three via split screen and you’ll find that a number of the players will have no idea what position they are in, or what time they have posted. Small things matter and it’s this which unfortunately knocks Mantis Burn Racing down a peg or two.

I’m also not overly enthused by the sounds of Mantis Burn Racing. For all the glorious visuals (and yep, I’m going to keep on about how good they are), the accompanying audio is poor. The backing track which helps push the game along at pace is catchy and repetitive – something which it should be – but the vehicle noises that try to resonate through are tinny, screechy and completely underpowered. No matter which of the various vehicles you choose. Is that really so much of a problem for a top-down racer that puts so much emphasis on the actual racing? I’m not sure, but I would have like to have heard better.

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Aside from those slight problems, and the fact that the Overtake races are boring beyond hell – although the inclusion of the brilliant Accumulator races more than evens that out – and Mantis Burn Racing is a bloody great little game. It may kick off a bit on the easy side, and your first six or so hours in the career mode will have you wondering what all the fuss is about, but once you start getting deep into the action of the Pro season, and then prepare to move on to the Veteran stage, you’ll find some very fast, very hot, very tight racing that can see just one mistake be the difference between winning and losing. It’s edge of the seat stuff at times and you’ll find yourself sweating at the prospect of missing out on that vital Gear over and over again.

Of course, should you ever begin to tire of the solo scene and want to race against friends or strangers, then Voofoo Studios have allowed for both local and online multiplayer match ups, something which is a bit of a rarity in the indie scene. With the local sofa based offering cleverly limited to split-screen and four players only, everything runs smooth, even when the screen is full of racers. It’s good fun and the choice of the various game modes that are found throughout the single player career ensures that Mantis Burn works well as a party game.

Online multiplayer is also great and even though I’ve so far struggled to find full rooms (you’ve got to remember I’m writing this before the official launch), what I have partaken in has been brilliant. In fact, it’s been even more exciting than the single player career that I’ve already ploughed many an hour into, if only because the online community seem to be a lot more consistent in their racing than the included AI peddlers. The obvious issue though is that the vast majority of gamers want to use the quickest machines available and this in turn sees the Veteran vehicles appear on more of a regular basis than the rest. But then that’s the very nature of online gaming and something I guess we should all be used to.

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Overall and Mantis Burn Racing is well worth a download should you be looking for some vehicular based action. Granted, it’s not going to wow the racer in you like Forza Horizon 3 does, but the visuals are great for a top down racer, the action is fast, hectic and close and the amount of content on offer for a downloadable only title is immense. If only the issues with the screen diameters, disappointing sound aspect and quite random AI speed inconsistencies weren’t in place then I’d be raving about Mantis Burn Racing even more.

But that said, Voofoo Studios have created a lovely racer that is worth checking out…if only for the great car physics, fully detailed circuits and huge amount of action packed racing that is on offer.

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