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The New Wave of Indie Racing Games

Three new racing games from indie teams have recently taken the grid. We put them through their paces and see who takes pole position.

Art of Rally
Publisher: Funselektor
Developer: Funselektor
Available on: Steam, Epic Store, GOG
Played on Steam
Copy provided by PR

Hotshot Racing
Publisher: Curve Digital
Developer: Lucky Mountain / Sumo Digital
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam, Switch
Played on Switch
Copy provided by PR

Inertial Drift
Publisher: PQube
Developer: Level 91 Entertainment
Available on: PS4, Switch, Xbox One, Steam
Played on Steam
Copy provided by publisher

A few months ago, something strange happened in the release calendar. Three games released, almost simultaneously, with some obvious similarities. Hotshot Racing, Inertial Drift and art of rally; three racing titles made by indie teams, born initially from a single developer, all throwing back to a golden age of 90s racing titles.

I decided to investigate further. I played all three titles, and spoke to the developers about what inspired them, and their thoughts about the three titles releasing together. Sadly, the developers at Funselektor didn’t get back to me at the time of writing, but Michael O’Kane of Level 91 Entertainment and Trevor Ley of Lucky Mountain Games were happy to talk to me about Inertial Drift and Hotshot Racing respectively.

What Inspired the Games?

Despite all being indie racers, they all have their own distinct identities. Hotshot Racing was inspired by “arcade games I played in the 90s at Trocadero London”, according to Ley. This included the likes of Virtua Racing, Daytona USA and Rad Mobile, and it’s not hard to spot this classic Sega influence in Hotshot Racing’s chunky, low-poly aesthetic.

Inertial Drift adopts a cel-shaded look, bringing to mind Capcom’s PS2 racer Auto Modellista, which O’Kane cites as a minor influence. However, initial development saw a more obvious inspiration. “I have always been a huge fan of Ridge Racer, particularly Type 4,” he said, and “besides Ridge Racer, Initial D was a big one, both the game and the anime.” It’s not hard to spot the latter influence, particularly with the game’s title and the emphasis on ludicrous drifting.

And then there’s art of rally, which unsurprisingly focuses on rally racing, but also features a minimalist look and a top-down camera perspective. It looks almost like the developers took the Codemasters racers of the 90s, particularly Colin McRae Rally and Micro Machines, and smooshed them into a single beast.

Unusual Influences

But there are other classic influences that the developers told me went into the games. Inertial Drift took inspiration from Skate’s unique control scheme and applied the same thinking to racing. More surprising is the influence of Dark Souls and Devil May Cry, which O’Kane explains: “I really like the way those games differentiate weapons not just by stats, but also by playstyle. I took that idea and applied it to our cars to make each of them as unique an experience as I could, rather than just having slightly different acceleration, top speed and cornering values.”

In Hotshot Racing, the racer selection drew inspiration from fighting games, with Virtua Fighter and Street Fighter II being cited by Ley. “We looked at having a world map like Street Fighter 2 for the track select,” he told me. “This lead on to creating a number of racers in the Virtua Fighter art style. Each with vehicles relating to their country or personality.”

How Does Art of Rally Play?

These different influences can be felt in how differently the three games handle. Art of Rally obviously handles like a rally racer, with winding country roads with limited grip, requiring intense management of braking and traction control. It’s also the least immediately simple game to get to grips with as a result, but it can feel incredibly rewarding once you’ve got the hang of it. Although, like all good rally games, the learning curve continues as you have to adapt your tactics to different terrain, with tarmac in the Japan stages, gravel in the Sardinia stages and snow in Norway, each providing their own level of challenge.

Helpfully, the game does provide a free roam mode where you can explore each of the countries and get used to their different quirks in a more laidback fashion while also looking for the developer’s van and cassette tapes that provide extra music tracks. It’s a nice chill way of spending time driving around, figuring out the handling and looking at the game’s gorgeous minimalist landscapes.

How Does Hotshot Racing Play?

Hotshot Racing is a bit more standard in its arcade-style handling. Ley stated his intention wasn’t just to replicate the handling of Sega’s 90s titles, but to bring his experience working on Burnout and Midnight Club to development, adding more modern physics into the mix. As he states, “There is a depth to Hotshot Racing’s handling that wasn’t possible back in the 90s. This makes the drift mechanic easy to do, but hard to master.”

Hotshot is definitely the easiest to pick up out of the three, as it’s incredibly easy to jump in and start drifting away. The first time I picked up the game I was immediately having a blast, building up boost and pushing through the pack.

But while it’s easy to pick up, there is a surprising level of challenge here. While Art of Rally is all about the experience of figuring out your handling, Hotshot Racing is about aggressive AI and positioning. Moreso than the other games in the trio, Hotshot is incredibly tense as it’s almost impossible to pull out in front while leaving opponents in your dust for the rest of the three laps. Due to the boosting and the aggressiveness of the game’s AI, you will constantly find yourself vying for the top spot, getting overtaken and being bashed around.

It’s something that Ley states has been a surprise for many players. “There was some expectation to get to the front and lead the race unchallenged by passive path following AI, however we took inspiration from games in the genre and did not forget the one touch and you spin out AI of Virtua Racing, or the bumping and bashing AI of Sega Rally Revo or Burnout!”

