PocketCars: Early Access Impressions

Like the idea of controlling a RC car and racing against other RC cars, with rockets, mines, and other weapons at your disposal? Look no further than PocketCars.

Judging by the current Steam reviews, it seems the game has taken a lot of inspiration from the 1999 classic Re-Volt. We could say, in effect, PocketCars is the spiritual successor, albeit some adjustments have been made, such as the handling of the cars to give the game a more arcade-like experience.

I have to say, even for an early access title, the game is hell of a lot of fun. The cars handle relatively well, the environments are beautifully detailed, and the use of weapons and ramps make the gameplay exciting.

Gameplay

So far PocketCars has three different tracks: a western-themed map, a neighborhood street, and a harbor. These maps have been divided up into a few separate tracks, giving us twelve tracks in total to choose from. It’s pretty neat to see the world from the microscopic perspective of an RC car and see how big everything is in comparison to humans, from the life-sized mini-van in the neighborhood, to the tables and chairs that can be swept under in the western map.

We have six different cars to select, ranging from buggies, trucks, to muscle cars. These cars vary in stats, from their speed to the way they handle. So while muscle cars get the upper-hand in terms of speed, they’re also a lot more difficult to control than trucks. A cool aesthetic is these cars will get a bit dusty after some time in the western map.

The type of tire can also be chosen. They’re not just for aesthetic purposes; they’re actually designed for different types of terrain. One type of tire will be suited for off-road, such as the desert in the western map, whereas another will be more fit for pavement or wet roads.

In terms of weapons, there’s eight so far, including standard rockets, rockets that freeze the enemy, EMPs, mines, shields, cloaks, etc. While most of them are designed to slow down the car that got hit, others are more tactical in their use. Barriers will put a shield in front of your car that absorbs mines and can push barrels and other obstacles out of the way. Cloaks will turn your car in a mostly transparent state, making it difficult for others to track you down.

Unlike Mario Kart or other racing games with items, these weapons are chosen ahead of time before the race starts, and you can choose any two weapons. Using the weapons, however, still require driving over the appropriate pickup on the map; a gauge will fill up on the HUD as the yellow boxes are picked up. When the icon for the weapon lights up in color, said weapon can be used. When the white-colored gauges drops back to the bottom, you’ll have to fill the gauge back up by picking up the boxes again.

Green turbo pickups will allow the car to temporarily boost in speed. If you lost control and your car flips over, you can reset it or respawn it to a different area.

The game makes use of checkpoints. Your car has to pass through a yellow circle in order to keep your position on the track. Missing the checkpoint will require you to go back to it, otherwise you’ll be disqualified from the race. This is to prevent players from taking too extreme of a shortcut.

Of course, as the game continues development, more tracks, cars, weapons, and tires will be added over time.

Seasons

You’ll start off pretty barebones when first playing the game: one truck, one set of tires, and two weapons. By playing the Season mode, you’ll gradually unlock more goodies.

Season is the single-player campaign mode. There are over thirty-five events here. Race against other RC cars, or try to beat the clock with Time Attack. As you participate in these events, pay close attention to the objectives. This may include clearing the event within a certain amount of time or hitting an enemy with a rocket X amount of times. The more objectives that are cleared, the more events that are unlocked, as well as tires, weapons, cars, etc.

Whilst the objectives are relatively simple in nature, some of them can be difficult to achieve and may require some strategy. So let’s take the Time Attack mode, for instance. The event may have an objective to clear three laps in one minute and thirty seconds, and you’re having a bit of a struggle meeting that time by five seconds. Speed isn’t always the answer, though it may help to have a faster car along with the right tires. You can still equip your car with weapons in this mode; you’ll need to make good use of them with the green blocks that are scattered throughout the track. By hitting the blocks, you’ll shave a few seconds off the clock; each block hit takes one second away. I don’t recommend driving through them directly, though — doing this will slow your car down.

There are currently four different seasons to choose from, as well as a practice mode that allows you to get the feel of your car. Some events may have restrictions — they may only allow buggies, for instance, allow only a certain type of tire, or allow only tactical weapons. By the time you get to the third season or so, the races start to get a bit repetitive, but I’m sure as more content gets added it won’t get so dry.

Currently there are some events whose objectives are a bit quirky. There’s one event in particular that requires the use of EMPs — the EMP can’t be unlocked until a later season. Similarly, some events that only allow a certain weapon won’t allow you to proceed until you’ve actually got two weapons that are available for that category. No warning message or anything is given, forcing you to play another event until you’ve completed enough objectives.

Overall playing through the seasons will last about four hours; five if you’re a completion-ist and want to get all the objectives done.

Music

The soundtrack is killer. There’s a dozen tracks, one of which includes a heavy metal theme — it’s very much my jam when racing against other tiny cars with all these weapons flying around. The fact that the music stops playing when your car launches off a ramp or otherwise in the air makes it even more thrilling. It’d just be nice if there was a little notification at the start of the race what soundtrack is playing, and have the ability to skip tracks from the pause menu.

