The premise of Mantis Burn Racing is awesome, tapping into the deep-rooted nostalgia many of us have for afternoons spent playing Micro Machines and Death Rally. Top down racers are a bit of a lost art you see, forgotten in the race to render the stitching on car seats as realistically as possible. They’re a far simpler beast that focus purely on the mechanics behind racing. So you could say I was a little bit excited by Mantis Burn Racing. It’s channeling Micro Machines by way of the supremely underrated Motorstorm RC.
And it does come so, so close to emulating these greats but unfortunately falls down at some major hurdles. First of all, let’s start with what Mantis Burn Racing is. It’s a top-down racer with some gorgeously realised visuals that is about the racing first and foremost. There are no weapons, pick-ups or power-ups. It’s just you, the track, and an array of opponents. It’s no frills racing, although unfortunately it’s no thrills to match. That’s not a knock on it not having weapons and power-ups. Quite the opposite in fact. Motorstorm RC is in my opinion the perfect example of how a game like this can be done and it’s no-frills itself.
Mantis Burn Racing falls because the racing just isn’t good. Cars feel nice and there’s a decent level of control but races all to quickly become monotonous affairs. There’s precious little down-to-the-wire racing to truly elevate it. You’re barely ever neck and neck with a racer heading towards the finish line, and you’re not forced to shave milliseconds off your time by perfecting a particular hairpin bend. It’s too safe. Too by-the-numbers for its own good, leaving Mantis Burn Racing, at its worst, feeling flat and dull. It definitely gets better on this front by the end, but Mantis Burn expects you to work far too hard to get to the quality content.
The no-frills approach extends to Mantis Burn Racing’s campaign. Quite a chunky game, all said and done, it begins with you being introduced to a faceless mechanic who guides you through the missions. He’s got all the personality of a phone book though, dryly laying out controls and explaining events. From here you progress from race to race, attempting to earn gold medals while accomplishing three bonus challenges. These are pretty standard fare such as win without boosting or drift a kilometre in a race. The more you complete the more gears you get, with a set number of gears needed to unlock the last event in any given season.
Throughout the campaign you’ll rack up experience with each race completed. Every so often this will unlock new cars and upgrades. The upgrades are a real pet peeve of mine for any game which prides itself on challenging the player to best themselves. Why would I bother trying to win a particular race or complete a challenge when I can just come back with better acceleration and do it easily later? Challenges geared towards specific vehicles without upgrades are so much more rewarding. The developer then knows exactly what car you have and what it’s capable of, tailoring the challenge towards this. I know some people love having upgrade systems in any game they can get their hands on though, so perhaps this won’t bother you so much. For me it spoils the purity of Mantis Burn Racing.
Meanwhile track design in MBR swings wildly from memorable to downright boring, often in the span of a single lap. One moment I was climbing a mountain top and could see the track spirally away below me. It added a fantastic sense of depth to the world that I was taken aback by, and it’s a trick I’ve never really seen used in a top-down racer. A few turns later I was stuck on some drab streets with wide lanes and repetitive right-angled turns.
In any top-down racer the key component to racking up fast lap times is memorising the track layout. You can’t see all that far ahead of you so you need to anticipate what’s coming up next. It’s why the best tracks are always anywhere between 20-60 seconds for a lap. Any longer than this and you’re liable to get bored, as well being unable to recall the layout. Unfortunately Mantis Burn Racing strays into the latter a little too often for my taste. It’s not a good sign when you’re looking at the time and wondering when this race is going to be over. There’s also not a great number of tracks. 16, all said and done, each of which you’ll potentially have to race on dozens of times throughout the course of the campaign. Again, it’s fine margins but it really does stunt MBR’s potential.
Along with the career mode Mantis Burn Racing also online racing. Unfortunately actually finding a game is easier said than done. Presumably there just aren’t many players out there. Fortunately this is made up for by the inclusion of split-screen local multiplayer. This is when Mantis Burn Racing is at its absolute best, provided you’ve all mastered the track design so one player isn’t just zooming ahead.
All of that is say that Mantis Burn Racing isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just that with the dozens of others games vying for my attention, I really never felt like I wanted to boot it up. There isn’t that pull to keep you coming back for more. Which is a real shame because there’s some great racing lurking within here and it’s probably the best looking game of its type out there. It just lacks that certain something which makes games of this ilk compelling to play. When you’re actual races are a little bit dull, perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board.