Publisher: Frogster / Element 5
Developer: Load, Inc
Release Date: July 17, 2006
I never really “got” remote control cars when I was a kid. Maybe it was part of that whole deal where I never really “got” cars at all (regardless of size) but for whichever reason I just never had much of a thing for small battery powered vehicles. Interesting then that I seem to get tons of enjoyment out of games that simulate the exact same experience, is it not? Is it because I have aged and have a better appreciation of anything that harkens to youth, or is it just because none of the RC cars I ever played with as a kid had auto-targeting rocket-launchers? That is perhaps a debate best left to the philosophers, for now let us turn our attention to the topic of this article: Mad Tracks, a racing/puzzle/party game made by a team called Load, Inc.
As is my custom, I shall break down this game into its blandest parts. Thus: Mad Tracks is a 3rd person perspective, 3D RC-car racing game for the PC platform with a heavy accent on puzzles and mini-games. If I had to boil my opinion of this title into a single word, it would be “clever”. Certainly, little radio-controlled cars racing around life sized environments is nothing new- I quite enjoyed Re-Volt and RC Cars for much the same reason as I enjoy this release- but what truly sets this game apart is the creative approach to each level that provides a surprising wealth of variety.
You see, only a handful of the levels involve racing. Most of them are mini-games that challenge you to adapt to and/or abuse the environment in different ways. For example, one map has you barrelling down a ramp onto a freshly-waxed museum floor, spinning out of control towards an arrangement of clay Amphorae. The object is to knock as many of them down, bowling-pin style, as you can. Of course, they’re brittle and they shatter into a million pieces, but that’s half the fun.
Each broken vase is a point, and you have a set number of points you need to score a bronze, silver, or gold medal. Another great level involves co-operation with a team mate. You’re on a mini-golf course, with three ramps set apart in even intervals. At the top of each bump is a floating ball, and the object is to touch the ball, thus turning it to your teams colour, and from there get all three of the balls to match your teams colour. Of course, the other side is working to do the same, and thus its no easy task keeping the balls a uniform pigment. Each full alignment of colours is a point, the team with the most points wins.
Additionally, there are many power ups and weapons you can collect to inflict punishment or otherwise assist in your efforts. These cover a wide spectrum of choice: recharges that replenish your batteries, oil-slicks, targeted rockets, mortar-launchers, speed-boost launchers, “false-positive” dummy power ups that temporarily reverse your opponents controls if they pick one up by accident, energy shields, freeze-guns that encase your target in an ice-cube, energy drainers that sap the batteries of your nearest enemy, and so on, and so forth, and even etc for good measure. It’s so gratifying to nail another vehicle and watch it sail off the track, clattering to the floor of the diner you’re racing around. I highly recommend it. There are far more powers than these as well, so don’t feel I’ve spoiled all the fun.
Graphically, Mad Tracks isn’t going to be setting any new standards, but it’s by no means an ugly game. It looks very much like a game built on the Torque Engine; slightly dated but not disfiguringly so. The models are low in polygons, but not completely blocky. The textures are somewhat simplistic, but not “constructed in PaintShopPro” basic. The particle effects are pretty, but not as dazzling as a demure debutante. The best Mad Tracks has to boast of are the reflective surfaces which are excellent, especially on anything liquid. Of course, the flip side to not looking photorealistic is the performance; it runs like a well oiled dream on warm glass. That’s with all graphics options cranked as high as they can go, too.
Mad Tracks supports three play modes, one of which is required to unlock all the maps you can then re-play online, via LAN, or even head-to-head on the same computer. While this looks on the surface like a great effort to cover all bases, it does have its drawbacks. For starters, there is no server browser as such. If you wish to play online, you must select a map you want to play and then sit in the “waiting room” for an indeterminate amount of time until someone else happens to connect to that same map. Considering how many different levels there are in total, you can see how you might be waiting a long, long time until another person joins you.
Also, the ‘unlock’ restriction not only limits the maps you have access to, but even the play modes. “Battle” is off-limits until you’ve managed to track down hidden ‘gold flags’ that are obfuscated throughout various levels. This all adds up to arguably my biggest pet peeve in game design; forced replay. In my opinion, using a trick like that to extend the total play time is underhanded. I’ve never liked feeling like I had to forsake fun for grinding repetition in order to see all a release has to offer.
Despite this, I quite like Mad Tracks. It’s a tiny little blast of fun that sets out to do nothing more than entertain for awhile and it succeeds. The sound is admittedly somewhat thin, and there are the forced-replay issues, but I’m willing to be flexible with these setbacks for two reasons: 1- I have so much fun bombing around that it’s pretty easy to overlook these flaws, and 2- this is a small, budget game made by a small, budget team of developers. I’ve seen much worse offerings from much bigger and better funded teams than Load, Inc. I guess I’d have to say that if you loved any of the MarioKart games on your Nintendo, then you’ll love Mad Tracks too.
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