Sadly, after doing a bit of research, I’ve discovered this music isn’t of Gen90Software’s own. I don’t know if they actually paid the artists to use their music, or if they simply downloaded some royalty-free music that they put into the game. Bit of a shame, but they picked a good selection anyway.

In case players don’t like the soundtrack, or the idea of metal music playing in the background bothers them, they can put their own music in. The music files have to be in WAV format and placed in:

<Wherever your Steam games are installed>/PocketCars/PocketCars_Data/StreamingAssets/CustomMusic/

Just to give the custom music a run for its money, I bought the soundtrack for Them’s Fightin’ Herds, downloaded the files as WAV, put the files in the appropriate directory, and it worked great. Shuffling is even possible in the options menu.

Photo Mode

This is the really cool part for taking screenshots. Anytime during gameplay, the Photo mode can be accessed from the pause menu. The camera can be panned and zoomed anywhere in the map, and different scenery options can be configured. Grain and blur effects can also be applied here.

It can turn an ordinary screenshot into something like this:

Multiplayer

Online play is not currently implemented, but not too long ago a local splitscreen mode was added. Up to four players can compete against each other, using any of the tracks, weapons, tires, etc. that you unlocked from the Season mode. And, thanks to Steam Play Remote Together, the splitscreen mode allows the use of players to verse other friends online, though I haven’t personally tested this.

Additions/Improvements I’d Like To See

Looking at the roadmap the developers have set, it looks like there’s a few things already listed that I want: car customization, from paint color to decal design; and a map editor. I don’t know what the “Gymkhana” game mode is, but it would be interesting to find out what that is.

One thing that I definitely want to see is the option of having cars having a health gauge, and when the gauge depletes, that car is eliminated from the race. With this we could have a new game mode set for it: a deathmatch-style arena and a time limit set to see who earns the most points.

Another game mode we could have is an Elimination race. Not to the death; just have the last player in the race removed say, every thirty seconds, and keep going until there’s one car standing. It could make a tense game mode that keep you on your toes!

These cars are remotely-controlled, right? They shouldn’t last forever. They depend on a battery. Why not have some charging stations on the tracks, much like having to make a pitstop in the Formula 1 series to change tires or the like?

As far as maps are concerned, I know there’s more planned ahead, but in terms of what they could be like, maybe we could have a couple of indoor themes, like inside a garage or basement, along with various toys that have to be avoided, such as moving trains. For outdoors, we could have a golf course. I mean, the varieties are endless here, due to the microscopic world of these little RC cars. But these are just my ideas.

We need a notification for when someone hits or absorbs the mine you placed, as well as AI difficulty options, because they tend to be pretty easy as you get more experience playing the game.

This game needs a little better translation. Grammatical errors abound, and sometimes they’ll throw you off. “Hit 5 player with rocket”? Did you mean, “Hit any player with a rocket 5 times” or “Hit the player in 5th place with a rocket”? There’s also some emoticons in the description of the weapons. It’s not exactly professional. Maybe I’m just being too much of a grammar Nazi here; if anything English isn’t these guys’ mother tongue and I need a bit more sympathy for them.

Stats for tires are a bit cryptic. The greener the area, the better the tire is for that particular trait. I can’t really tell the difference between “Fluid” and “Solid”. Perhaps the tires that fall under “Fluid” are suitable for wet terrain, and “solid” for dryer conditions?

Minor nuisance, but it would be nice if in the options menu different tabs can be chosen with the shoulder buttons of a gamepad, and without having to confirm before the menu for said tab pops up. An option to hide the mouse cursor would be great too.

Speaking of gamepads, support for DS4 is great (even vibration works!), but the in-game button layout looks like this:

All of this being said, I am aware the game is early in its development cycle. Looking at the credits, there’s only three guys working on the main development of PocketCars, one guy who works on the UI, and a fifth who does the marketing. So they need time. They’re planning on leaving early access by the end of the year, but this will likely change depending on the feedback they get.

Linux Playability

Unity is a bit finicky on Linux. I say this because there are some games built with the Unity engine that, although the Steam store page says the game supports Linux, they’ll crash instantly on startup. Or they’ll crash/freeze at some point while playing. When playing PocketCars, however, I’m happy to report I haven’t had any of those issues. It just works.

Linux support for PocketCars was added a few months ago. Performance can be a bit demanding on the highest graphics preset; the system requirements on the Steam store page recommends at least 6 GB of RAM, an i7, and a 1070. The framerate has dipped occasionally on my end as low as 30 FPS, depending on where my car is on the map, but generally the game hovers around 45-60 FPS. I recommend using GameMode if you have lower-end hardware.

I definitely recommend giving PocketCars a shot. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a lot of fun, even now, and the Linux support is great! Send the game some love!

Note: I may have another review out once the game leaves early access, just to examine how it has evolved over time.

Note (continued): Steam key provided by developer.Version reviewed: 0.61

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