Deja Vu! I’ve been to this place before!
Outside the occasional episode of Top Gear giving me a good chuckle back in the day, I’m not a fan of cars. It probably doesn’t help that a lot of my experiences behind the wheel are through video games, and I’m not talking about your simulated experiences. No, I’m talking about the ones with Italian plumbers and orange marsupials throwing bombs and shelled reptiles at each other. Out of all of those types of racers I’ve played throughout my life, my favorite would have to be Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. A truly unique racing title with tons of recognizable characters, responsive controls, and some of the best race tracks I’ve had to pleasure to drift, sail and fly through! The folks who developed it were Sumo Digital and they have a rather impressive track record across a variety of genres! So to see this well-established developer assisting a newly found team by the name of Lucky Mountain Games is a big deal! Their collaboration has led to the release of the subject of today’s review: Hotshot Racing! So did this joined effort pay off? Let’s take a look!
Yes, I’m just as shocked as you are! A story in a racing game?!? Well, that’s not strictly true. Hotshot Racing’s eight playable characters all have backstories and reasons for taking part in these races. They can range from wanting to impress a loved one to just wanting to show off their skills. When in the races themselves, your character will regularly make quips during the race. This could be seen as annoying to some, but I found it quite charming and it helped to add more individuality to the cast.
Upon finishing first in a Grand Prix, you’re given a short ending sequence showing what your selected character does after winning. These are all minor additions, but they help flesh out each character and serve as a great way to find the character you’d like to play as in other modes.
Despite appearances, this isn’t your standard racing game. HotShot Racing’s aim was to replicate the tone and feel of classic arcade racing titles, most notably, SEGA’s Daytona USA. It’s a lofty goal to be sure and I’d say they mostly succeeded on that front!
Unless you’re expecting the ability to jump out of your car and complete the track on foot, you have access to all the features you’d come to expect from any racer. You can accelerate, brake, change your viewing angle, drift, etc. That last point in particular is crucial to do well in races.
By drifting and utilizing your opponent’s slipstream, a boost meter is built up. There are four bars to fill and once one of them is filled, you can spend one to gain a quick boost of speed. In other arcade racers, you usually gain a boost right after a drift, but this system lets you bank boosts for when you really need them. This helps add a layer of strategy to races; do you use a boost as soon as you get it or do you bide your time and save them up for the final lap? This kind of system is one I love and adds a lot of depth to a rather simple racing title!
The steering is tight and pulling off successful drifts feels fulfilling, even if you’ll often think that your car is comparable to a bar of soap. It’s very easy to oversteer when drifting and you’ll often find yourself drifting in the opposite direction when you intend to straighten your car after a successful turn. This is made worse by your car’s lack of weight. If your car is bashed or nicked by a rival’s vehicle, don’t be surprised if you find yourself spinning out of control or briefly defying gravity before crashing back down. It’s frustrating when this happens and ruins the pace of the game.
This isn’t a problem when racing against human players; against the AI though, it’s a whole other story! The AI must be thinking this is Twisted Metal since they’ll frequently attempt to bash into you or use aggressive tactics to ruin your positioning. That and there is a huge rubber banding problem that only exasperates this issue. For those unaware, rubber banding is a term in racing games when the AI runs on an adaptive difficulty scale. If you’re doing poorly, the AI will make it easy to catch back up to them. If you’re in the lead, they’ll be on your tail for a majority of the race. It does admittedly make for more thrilling races, but their aggressive playstyle almost ruins it.
Even with these issues, I can’t deny that speeding at blistering speeds and timing your drifts just right makes all the frustrations worth it! This is a game of skill; there’s no item box here to help you get back in the lead. You’ve got to learn the mechanics, master all the tracks, and efficiently use your boosts to do well. All of this makes Hotshot Racing a very fulfilling experience once you’ve got to grips with its mechanics!
All the modes you’ve come to expect in a racing game are present and accounted for in Hotshot Racing. Grand Prix, Time Attack, and Online modes are all here and are what you expect. Grand Prix sees you racing four tracks against seven other racers with the goal to plant your feet on the top podium. Time Attack is all about getting the best time on each track, with the option to race against a staff ghost. Online mode is… well, online play with other players. This is likely where a lot of your playtime will be, just as long as there are players to race against.
At least on the Switch version, I noticed a severe lack of players playing online. It regularly took upwards of five minutes to get a race started thanks to quick and ranked matches requiring four players before a race can start. Thankfully, any private or public lobbies you create/join only require two players, but don’t come with any AI opponents to fill out the empty spots. The net-code itself is quite good though and makes online play the best way to play outside of local versus play.
