HomeReviews2.5/5 ReviewKartRider: Drift Review

KartRider: Drift Review

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I approached KartRider: Drift with a mixture of emotions. A free karting game is never going to be turned down, particularly when it’s arriving with affectionate words from another reviewer. But KartRider: Drift comes grafted to a live service. On one hand, I was curious and eager to see where it slotted into the karting hierarchy. On the other, I didn’t want to powerslide into a big paywall.

It’s certainly got the live-service welcome. Boot it up for the first time, and you’re surrounded by EULAs and Nexon logins, which is customary but not the ‘plug and play’ that you often want when three mates pop over for some drunk karting. Then you hit the menus, and it’s a bewildering cacophony of notifications, challenges and tabs.

Honestly – and this is something that KartRider: Drift never truly sheds – it can be hard to find the flipping game. This is a grumpy old man talking, so take it with a pinch of road-salt, but priority is given to customisation on the main screen, which makes sense if you’re the game’s accountant. You can Quick Match from the main screen, which is nice, but actually finding the Grand Prixs and game modes is a rummage in the depths of the UI. It’s a rather slick and modern UI – just oddly ordered, and it’s sprinkled with notifications after every game, meaning that you can spend a minute or two just removing the exclamation marks from your view.

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I don’t know why it bothers me. It might not even matter to you. But it’s a layer of noise that points to the game’s priorities, and that might be why I’m irked. I just want to race.

That being said, when you hide the game behind options, it normally suggests that the options are top notch. The accessibility options are front of the pack in particular – you can auto-accelerate and auto-drift, as well as make several amendments to the UI and visuals. Some online modes don’t allow these things to be activated, but it’s more an exception than rule. 

An option that is notably lacking is couch co-op. Multiplayer is purely online, so you can’t do that drunk-karting thing that we mentioned earlier anyway. We found it to be a miss since the accessibility options are on-point; we wanted to play with our kids, but without setting up a LAN, that wasn’t going to happen.

We will get to the racing soon, promise. But it makes a certain perverse sense that we delay talking about it, as there’s some more obstacles to present. You would imagine that you can jump immediately into a Grand Prix, or an online match with others. Hold your horses, as you have to play tutorials and then complete two separate Gran Turismo-style licences before that’s possible. In the case of online matches, you also have to get some CPU matches under your belt, too, presumably to ensure that the online matches don’t have amateurs careening around. 

We’d love to see KartRider: Drift’s retention numbers, as we can only imagine that this is a massive turn off. We tried to complete the two licences in a row, so we could get to the good stuff, but it was cognitive overload. It was teaching us important stuff, but there was so much that it farted out of the other ear. We remain unconvinced that this was the best way to go.

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Right, finally we can talk about the racing. And it’s fine, with the odd annoyance, but mostly just okay. Races are item-based or speed-races, which basically means with weapons or without. They can be in teams or without, too, so you can choose to play with one or three others, should you or the random algorithm determine that’s what you are playing today.

Then the green light triggers and you are thrust into the race. Controls are pretty simple, and you have two mappings to switch between so that you get the one you want. 

The tracks are plain enough that you can taste the vanilla. There’s very little in the way of height, landmarks or notable moments. The closest you get is some alternate routes and a few tunnels or cannons that propel you to the next section of track. In terms of pure track design, KartRider: Drift is decidedly par. 

Items are, again, middle of the road. It’s the usual bombs, green shells and red shells reskinned as blander counterparts. There’s a manic energy to KartRider: Drift, with weapons coming frequently and anarchy reigning. So it opts for a shield-heavy approach, meaning that KartRider: Drift has the parry and thrust of a fencing match. You hold onto shields and time their activation so that you deny an enemy the thrill of taking you out. But there are only so many shields, so you tend to hold out for as long as you can. More than most karting games, it feels like you’re spending a large proportion of time getting hit, but the acceleration is fast and the karts aren’t speedy, so you can quickly regain a position. 

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There’s a reason that Drift is in the title. A lot of emphasis is put on drifting around corners, and ranking well in online matches will be determined by how well you can use it. Depending on your control mapping, you tap the drift button on the approach to a corner, counter-steer to adopt the racing line, and then slip on and off the acceleration to grab a short speed-burst. The more you drift, the more you generate energy, and that energy can also be cashed in for a nitro burst.

Now, we’re going to get subjective here, because we suspect that there are people who will like this system. We didn’t. It’s certainly an innovative and unfamiliar take on the drift, and it took us far too long to master it (that second licence became a ballache, simply because we couldn’t initially master the speed-burst element). You can’t accuse KartRider: Drift of being in the slipstream of other games here – this is very much new.

Problem #1 is that we never enjoyed the sensitivity of it. You don’t hold the drift: you tap it. The length of the tap determines the sharpness of the drift, but the lines between a faint drift and a dramatic one are imperceptible. We’d find ourselves doing a hairpin on a sharp turn, and a turn on a chicane. It’s clearly possible to git gud here, and we tried – but we never fully understood why we had to master these milliseconds. Why couldn’t the system have adapted to a more ‘hold’-based approach?

And then there’s the skill ceiling, which is problem #2. Play the best racers, or try to get a halfway decent time trial score, and you will butt up against players who drift even on straights. Because it’s entirely possible to do small-scale drifts throughout, riding an eternal drift, pumping out nitros. But we never found that fun. It felt like we were exploiting the system rather than bending it to our will. 

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As we mentioned, there will be people who light up at the prospect, who love the idea of mastering an infinite power slide. They will lord it over other players and sit unchallenged on the global rankings. But we just wanted a harmless race, without sweaty players driftboosting lap after lap. 

And that brought us to our dilemma: when you take a machete to all the EULAs, cosmetics, battle passes, game options and obstructive licences, then what you have is a pretty average karting game. It’s hard for us to find it in there, but once we played a few dozen races, we felt done. There just wasn’t enough of a carrot at the end of the stick to really keep us playing. We started hankering for other, better kart racers – racers that didn’t send us a blizzard of notifications after each race.

Kart enthusiasts who want a high skill ceiling might find a home in KartRider: Drift. But casual players, or those who want immediacy in their racing will probably want to pull a u-turn and find something else. 

You can buy KartRider: Drift from the Xbox Store

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