Sunday, July 20, 2008

Platform Racing

Imagine Mario Kart, which I hope we can all agree is a fine game. Now, take everything out of it that makes it a fun game. You've now got a pretty good idea of what playing Platform Racing is like. It gave me a horrible feeling that I had just wasted three hours of my life and all I got to show for it was 50 points in badges.

The basic concept of Platform Racing is, hopefully, conveyed by its title -- it's like a platformer, except you have many characters racing to get to the finish first. There's not much in the way of variety -- you have ordinary blocks, arrow blocks, which give you a boost in the direction the arrow is pointing (either sideways or upwards), mines, which give your little stick figure a nasty jolt, and the obligatory item blocks, which will give you one potentially-useful item.

So, what makes this such an uninteresting game? Well, first of all is the pace. Your characters are fairly slow to begin with, and in matches with multiple players (more on this later), you're constantly being lightninged or shot at or simply stomped on; like Mario Brothers, stomping on someone's head will stun them for several seconds, which is excruciating when you have characters all grouped in an area trying to make a jump and they all end up jumping on each other. This means that, even though the individual courses are relatively short, they still take what seems like forever to complete. You can customize your racer by allotting 100 points among speed, acceleration, and traction, but even when I weighted my racer heavily towards speed, he still seemed aggravatingly slow.

But the area where this is really a spectacular letdown is the level design. As in any racing game, the quality of the tracks is really what makes or breaks the experience, and the levels are simply not interesting. Part of this is undeniably a consequence of there simply being so few elements to work with, but the game seems to have only one trick in its toolbox for adding difficulty, and that's to have you jump from single block to single block over bottomless pits. This gets tired and annoying fast. Even worse is when the single blocks are up-arrow blocks, so that you get boosted up and you can't even see the block that you're trying to land on. This results in you plummeting to your demise approximately 10 million times on average, which is simply not fun. There's nothing particularly creative or interesting in the level design; the one attempt to make an unorthodox level, in which, instead of racing, you fall down and have to avoid various obstacles as you fall, I thought was pretty clever until I realized you could just go off to one side past all of the obstacles, fall almost the whole length of the level, and then come back in just in time for the finish. Brilliant, huh?

The items are also horribly unbalanced. (One thing which I will give the game credit for -- unlike Mario Kart, where it's possible for the lead driver to hog all of the items, in Platform Racing, each player can hit each block precisely once, so everyone has a chance at items.) Some items are ridiculously powerful, and some are very weak, and unlike Mario Kart, there's no attempt to balance them with your current position, so you can easily get lightning while leading the race. In one of the levels, if you get a certain item you're basically guaranteed to beat anyone who doesn't get that item -- in fact, I don't think in all my playing, I ever managed to even finish that level within the time limit without getting the item. Other levels have similar, if not quite as serious, problems.

The graphics are very bland -- the racers themselves are stick figures, with the parts not even connected, and the animation consists solely of your feet moving back and forth. You can "customize" your appearance, which only consists of changing colors. The levels themselves are similarly uninteresting in their appearance. The music is also solidly subpar, although at least there are multiple mediocre melodies, so you don't have to listen to the same thing the whole time. The sound effects are OK.

Now, on to the multiplayer. This is a racing game, after all, so while you can race by yourself, the entire point is to race against other people, so I was unable to avoid multiplayer play, as is my preference. The game is hosted on many non-Kongregate locations, so everyone connects to one of three central servers; there's also a chat room inside the game, which is the usual cesspool of awfulness that nearly any unmoderated chat room devolves into. (It also appeared that most of the people playing the game were about 14, which made me wonder if I would enjoy the game more if I were that age. I don't think so, though. There were better games around even when I was 14.) The matchmaking system is pretty terrible (and not at all intuitive); basically, you click on an open slot and hit "play" when you're ready. The game starts 15 seconds after the first person clicks "play", or when all players currently in the game have clicked "play"; this means that oftentimes you end up waiting 15 seconds for the fourth person to hit the button, they don't, and so you end up playing with three. This is important, because the more people you beat in a race, the more rank you get, and rank is important to unlock the last levels so you can get the badge and stop playing the game already. The game is also not so good at keeping players synced -- I'll often see a player behind me jump ahead thanks to lag, and cheats are also rampant, judging by the number of players I saw with over 20000 rank who were magically able to finish any level in 10 seconds. Also, you have to wait until everyone has finished the level to get your points, which just adds insult to injury.

Anyway, if you haven't guessed yet, I found playing Platform Racing to be a thoroughly unenjoyable experience, and I was quite happy when I finally finished grinding my way up the rank ladder to unlock the last level so I could finally earn the last badge. It's not even particularly hard, just very, very tedious.

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