Fresh racer Trailblazers plays like a stylish mash-up of Splatoon, F-Zero, and Jet Set Radio

null

Ever get realistic racer fatigue? I'm afflicted by it myself: I can only enjoy a hardcore racing game like Gran Turismo or Forza once every few years, because anything more would feel too rote and repetitive. If you're like me, you much prefer the unorthodox racing games that try to do something different with the genre - stuff like the item management of Mario Kart, the aggressive slow-mo carnage of Burnout, or the destructive setpieces in Split/Second. So I'm immediately taken by Trailblazers, a new arcade racer headed to PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC that takes the core concept of Splatoon onto the track and looks great doing it. 

A need for tactile speed

Feel the road under your hovercraft (somehow) by playing with one of the best racing wheel peripherals.

Rather than putting all the focus on pole position, Trailblazers is designed around teams of racers working together to paint the track and boost each other forward. The main mode is a 3v3 contest where every racer covers the road with splotches of paint; driving over your team's color will boost your speed, with F-Zero levels of supersonic velocity if you can drive perfectly. Players win and lose as a team, and the victor isn't clear until the very end, when everyone's scores are tallied - and just about everything rewards you with points, like painting the track, painting over the enemy color, boosting, and your position during each lap (which eliminates those infuriating Mario Kart moments where a race spent in first can be ruined by sabotage at the last second). You'll need to steer - and plan - with the best of them if you want to win, because clumsily colliding with the wall will make your precious point combo fizzle.

The details offer a lot of strategic complexity, but the general goal is easy to grasp: paint the track your color and prevent your opponents from doing the same. That premise, combined with Trailblazer's delightfully vibrant aesthetics, make it immediately stand out from the racing game competition - exactly what the small team at indie indie developer Supergonk set out to do. Ben Ward, founder and lead programmer at Supergonk, cut his teeth at now-defunct studio Bizarre Creations working on fan favorites like Project Gotham Racing and Blur, and now he's hoping to revitalize the offbeat racing scene he loves with Trailblazers.

"I think the racing genre has become a bit derivative," says Ward. "What I liked about PGR and Blur is that they did new things - they remixed the basic idea of a racing game. No offense intended to the Forzas, Need for Speeds, and Gran Turismos, but if you took screenshots of those games and lined them up, they kind of look the same. I think they've just over-optimized; they've gone down one road, and everything's a realistic car, realistic track, semi-realistic physics. That's what the racing genre is right now; people are obsessed with framerate, because there's no gameplay innovation to talk about, in my opinion. We [at Supergonk] wanted to get back to racing, but do something different and innovate."

Besides the unique twist on the moment-to-moment racing, the general vibe of Trailblazers immediately evokes Sega's cult classic Jet Set Radio franchise. Everything oozes that same funky fresh flavor, from the bold use of color on the track designs (even before all the paint) to the vehicles themselves, which look like classic cars modified into turbocharged hovercraft. Trailblazers even has a wonderfully varied cast of drivers from across the galaxy, each with their own unique stats and all starring in the personality-filled solo career mode. "It's about fun. We're not making a big, serious world here - it's just something that's fun," says Ward. "The art style reflects that; the character designs reflect that. We just tried to mix it up as much as we could." Best of all, the soundtrack (all licensed from indie Future Funk artists on Soundcloud) is clearly inspired by Jet Set vibes, with its quirky beats and catchy melodies. "Jet Set Radio is for sure one of my favorite games, and the soundtrack is the greatest video game soundtrack ever made, which I think is indisputable," laughs Ward. 

Beyond all the charming presentation, the racing itself feels great, with tons of decisions to make at any given moment. Do you paint the main racing line - typically the inside corners - to set up the fastest avenue? Do you paint away from the line, so that you're less likely to be painted over? Do you try to paint over your opponents, or prioritize the single-use hoops dotting the tracks that shoot out your team's color for an immediate chunk of boost? Alternatively, do you let your teammates do all the paint work and simply focus on maintaining boost for as long as possible? It's a lot to think about amidst all the excitement. 

"Most racing games are just skill tests," Ward muses. "Make sure you press the accelerator and the brake at the right time, and follow the racing line. That's all you really have to think about. With Trailblazers, we've tried to introduce this layer of strategy. There's a million different ways of analyzing how the race is going, and how you think the other team is doing. It's more ambiguous; it's not a foregone conclusion that you can do one tactic and it's going to win the race." There's also tons of variability to your approach depending on the track, whether it's a tropical vista or a futuristic city straight out of F-Zero. There are 10 tracks total, but each one can be played forward, backward, or in mirrored versions of both directions for a total of 40 variations. "Racing them in reverse is a totally different experience. Backwards is 100-percent different; if you have a jump going one way, we've had to build little ramps on the sides so you can race backwards," says Ward.

To complement its pick-up-and-play appeal, Trailblazers is also primed for couch co-op and competition, with splitscreen modes that also work for online races. Better still, everything is unlocked from the get-go in the custom races and online multiplayer, so you don't need to grind for anything in the pursuit of a full roster. From what I've played, Trailblazers has all the makings of a highly replayable arcade racer, and I can say with certainty that it accomplishes Ward and Supergonk's mission of making something enticingly unique. You'll be able to take Trailblazers for a paint-splattering spin when it comes to PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC at what will likely be a budget price sometime in May 2018.

Looking for more exciting games on the near horizon? Check out our list of the best new games of 2018!