But let’s say you don’t want to simply race to the finish; Hotshot Racing has got you covered on that front too! Cops & Robbers sees one player playing as a police officer stopping robbers collecting money by passing through checkpoints. Each robber has a health bar and once depleted, they become an officer themselves and can now chase other robbers. This mode can be pretty hectic and even if you lose all your health, you’re still in the game and helps keep everyone involved. The previously mentioned aggressive AI is more suited for this mode and helps make the mode a ton of fun! If regular racing has gotten dull for you, this will definitely serve as a refreshing change of pace!
Drive or Explode is a mode that takes inspiration from the movie Speed; a 1994 film. Your goal is to keep your speed at a certain level and if it gets too low, you’re at risk of exploding and getting eliminated. Compared to Cops & Robbers, this mode isn’t as strong, since it feels like a standard race but with a health bar. The gimmick of your speed increasing as the race goes on is one I appreciate, but it isn’t enough to have me play it again anytime soon.
Outside of Time Attack, each of these modes offer three difficulty modes. These function similarly to Mario Kart’s CC modes; the higher the difficulty, the faster everyone’s car will drive. On the normal difficulty, your top speed is 150 mph. On the highest, it’s a staggering 190 mph! This makes doing tight corners a lot tougher, but leads to more exhilarating races, making it worth your time to get better at the game to eventually master these faster speeds!
As a full package, it’s very serviceable. While I had fun for a while, the novelty died down over time, and without an active online player base, it’s doubtful I’ll return to the race track. This is because of the lackluster unlockables the game has. By completing races, you earn money that you can use for cosmetic items. There are even some in-game achievements that can unlock more customization options. I applaud Lucky Mountain Games and Sumo Digital for attempting to add incentives to keep playing, but these unlockables are quite mediocre and barely change how your car and racer look.
When you first saw screens of this game, those of you old enough probably got a massive hit of nostalgia for the classic racing games of yore. That was no accident. Hotshot Racing has a very striking visual style, using flat colors and blocky models to evoke the arcade racers of the mid-late 90s. Add a modern lighting engine along with a longer draw distance to this retro aesthetic and you have a game that has a visual style all its own!
Though one aspect of the visual presentation doesn’t work nearly as well: the character models. Good god do they look horrifying! I’m not sure if it’s the overly blocky models, the unnaturally stiff faces, or a combination of both, but they all look they could have used a bit more work. I’m grateful that you don’t see them that often when racing; that would have been rather offputting, to say the least.
In stark contrast, the stages are much more appealing! There are 16 courses to master with all of them offering mirror versions of them as well. You’ll find yourself speeding through a variety of tracks, from the lush jungles of Thailand to the bustling Las Vegas strip. While the tracks only use four themes for all their racecourses, the attempt to diversify them is evident and much appreciated.
This minimalist visual style serves does serve a more practical function though and it’s the framerate. Framerates and Switch games are sort of a touchy subject. Sometimes the framerate is inconsistent between docked and handheld modes or the Switch port’s framerate pales in comparison to other versions. Lucky Mountain Games and Sumo Digital must have been aware of this since a lot of the promotion of Hotshot Racing sold the fact that the game runs at a smooth 60 frames a second. Does their claim hold water? Absolutely! I mostly played the game in handheld mode and was very impressed with its consistent performance! I should stress that I played in a singleplayer environment. Playing multiplayer via split-screen may be different.
The audio is also a highlight! Hotshot Racing has a very energetic soundtrack, regularly using bouncy and fast-paced music to really set the tone. While you likely won’t be falling over yourself to get these tracks onto your MP3 player of choice, it serves its purpose of heightening your experience on the race track! There’s also an announcer who spouts the usual racing quotes you’ve come to expect, such as “3,2,1 Go!” at the start of races. It goes a step further with him commenting on the track you’re playing, with his comments about dinosaurs being on one of the tracks being a highlight.
When it’s all put together, I had fun with Hotshot Racing, but I don’t see myself coming back to it anytime soon. It’s by no means a poorly designed title; far from it actually! If you’re yearning for a racing game that aims to replicate the arcade games of yore, you’re going to have a blast! Especially if you’ve got some friends to join in the fun! Though if you plan to go in solo, you’ll have to deal with overly aggressive AI and an obtrusive amount of rubber banding. If you were disappointed with Team Sonic Racing last year, Hotshot Racing is sure to restore your faith in Sumo Digital!
HOTSHOT RACING IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Curve Digital for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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