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As for that standard arsenal, only five weapons were available to try in this demo, but we’re assured that there will be 'many more' in the final game. There is currently a speed boost, a homing rocket, a 'Puffer Fish' mine, an opponent-slowing three-shot ice projectile, and a beehive. The beehive is the equivalent of Mario Kart's blue shell, but with an important difference. It can be avoided, praise the heavens.
When fired, it zooms ahead to the front of the pack, where it creates three bubbles of (what will likely be) bees. The graphics for it are yet to be completed, but the concept is already in place. Unlike the accursed Blue Shell though, you can drive around the three bubbles if you're good enough. And refreshingly, that's true of all the weapons. Everything can be countered if you have the skill and the right item. Which is exactly as it should be.
While such advanced tactics mean that expert players are likely to zoom off ahead of newcomers at first, our extended play-time revealed what seems to be a pleasingly fair degree of balance. Even when playing against the devs - who were using all their multi-barrel-roll tricks and mysterious, arcane 'secondary drift' throttle feathering techniques - we still managed to keep up and even win. It's close, it's competitive and many a race ends with a couple of tenths of a second covering the top two or even three finishers.
We played the two tracks on multiplayer over and over again for several hours, learning the tracks, the intricacies of the weapons' advanced techniques, and how to do the tricks. There are also said to be extra secrets, like special power-ups hidden in trackside objects that you can find by blasting them. And we got royally trounced when one dev used an ultra-secret hidden shortcut to beat us on the Super Monkey Ball track. Meh. But when we find it, we reserve the right to change our reaction to ‘Awesome’.
In-keeping with the traditional ‘fun for everyone’ philosophy of the noble kart racer, there will be several tiers of engine class. We tried the highest (we know what we're doing, after all), although there will be slower tiers for the less experienced, with the suggestion of more hidden beyond the top level if you're good enough to unlock them. Currently, all the characters' handling attributes are the same, which we actually like, but we're told there will eventually be some differences between them with regard to top speed, cornering grip and even how quickly the All-Star meter fills up.
The game is still early in development, but if this rough and ready preview code can keep us playing for hours (and it can), engrossed in learning its hidden depths while enjoying the sumptuous visuals and pleasant sensation of speed, things are looking very promising indeed. 'Easy to play and deep to learn' is the classic Sega philosophy on show here, and developer Sumo Digital obviously love the game’s subject matter just as much as we do.
Look out for more on this one in the coming weeks.