£34.99 is a lot to ask anyone to pay for a video game. If you’re putting down that much money, you want reassurance that you’re getting value; that it will keep the kids quiet for more than the length of a movie. What you don’t want is an empty shell for young players to rattle around in for half an hour.
Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers almost takes longer to type out than it does to play. If you’re a parent, and are considering this for your Blaze fans, beware: you’d get more enjoyment from a large cardboard box.
It starts with a little bit of promise. There’s clearly no Mario Kart on the Xbox, and a few Hells would have to freeze over before we got one. We have a fair few copycat karting games on the Xbox, but precious few serve the under-sevens crowd. They’re often loud, complicated and fail to have useful additions like assisted-steering. But Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City is appealing to younger players, is designed for them, and – yes – has an assisted steering mode called Auto Drive.
Very generally, Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers is a typical kart racer. You have three ways of racing, available from the menu. There are Quick Races, Playing with Friends, and Adventure. They very much do what they say on the tin. Quick Race is one-player and breaks things down into individual races and cups. You can drop into a random one quickly or set up something custom. Playing with Friends does the same but with up to four local players, while Adventure is the game’s campaign.
Adventure gives you an indication of how thin the offering is. You can play three different cups, three races in each, and a final cup that is the tutorial race but with a lap counter attached. So, let’s be generous and tally this up to ten different courses. Except they’re not altogether different: each cup is a different ‘theme’, with the first being Axle City, the second being Velocity Ville, set in farmlands, and the third being Animal Island, which is a jungle/volcano area. That means the same backgrounds and ideas are smudged onto all of the races in that cup, and they end up feeling identikit.
There’s an asterisk here, as one level – Volcanic Vroom – is a clear game highlight. It has a memorable landmark for one, in its central volcano, and you zigzag through it rather than meander, like many of the other levels. It looks acres more interesting than the other levels, too. A note here that Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers is not a bad-looking game. It’s chunky and plastic in a satisfying bought-from-The-Entertainer-way, and children will instantly recognise (and hear) their favourite characters. But it is sparse, and Volcanic Vroom bucks that trend.
Ten levels, with only three different skins, is frankly pretty dismal. We popped the achievement for completing all four cups, and the ‘Fastest of All’ achievement text said ‘Win the First Ten Races’. We breathed a sigh of relief: there must be a second lot of races. Maybe even a third. But no: ten is what you’re getting, buddy.
It would have been somewhat okay if the races were interesting or distinct. But Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers does what a lot of cheap karting games do: it keeps everything completely flat, without any lumps or bumps outside of ramps; it offers no alternative routes or developing tracks; and then it keeps to a series of meanders rather than anything resembling a racetrack. It’s a joyride through a sleepy town.
Now, the obvious caveat here is that younger players probably don’t want or need Monaco. They don’t have the capability to brake before a hairpin turn, and that’s understandable. But that doesn’t absolve Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers from adding some interest. We’d have taken some characters from the show in the background, a passing aeroplane or two, or secret routes that bypass chunks of the track. Anything, really. Outside of the use of crossroads in Velocity Ville levels, there’s nothing that differentiates the three terrains from each other.
Racing itself is sluggish, even on the highest of the three difficulties here, but that’s to be expected for a children’s game. There are no major issues with the basics of racing, and we’d even go so far to say that our children enjoyed it for a period.
Weapons, too, are fine. Technically, Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers has opted for character-specific abilities rather than weapons, which makes sense. Young players can pick the character they like and they will know full well what happens whenever they gather the ten spanners that are needed to activate them. Blaze nitro-boosts for his ability, while Watts does an electric-charged boost that zaps opponents as she passes by. They’re mostly non-aggressive – there’s no blue shell here – and any damage done will slow down a player, rather than spin them out. More advanced players will of course get bored with the single weapon through an entire campaign, but they will have to swallow it.
But while Blaze works on a basic level, a parent will begin to spot strange quirks. There is a drift button on RB, but the drift abides by some bizarre rules that we still don’t understand. We think it cancels out when you take your finger off the analogue stick or move in the opposite direction to the one you started in – no Mario Kart-style drift-wiggling here – but we wouldn’t bet our lives on it. It’s erratic to say the least.
Even more bizarrely, where you finish isn’t necessarily the rank you’ll be given. Our daughter finished third in every race, which we think makes it mathematically impossible to win, but she was given a first-place ranking for the tournament. She also crossed the line in fourth, but it would display as third on the ranking screen. These moments were only ever in my child’s favour – they were never punished – but they seemed like curious rolls of the dice, and they happened a lot.
Importantly for a game of this type, up to four-player splitscreen co-op is available (only local, not online, which is to be expected), and it works fine. You only have the base ten tracks to work with, so there’s an inevitable point where boredom sets in, but this has the exact minimum of what we’d expect: the ability for four young players to play each other on a sofa.
What surprises most is that most games of this type would hide their lack of content by adding trunkloads of collectibles. There’d be wallpapers, concept art, audio tracks, skins for cars, new characters and all that nonsense. It would at least give a younger player a sense of progression. But the closest that Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers comes to this is a repurposing of their loading screens. You see some STEM-related messages between matches, teaching them the boiling point of water and other strange factoids, and you can ‘win’ them after multiplayer matches. And that’s it. Nothing that appears in-game, nothing that factors into anything, really. It’s a wonder why they dodged even this most basic of opportunities.
As a gateway to racing games, and video games generally, Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers gets some credit. It’s the first Xbox karting game that feels like a sub-seven or six-year-old could play it fully and actually compete with computer racers. That might be enough to shell out the money that gets your child onto the starting grid.
But if you’re in any way discerning, and want a bit of value from your £34.99, then the defence rests on Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers. It’s an empty chassis, a casual insult for the money. Ten generic tracks does not a karting game make. In all likelihood, your Blaze fans will see everything it has to offer after half an hour, as it runs out of mileage quicker than you can say that title.
You can buy Blaze and the Monster Machines: Axle City Racers from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S