The experience is exhilarating though. It makes every race feel like an intense battle of rivals as you’re constantly under pressure. Managing your position so you don’t get slammed into the walls and conserving your boost meter for when it’s most advantageous for you is key here, and as such, there’s never a dull moment.

How Does Inertial Drift Play?

Inertial Drift is the most unique of the three, as it’s brought an unusual mechanic into the fray. While Hotshot uses drifting as a way to build up boost, O’Kane had a different approach. “A lot of modern arcade racers now focus on accruing and using boost as their core mechanic, with drifting as a means to acquire boost,” he said. “I enjoy those modern games, but I felt like there was still a lot of value in the older style of Drift focused arcade racers that has kind of been forgotten, so that is where I wanted to explore.”

As such, the game’s central mechanic is that the game uses both sticks, with the left controlling steering and the right controlling drifts. Steering is mainly for positioning while drifting is the method for getting around corners efficiently.

“Drifting in realistic games is very hard,” says O’Kane, “and so to simplify the process arcade racers tend to take away some control. With our twin stick controls we were able to do the opposite and give you even more control over your car than normal while still making it much more accessible.”

It’s a tricky control scheme to get used to, but it’s one that feels so satisfying once it clicks. It’s equal parts silly and technical, and a lot of fun getting good with it. The controls are responsive, and seeing your car go into little drifts or a full-on sideways slide depending on how much you push the stick just feels good. It was something that O’Kane says was a challenge to get right, as he wrote much of the handling code from scratch, trying to work against what the realistic behaviour a lot of pre-built engines might provide. It was a lot of hard work, but from my time with the game, it’s clear that it’s work that paid off.

Unique Vehicle Handling

Like Art of Rally and the changing terrain, Inertial Drift adds a lot of variety with its different vehicles. Different vehicles drift differently, and the drifting itself reacts differently to braking and throttle. Some cars move slowly into drifts, while others require you to brake hard into turns to get a strong drift angle. One car in particular won’t drift at all unless complex throttle control is applied. “Each car becomes its own little puzzle,” says O’Kane. “The fact that they are so different gives you a reason to try out all of them, rather than in other racing games where you tend to just drive a handful of the cars based on what you like the look of.” And that is certainly true, as the different vehicles in Inertial Drift felt like their own separate challenges, and I found the challenge mode to be genuinely tricky as I tried to figure out each car’s quirks. I still haven’t figured out how to control that last car with the specific throttle controls properly yet though.

But where Inertial Drift really impresses is a willingness to teach the player through failure. The game’s four distinct story modes each focus on a different class of car, giving a sense of handling of each and setting the player up on the basics to figure out the rest of the roster. But most importantly, it uses the storylines to teach the player about the unique aspects of the game’s handling. In the second section of Edward’s story, I found myself constantly lagging behind in the races, until a character pointed out a particular braking technique my opponent was using. Applying this, I figured out how to do that braking myself, as well as how to better time my braking and drifts to use the technique more effectively, and soon rushed ahead to victory. It was rewarding, and the simple nudge through dialogue made me rethink everything I’d done at that point, rather than me simply failing and wondering where the hell I went wrong.

Racing for Attention

But with all these games coming out at once, there has to be a sense of competition between them, right? “Personally, I don’t think it should be looked at as a competition,” says Ley. “We all have an enthusiasm to make the kind of racing game that is important to us as car fans and fans of racing.” It’s a sentiment O’Kane echoes, saying that “I don’t really view them as competitors honestly and we actually help each other out a little when we have the time to spare.”

The reality is that there seems to be a real comraderie between the teams. “I’m actually friends with Dune, the main developer on Art of Rally as well as a few other racing game devs,” says O’Kane, while Ley states that “I’ve met and spoken with the Inertial Drift guys when they were in early development.” It seems that they’ve bonded at conventions and are willing to support each other where necessary.

“I think its great how much variety there is in the indie racing scene, much more than I feel like there is in the AAA scene right now so hopefully people pick up all those games and experience the full breadth,” says O’Kane.

Which Should You Play?

And it’s a feeling that I echo in my feelings while playing each game. They are all excellent titles, but they’re excellent in their own ways. Art of Rally is a much quieter and more meditative experience, something it presents with its minimalist visuals and the tone of its presentation. There are no capital letters in any of the menus or HUD elements, for instance, while the game opens with a friendly Buddha statue telling you a brief history of rally as a motorsport. The free roam mode adds to this tone, letting you drive around at your leisure and look at sunsets. It’s a highly technical game but not one that wants you to feel punished if you need to figure out how it all works.

Hotshot Racing is the clear party option. It supports online and local play, and the simple knockabout nature of it makes it the perfect thing to gather some mates around and have a laugh with. Its controls are simple and the visuals are bold and flashy. It’s also arguably got the best soundtrack, which evokes some of Sega’s classic musicians like Yuzo Koshiro and Hideki Naganuma.

And then there’s Inertial Drift, which is unique and weird in all the best ways and provides an experience built around a challenging and rewarding mechanic unlike any other racing game. It is the one I’ve had the most fun with and have the most desire to keep going back to.

If you’re looking for a new racing experience and are a little bored of the AAA offerings, I would recommend giving all of these titles a look if anything in this feature caught your attention, and the one you start with is entirely up to what kind of experience you’re looking to get. And ultimately that’s the real joy of all these games releasing together – no matter what kind of racing fan you are, there is something new and exciting out there for you right now.