Review: Cracking Sands (Xbox Live)
Cracking Sands has a tough challenge. It's a kart racing game on a mobile device, and I've not found a really good kart game on Windows Phone since it was launched. Polarbit though are a known quantity, and have done some really good apps in the past, and if anyone could step up to the challenge, it would be them. Have they? Read on.
Version Reviewed: 126.96.36.199
The kart racing genre is a difficult one to master, mostly because the first ever entry into the genre (Mario Kart on the Nintendo SNES) has continued to be updated and is rightly held up as 'the way to do this'. More than any other style of gaming, everyone knows what the gold standard is and that they'll be measured alongside an Italian Plumber and his best friends.
That makes it very hard to actually do anything different with a kart game. Controls need to be as expected, the offensive and defensive power-ups need to be carefully balanced and have specific features, the handling of the kart needs to be in line with other games... Given all those factors, making an original kart game that's any good is actually very, very hard, because you need to have the game balanced on a rather precarious peak of perception. Get it slightly wrong and everything falls down. Pac-Man Kart Rally is a good example of this - the handling of the Kart in that game was very sluggish and destroyed the gaming experience.
That's probably a good place to start for Cracking Sands. While it's, strictly speaking, an off-road 4x4 and not a kart, looking at the graphics, let's skip over that. You'll be steering using the accelerometer on your smartphone, turning it left and right like a steering wheel. To keep the button count down, you will always accelerate when you can. Tapping on the left side of the screen will 'jump' your vehicle (okay, I'm calling it a kart from now on, sue me) into the air, which is vital to catch the fuel for your power-ups.
More on them in a moment, because Cracking Sands has something missing... a brake. There's no way to slow your kart down in this game (apart from being shot at by your opponents, which isn't recommended). Without a brake, you also miss one of my favourite things from a karting game, which is the ability to do a power-slide and turn at speed.
Part of my love of power-slides is that many games use the power-slide to build up energy for power-ups or turbo boosts. That's not the case with Cracking Sands. You do have a power meter, but this is filled up by collecting fuel around the course. Remember that jump key? You'll need to use this a lot as there are a number of fuel cans that are either floating in the air, or are only accessible by reaching ledges and alternate routes that can be found through jumps, ramps, and careful driving.
Thankfully, the lack of a good brake is not a game-ending decision, which surprised me. What is a bit of a concern is the camera angle. You'll be watching the Cracking Sands action from a very high viewpoint. It feels like you are looking down on your kart from a 60 degree angle, when the majority of racing games will have something a little closer to eye level.
This has some advantages, especially in the graphics department - you don't need to look down the track as far as you would with a lower camera angle, which means there is less to draw on the screen, with the resulting benefits to frame rate and the speed of the game. It does mean you are going to be relying on the in-vision view of the track to see what turn is coming up next, because the turns are on you so quickly that it's hard to react, and your large turning circle is the only thing that isn't especially kart-like.
The final element of the kart game is the weaponry. With the limited space on the touchscreen, Cracking Sands handles this pretty well. Your four weapons are always available if you have something left in the power meter. While "turbo, gun, rocket and bomb" are pretty standard choices, having them always available is a smart choice for a mobile game you dip in and out of.
This means that you have to make decisions not just on what to use, but when to use them, because even with a full power bar you'll empty it very quickly with just a few seconds of turbo or a rocket or two lobbed towards the opposition. This simple tweak lifts the game from mindless racer to something a little bit more strategic - and that's just enough to outweigh the power-sliding and graphical issues. Admittedly that's a very personal opinion, and I'd urge racing fans to pick up the trial version to see if they can live with these slightly quirky design choices.
What is well designed are the various tracks on offer here. They have a certain solidity to them, with a lot of variation. Take the various ramps you can jump from - some of them are simply sheets of metal laid down, others are sand banks, cliff ledges, or a few planks of wood. The variance is impressive for items that are essentially fulfilling the same function.
Each circuit has a central route that you are expected to take, but the sharp eyed player will recognise there are alternate routes, perhaps with more fuel tanks, and shortcuts that can be taken. There's a certain amount of exploring you are going to have to do if you want to get the most from your time on the road.
Developers Polarbit are to be commended for getting the balance point just right on Cracking Sands - this is the finest handling Kart game on Windows Phone, full stop. Not only that, but they've managed to keep that quality through the menu and user interface, and the options available to play the game.
The game is built round a campaign mode. When you start this, only one race is open to you. Play through this successfully and you'll pick up enough stars to open up other races. This includes the single race option from the main menu screen. This gives a sense of accomplishment as you work through the game (something that is occasionally lacking when all you do is pound round in a circle). Perhaps Polarbit could have been a little bit more generous in offering playing options - at points it feels like you are being told what to play next, rather than being offered a choice.
Overall though, there is far more 'win' on show here than in any other mobile Kart game. It's not perfect and there is room for improvement, notably in the AI of the computer controlled karts, they seem to like slowing down if they get too far ahead of you, letting you catch up. But it's fun to play, it's fast and graphically smooth, and it has all the requisite gunfire sound effects, crackles of electricity and tiny putt-putt engines, to pull you into the racing world of Cracking Sands.
Aficionados of the genre are going to fall in love with this title, and it deserves to be looked at by anyone who has a gaming bone in their body.
Reviewed by Ewan Spence at