The latest entry in a popular series of kart racers you’ve probably never heard of, KartRider: Drift recently concluded its third Closed Beta ahead of its anticipated 2022 release. As a long-time fan of the genre, I was excited and fortunate enough to take the game out for a spin during this Closed Beta period. Here are some of my first impressions from that experience.
The two things that struck me most during the game (besides water bombs and banana peels from vengeful opponents) were its visual style and free-to-play nature.
Like many long-time console gamers, when I first laid eyes upon the game, I thought, “Is ModNation Racers back?” Alas, that was not to be. But it does say a lot about the game’s cutesy, colourful, and mascot-focused design.
There’s a lively, toys-to-life feel of the game’s visuals that can be seen everywhere, from the drivers to vehicle designs, and its many racetracks and locales. KartRider: Drift, just like its various predecessors in the KartRider series, places a big emphasis on customisation. So much of the game is built around completing races and mini-game challenges to earn new characters, vehicle customisations, or emotes – to show off during a race’s biggest moments.
Be that getting a new happy, smiley-face emote to gloat in the face of the plebs you’ve just outclassed in Item Mode. Or a sad, whiny-face to bemoan your opponents’ unfair and unreal racing skills in Speed Mode. KartRider: Drift wants players to feel fully represented by their player avatars and decked out rides each time they find themselves at the starting line.
This naturally, lends itself to the game’s free-to-play nature quite well. Participating in and winning races lands you new cosmetic rewards and, eventually, vehicles.
Spending time with the mini-game challenges helps you learn how to best utilise the game’s various item mechanics, including a sprint challenge focused on teaching you how to use the magnet that allows you to lasso and swing off opponents in a race and a water bomb tossing challenge that teaches you how to take out as many enemies as you can in a single hit. Completing and earning three stars on these challenges lands you, you guessed it, new cosmetic rewards and vehicles—what a surprise.
As is the standard for free-to-play models these days, the game also features a Racing Pass that unlocks rewards the more you play. And just like other games, like Halo Infinite, for example, there’s a Premium Racing Pass to unlock higher rarity (and more stylish items) at the cost of some real-world money.
Not So “Free-To-Play”?
But that’s also where my expectations for the game begin to temper. Even in my short time with the game during the Beta, I noticed that vehicles don’t just have different stats, but some are just straight-up better than others.
Which got me feeling quite sceptical about how free-to-play the nature of the game will actually be if real-world money is going to have a substantial impact on the player’s experience and odds to win races. Subsequently, scouring the internet for tidbits on previous KartRider games only deepened my doubts as this has been flagged as a complaint by fans with earlier entries in the series.
Stuck In Second Gear
Elsewhere, my Beta experience was spent exclusively with Item Mode, the game’s more standard kart racer affair. And while I would dare not proclaim to be a master item user by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve rarely played item-focused kart racers that feel so “rubber bandy” and frustrating. Through a combination of the racing mechanics and the constant torrent of hazardous items flying into you, racing in Item Mode just wasn’t very enjoyable.
It seemed like other players and I were constantly being bombarded by items throughout each race. To the point where races felt like being stuck inside an item-pinata that was being beaten to a pulp by an annoying five-year-old for three-quarters of the race, before the actual racing took place and settled things just before the finishing line.
To that end, I’d just like to note, if you were looking for a free-to-play Mario Kart, this is unlikely to be it.
That said, if the game’s Speed Mode does well to live up to the highly technical, Initial D-style drifting mechanics of its predecessors (which I understand to not only be its most popular mode but has amassed a significant Esports scene and following in Korea, China, and Taiwan), then perhaps it will give me a reason to return for another ride at launch.
KartRider: Drift is slated to be Nexon’s (this name will likely be familiar to all the MapleStory fans out there) latest renewed attempt in taking this Asian phenom to global audiences. And with the game already featuring steady and stable cross-play across all major platforms during the latest Beta, the stage appears to be set.
While I still have reservations about the gameplay and Drift’s free-to-play design, this could be worth checking out for those unwilling to fork out money for more competent and complete packages like Mario Kart 8, Crash Team Racing Nitro-fueled, Team Sonic Racing, or even Hot Wheels Unleashed (which itself recently sold over one million copies worldwide, wow).
Visuals courtesy of Nexon.