The grind is real. But honestly, what did we expect from an RPG? No, you’ve not wandered into the wrong review by mistake. We’ve ploughed more hours than we care to think about into Mantis Burn Racing, and if ever there was a simple-looking game that hides its considerable depths, Mantis Burn Racing is it.
This is a (more or less) top down racer in the grand tradition, tracing its heritage back to Up ‘N Down, Skidmarks, Super Sprint and other classics of that ilk. So, you know what to expect: light goes green, floor it, power slide maniacally around bends and scream to the finish line… But there’s much more to it than that – and this won’t be the last time Mantis Burn subverts our expectations.
Beneath the impeccably polished visuals – this is a very pretty game – there are a few surprises. The first is how weighty your racers feel. All classes of vehicle (light, medium and heavy) handle with a solidity that hints at an impressive physics engine working away under the bonnet.
The second is the beautifully balanced upgrade system. Each vehicle (you start with a rookie medium class car) comes with several slots, into which upgrades are fitted. Grippier tyres, beefier engines, slicker gearboxes for increased acceleration, better suspension, or a more powerful boost. Upgrades – and new, more powerful vehicles – are earned as you gain XP and level up. The clever bit is that upgrades are cumulative – bang in three engine upgrades and have the straight-line speed to take on anyone, but don’t be surprised if the others drop you at the start and leave you with some catching up to do.
Fill all your upgrade slots and you can upgrade your whole vehicle – transforming the chassis into something leaner and meaner – and opening more slots to fill to your hearts content.
It’s a neat system that lets you tailor each vehicle to your driving style. There’s no chopping and changing, though – once an upgrade is in, you can remove it but it’s lost, so you can’t move upgrades between your stable of racers. So choose carefully – experimentation comes at a price.
The third surprise is the grind, because if you want to compete much beyond your rookie season in the game’s single player ‘career’ mode, you’ll need to upgrade. That means grabbing every XP point you can to unlock upgrades and better vehicles. XP is awarded for finishing and winning races and, in a nod to Metropolis Street Racer’s Kudos, for drifting, drafting, smashing trackside objects, and overtaking. XP’s also awarded for grabbing ‘Gears’ – specific challenges in a race or series, for example winning without boost, or smashing a set number of objects.
There’s cash too – prize money that will go towards the cost of new vehicles. It’s yet another reason to keep grinding.
It wasn’t too long after first embarking on our rookie season that, after tearing through our first couple of seasons dashing from one race to the next, we found ourselves outclassed by the AI competition. Time for some upgrading then – and revisiting every previous race to wring every last drop of XP from each. The racing’s so enjoyable though, we didn’t mind. Initially slow and steady, giving plenty of time to get to grips with the nuanced handling, the action soon heats up as vehicles are upgraded, culminating in an almost breakneck challenge in later seasons.
Mantis Burn rewards precision, and precision only comes from learning every detail of the handful of tracks across the two distinct locations on offer (rural dustbowl and high-tech city streets). Knowing exactly how close you can drift to that pack of rocks, knowing exactly which corners are worth cutting, will be the difference between winning and… well, winning’s everything. Races come in eight flavours too – straightforward one-off sprint races, mini-series of two or three races, timed challenges, De’il tak the Hindmost races (where the last car on each lap is eliminated), and more.
Crucially, scrolling is buttery smooth and each of the three views on offer (effectively different levels of zoom) allows you to plan for the next corner, however out-of-control you might be as you careen towards it.
Alongside the single player career mode sits a four-player split screen mode that’s hugely fun. Mantis Burn’s almost the perfect game for some knockabout post-pub racing with your buddies, or settling (or causing) family arguments. It’s never less than riotous.
The real promise of Mantis Burn, though, might be found in its connected and online offering. The game wears its online heart on its sleeve, with weekly asynchronous challenges to pit ourselves against the best in the world, and promises of both free and paid DLC in the future. Whenever you’re not actually racing, a news ticker runs across the bottom of the screen, affording VooFoo Studios the opportunity to feed Mantis Burn news straight into your eyeballs.
And of course, this online offer includes competitive play for up to eight players, where you can take your tooled-up racing steeds online to race against the rest of the world.
Now that the game’s been out a few weeks, we can report that matchmaking is smooth and simple, and racing online is fast, smooth and has been lag and glitch free. There’s a refreshing lack of deliberately disruptive bumping and barging – what contact there is feels right; after all, rubbin’s racin’. In truth the solid physics engine and the sheer knockabout style means that pre-corner shunts just aren’t as disruptive as you would expect, and it all makes for a friendly – if not gentlemanly – racing experience.
VooFoo continues to work on this aspect of the game, looking to help players find each other more easily (and Xbox Lives Clubs and Looking For Group can help here, too) and it’s every bit as accessible as the single player game; match-made into a class where you don’t have a car, the game offers a loaner so you can still race and have fun – and it will encourage you to head back to the grind and earn one of your own. After all, the gladiatorial design – beef up your cars offline, race them online – encourages you to pit your own tooled-up creations against those of friends and strangers alike.
Mantis Burn Racing is a wonderful, meaty, thrilling and above all else fun experience. It’s not without its flaws – the electronic soundtrack that accompanies the game is just fine during racing, its pounding beat urging us on, but elsewhere it’s an annoyance, especially during the loading sequences which feel just a little on the ‘oh, just hurry up‘ side. The grind can, at times, feel a little soulless, too, although progressing through the game and coming across another track layout encourages sticking power.
Mantis Burn Racing should be high on any racing fan’s most wanted list. With great local racing, solid and improving match-made racing and the foundations of an interesting and joined-up online offering, Mantis Burn Racing is one of the indie finds of the year.
Mantis Burn Racing is available from the Store, priced at £11.99.
Brilliantly accessible, satisfyingly deep and fun online, Mantis Burn Racing is a racer's dream.
Mantis Burn Racing is brilliantly accessible, with a pick up and play design that’s difficult to resist. What we didn’t expect was a deep and long-lasting experience, with an upgrade system that’s powerful and offers up agonising choices. We’ve had great fun taking our tooled-up wheeled wonders onto the racetrack and challenging friends and strangers alike. We’re excited to see how VooFoo Studios builds on the connected foundations they’ve created.
If you’re a racing fan, Mantis Burn Racing must be on your list.