Mantis Burn Racing is an attempt to revitalise a genre that keeps coming and going - the top down racer. Once made famous by Codemaster's iconic Micro Machines, it's a genre that's more recently fallen out of favour - the last really big top down racer we can think of was Mashed, and that was two console generations ago... Feeling like it had been too long since a game delivered the pick up and play arcade action and over the top drifting the genre was famous for, a little studio from Birmingham decided the time was right to try and breathe life back into an entire genre - and they came up with Mantis Burn Racing.
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On the surface, Mantis Burn Racing ticks almost every box you'd hope for from a game that's intended to become a party classic. It has suitably drift-happy handling (you'll be sliding all over the place in no time), it has support for four player split-screen - something practically unheard of on the PS4 and Xbox One, and three different classes of vehicles for you to get stuck into. The only problem is, the multiplayer here isn't actually all that great - it's single player that's the real star.
While split-screen may be something of a rarity on consoles, Mantis Burn Racing gives you a handy reminder of just how technically challenging it is to pull off. While drawing eight cars drifting around a dirt filled track may be pretty tricky, having to draw 16, 24 or 32 doing the same thing is even more challenging. Doing a game in split-screen means drawing everything up to four times, and that puts a lot more pressure on the console.
As you've probably guessed, then, Mantis Burn Racing really suffers on some tracks when you're playing in split-screen - to the point where it ends up not being all that easy to play. Particularly at the start of the tracks, where the cars are all jostling for position, and dirt's flying everywhere, the game seems to really start chugging, introducing an awkward lag between your controls and the game's response, making what's an otherwise twitch-y game that bit trickier to play.
Sadly, there's a distinct lack of options for customising your local multiplayer fests, too. Rather than being able to choose how many AI opponents you go against, you can either go against a full spread (so, eight cars on the track at once), or none. While there's an option that looks like it would let you change the weather, the only option you've got here is dry. And while you can set the difficulty level, you can't set what cars your opponents go in - something which makes a big difference in the world of Mantis Burn.
There are three types of car on offer here - essentially, light, medium and heavy. Light cars zip all over the place and have great acceleration, but a poor top speed; medium are good all rounders; while heavies take forever to build up momentum - but once they're there, you won't stop them. As if they needed any more help, heavies are also the only ones who can open shortcuts - try and smash through a barrier in one of the lighter cars, and you'll just bounce off, as we found to our own dismay. It seems a bit of an unfair advantage to give to what's already a pretty overpowered car, and the fact that other cars can simply follow them through the hole they've made never quite feels like compensation enough.
It's worth noting, too, that even on easy, these computer controller opponents will take shortcuts, and generally do all they can to beat you - which isn't something we'd usually expect to see from an easy opponent.
From a pure numbers perspective, you could be forgiven for thinking that Mantis Burn Racing looks a little bit light on actual stuff. With just eight tracks, each of which is based around one of two environments - and with an asking price of £12 strapped on - we'll admit, we were a little bit worried too - but the game's single player has enough stuff in it to keep you playing for hours on end.
Drawn up like a career mode, the game's single player is a series of events designed to test your metal. Here, you'll play against a series of increasingly tricky opponents across a huge variety of levels, and combinations of modes, creating a sequence of 7 "seasons" of events for you to play your way through. From time trials to accumulator races (everyone earns points based on their position, with the one in first earning the fastest - first to 10,000 wins), from eliminators (last place gets knocked out each lap) to overtaking challenges, there's a surprising amount of variety here from a fairly limited set of tracks - and it has that one more go appeal in spades.
In order to unlock the next event, you'll need to place third or higher - but each race has a number of other rewards on offer too. Almost everything you do in each race will earn you XP - from drifting to drafting, from jumping to crashing (yes, even crashing earns you points - if you crash into something destructible), so you'll be slowly adding to your experience total with each and every race. Earn enough experience, and you'll level up, unlocking upgrades for your cars, and even brand new vehicles to buy.
Each race also has up to six "gears" on offer, although rather than a currency, these are instead used to limit your progression through the game. In order to unlock the final race of the first season, for example, you'll need to have amassed 30 gears, which you can gain by completing the three gear challenges in each race. Asking you to do various tasks, from spending more than 4 seconds in the air, to hitting a certain lap time, smashing up a certain amount of stuff, or even asking you to win without using the boost, these gear challenges provide a great way of keeping things feeling fresh, and add that all important replay value - although we're not convinced they should be required for you to progress through the game.
While we may have been concerned about the seeming lack of tracks, there's actually more variety here than you might expect. While Sand Town is called Sand Town, and therefore you'd expect it to be full of pure tundra and sand dunes, each track still feels sufficiently different from the others. One takes you through the middle of a giant refinery, full of hairpin bends up badly signposted ramps; another's set almost entirely in a giant network of caves - although this perhaps isn't a good thing, as the visibility here is really poor, and a single mistake is often all it takes for you to go head on into a wall, and have the entire group of enemies come shooting past you.
While the local multiplayer may not be quite up to the level we'd hoped, and we are more than a little bit disappointed there's nothing in the way of split-screen online play (letting you take a friend in the same room online with you would be great), what Mantis Burn gets wrong in the multiplayer, it makes up for with one heck of a single player career. Although the difficulty level may leave us a little bit stumped at times, and we don't half wish there was a way to view a leaderboard of just your friends' times (surely it can't be that much harder to program in?) to give the game even more "one more go" appeal, this is still worth a look if you're after an arcade racer - especially as it's absolutely packed with trophies to unlock.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4