Preview: Space Dust Racers

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Space Dust Racers boasts a level of polish that belies its indie origins. It is the product of Space Dust Studios, five industry veterans (“gone rogue” as they like to put it) from Melbourne with worldwide experience including at EA, Visceral Games, Crystal Dynamics, Melbourne House and Transmission Games.  The touch of AAA development shines through in all aspects; just looking at screenshots you can see the attention to detail being given to environments and characters. Rest assured, that quality goes beyond just looks.

Inspired by Mario Kart, Micro Machines, Mashed and Crash Team Racing, Space Dust Studios has created a throwback, weapons-based multiplayer racer with a few modern touches to spice things up. It most resembles Mashed, the 2004 Xbox/PS2 party favourite that itself mixed Mario Kart and Micro Machines into a delicious cocktail of rockets and ramming. A grid of colourful intergalactic racers take off with no intent on crossing a finish line first, instead victory is achieved through ramming, weaponry and flat out speed; racers who drop too far behind the leader and off the screen are eliminated.

Space Dust Racers boasts some tight racing controls and a well balanced selection of offensive options to go with its good looks. The arsenal contains the usual suspects; mines, homing rockets, machine gun, flamethrowers; all of which are picked up from Mario Kart style boxes (though they are colour coded to give you some agency in what you pick up) and for the most part are single use. Weapons can also be dropped to activate a limited shield, bringing another element of strategy to the battle.

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Indeed for a simple premise there is potential for high level play in Space Dust Racers. Each car has a bunny hop that can be used to elevate jumps, avoid mines and crucially to crush anybody you land on. Once we figured this out the game changed dramatically, but it is just one of the advanced strategies. Cars don’t lose any pace reversing, allowing the leader of the race to turn and fire rockets or a machine gun at his pursuers, and creating the chance for miracle saves if you are turned around by a rocket or a well timed nudge.

Yet no amount of high level play can save you from the carnage of 16 player multiplayer, which is where the modern touch comes in. While 16-player online racing will be supported on all platforms, its PC will let you use smartphones as controllers. From all accounts the smartphone controls are responsive and smooth which could open up some amazing possibilities in the PC multiplayer gaming space.

Senior Artist on Space Dust Racers, Grigor Pedrioli, described it as the team’s attempt to bring to their children the style of games they enjoyed; the couch multiplayer games that dominated the N64/Dreamcast/Gamecube era. Everything in game is geared to replicating that experience from the cartoon appearance of the racers to the Nintendo-style touches like characters shaking their fist at you as you ram them to the huge number of modifiers you can use to customise the race. You can use modifiers to tailor the game to hardcore play or provide plenty of assistance to stragglers; undoubtedly there will be some amazing game variants possible.

At this stage my only complaints would be a lack of feedback in the UI for who killed whom and matching racers to the scoreboard, and not having the traditional Mashed/Micro Machines scoring for elimination order, instead you get points only for eliminating another player (another mode credits all knockouts to the leader, an interesting twist). The game itself is rock solid, shaping up as an excellent, modern take on a classic genre, and even without the promise of never again having to worry about how to entertain 7 people with a single game I would be excited for Space Dust Racers. That it could become the go to party game is just a delicious bonus.

Space Dust Racers is due out in early 2016 for PC, with console releases for PS4 and Xbox One to follow mid-year. You can find its official website here.