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Warp Drive Review


F-Zero has left such a gaping hole in our lives that we’ve entered the fifth stage of grief. We’ve gone hurtling through Denial, Anger, Bargaining and Depression, and we’re now at Acceptance. We’re so accepting that we’ll never get another F-Zero that we’ve written an article on it. We are at peace with never hearing Big Blue again. 

The problem is, we keep backsliding. When something turns up with a futuristic setting, some hovercars and a love for ‘80s synth, we’re back into Bargaining. Maybe Redout will take the mantle? Perhaps Fast RMX will give us a Readybrek glow? We’re like a forlorn widow who keeps seeing their partner in every face they meet. It’s all a bit sad.

And just like clockwork, here we go again. Warp Drive ticks all the boxes. Hovercars with a hint of modernity in their drone-inspired design. A cracking soundtrack that veers into Final Fantasy battle music. And a lolloping track design, with enough peaks and troughs that you feel like you’re riding an oscilloscope. We looked down and found that we were already wearing our Captain Falcon costume. 

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To be fair to Warp Drive, it’s not got its view fixed on the past, as we seem to have. The first clue is in the incredibly assured art design. I mean, just look at those screenshots. The cel-shading is strong with this one, and you could have told us that Take Two had bought up Warp Drive to insert it, wholesale, into a Borderlands title as some leftfield Mad Moxxi DLC. It’s gorgeous, somehow also invoking feelings of Jet Set Radio – probably thanks to the love for neon lights alongside thick, black outlines – and it’s undeniably Warp Drive’s strongest feature. 

Working down that list of strongest features, we come next to the controls. There’s a weighty believability to the droneships, a ‘sticky-friction’ as game designers would call it, that does a great job of putting you in the cockpit. As you would expect from the genre, there’s a heavy emphasis on drifting, and we weren’t enamored with Warp Drive’s take on it at first. It felt inconsistent in its activation, and it pulled you heavily into the turn. But once we realised that we needed to be correcting the drift almost from the moment it triggered, we had the hang of it. We were able to pull off quick drifts to get a momentary boost, or swing round sharp corners, with a high degree of precision. 

On lower CCs, the top speed is a little limp, but crank it up to the higher CCs and you’re cooking. There’s a surging Wipeout-ness to the speed, but without the prohibitive deceleration whenever you hit a barrier. Warp Drive is a touch more accessible than other games in the genre, and that might make it a perfect addition to your party games. 

Tracks are next on the list, and there are certainly plenty of them. As a solo player, you will likely be kicking off with Tournaments, and there are seven of them with four tracks in each. It’s more than enough. Karting and F-Zero-a-like games have a tendency to create track playlists that are one-note: flat, with few shortcuts and no real identity to each track. Warp Drive’s tracks are far from flat, they’ve got plenty of alternate routes, and there’s at least some attempt to make each track memorable. Warp Drive has a fantastic little gimmick where – if you have the requisite energy – you can energy-grapple to faster routes that spiral around the main track. It triggers the warp drive of the game’s name, and those routes inevitably spas energy and speed boosts at you, always making them worthwhile. 

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The caveat comes with the track identities. While each course tends to have a different skin and, on occasion, a centrepiece like a winding snake or hulking great squid, there’s still a nagging saminess about them.  Part of that’s down to the art style, actually. It’s so in-your-face that it has a bleaching effect on the tracks, washing out any of the colour and texture that they might have offered. It’s got a homogenising effect, and damages a legibility a wee bit too. We occasionally missed an alternate route, just because visual aberrations got in the way.

Something else that’s common with this genre of game is a lack of ambition. You can spot the elements that have been cut-and-shut from a different chassis. Warp Drive isn’t that kind of racer, though. It’s determined to bring new ideas and different arguments to the conversation, and – while they don’t always work, at least not wholly – they spark thoughts about how they might work. 

As you slide around corners in Warp Drive, you will pick up energy bolts. These bolts aren’t chucked at enemies like you’re a wheelbound Thor; they are a currency which can be spent. Everything you buy costs a single energy bolt, so it’s less about currency management and more about knowing what ability to use and when. Energy bolts can be spent on a speed boost (the most versatile option, as it can be used when in front or behind), a homing missile, a mine (which can also be dropped to defend against missiles) and the anti-grav track-switching that we talked about earlier. 

It’s a bold pitch. Imagine Mario Kart with the ability to use a red shell or mushroom whenever you want. There’s no reliance on luck to give you the item you need, nor is there a sense of injustice when a blue shell whacks you. But we weren’t wholly sold. Part of it is in the execution. The red shell missiles need to lock on before you can fire, and that lock-on is frustratingly intermittent. It might work in Top Gun, creating drama as the enemy swings in and out of lock, but in Warp Drive it twanged our patience. And we were boosting so often for a multitude of reasons – the warp drive, power-sliding – that we hoped the boost would layer on or multiply them, but it didn’t seem to. 

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Most of all, the system just creates odd behaviours. When we were in front, we could stockpile energy bolts so that we could drop mines against missiles, and hit anti-grav routes whenever we needed. We were rarely knocked off our perch, and the rest of the pack fell away – particularly as they were nibbling at each other with missiles, and there was little rubber-banding at play. Equally, when you’re in the chasing pack, it can just be a mess of missiles, particularly in multiplayer. 

And last on our feature list is another of Warp Drive’s ambitious takes. As you progress through the game, you generate cash, and that cash can be spent on upgrades for your car. Except those upgrades are presented in a way that’s not dissimilar to Hades or Slay the Spire. You are offered three upgrades, and can choose which one you want to buy, if any. It makes the buying process exciting, but also a bit of an unintelligible mess. There’s no comparison with what you already have, so you’re buying blind, and you can’t compare with the other parts in your library either. You’re mostly using the price to determine value – it’s that old wine rule of ‘if it’s more expensive, it’s better, right?’ – and that’s not satisfying. And some upgrades are so expensive that you have to win a few matches to buy them, which doesn’t fit the Hades template. You are stockpiling cash on the off-chance that something will turn up, which it often won’t. It would have been so much better if everything was free but limited to one unlock per race. 

We forgot to slot in game modes and features, which would have come near the top of the ‘strong feature list’ if it had fit the way we structured the review. Alongside Tournaments, you can play single matches, a vast library of Challenges (which have you nabbing collectibles, scuttling enemies and completing time challenges, all for coins), and a Survival mode which lets you choose from two scenarios, often against a rival or landing in the top X of a race. The difficulty increases with each success, and the aim is to sequence together as many victories as possible. Fail, and you have to start the Survival experience all over again. All of the above can be done with one to four players. 

All that’s left to do is warn that achievements are borked as current. We’ve exhausted Warp Drive, almost to the degree of unlocking all the upgrades, but only one achievement has popped. The developers are on it, but it’s a warning for those who like to see numbers go up. 

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We’ve developed a fondness for Warp Drive. Its designers have avoided all the easy, well-trodden routes. There is ambition in the art style, the currency-based weapon system and the anti-gravity approach. They manage to switch-up a genre that’s reasonably averse to switching things up at all. 

Sure, Warp Drive hits the barrier a few times, mainly in the way it executes on its ambitious ideas, but we can’t help imagining a sequel that overtakes everything here. Warp Drive is a strong first entry on the highscore table. We hope it sells enough so that its developers have a shot at a sequel to beat it. 

You can buy Warp Drive from the Xbox Store

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