When you think of the Lego Company, chances are the first things that come to mind are the multicolored toy bricks that the company has been producing for nearly 70 years. Unless you're a frequent visitor to the local toy store, or happen to have school-age children, you may not realize that Lego has diversified its lineup in recent years to include complex robotics kits and motorized radio-controlled vehicles. THQ's Drome Racers is a racing game based upon the Lego Racers line of toys, a series of pull-back and radio-controlled vehicles that can be upgraded by swapping out various parts and engines. The nice thing about Drome Racers is that it doesn't go to great lengths to shove the Lego license down your throat. The fast pace of traditional arcade-style racing takes center stage, while the conspicuous trappings of the Lego name are limited to the designs and names of the vehicles at your disposal.
Right from the first look, comparisons to Sega's Virtua Racing are inevitable. Like Virtua Racing, Drome Racers uses colorful, shaded polygons to create a fully realized track environment. Course features such as grandstands, trees, and patches of dirt and ice all stand out clearly--and since the game uses a true 3D engine for its graphics, most courses contain rolling hills and sharp drops that spice up each lap of a race. The vehicle models are made up of polygons as well, which means that you can see the cars rotate as they turn and grow larger or smaller as they move closer to and further away from the screen. The most impressive aspect of all, though, is that even with eight vehicles onscreen at once and a huge environment to render, the game never stutters or slows down. You may find that the two-dimensional sprites used for the various dust and smoke trails are a bit on the flimsy side, but they hardly take away from what's otherwise a beautiful and fast-moving game. The same can't be said for the audio, but the engine and crowd sound effects do their job, even though they're slightly garbled.
On the track, Drome Racers is two parts arcade-style driving and one part combat. Each course has a fair number of bumps and sharp curves, so a major facet of the gameplay is figuring out how to skid through turns as fast as possible without scraping against the rails. In physical terms, the cars handle like you'd expect souped-up dune buggies and sports cars to handle. The faster you go, the more difficult it is to steer cleanly through a turn, and the more likely it is that you'll score major air going over a hill. Races typically last three or four laps. During each race, there are a variety of weapons and power-up items that you can collect to use against your opponents. Much like in Mario Kart or 4 Wheel Thunder, you can pick up rockets, homing missiles, and land mines to slow down the other racers, as well as shields and turbo boosts to give yourself a little bit of an advantage. There are also automatic nitro boosters strewn around each track that generally serve to make each race as competitive as possible. For every race you finish in the top three, you'll earn upgrade points to improve the speed, handling, or grip of the cars in your stable.
Compared with their counterparts in other handheld racing games, the AI drivers in Drome Racers rarely resort to predictable or cheap tactics in order to win. There are instances when a CPU driver will inexplicably thrust past you or when you'll observe an opponent racing a flawless lap, but most of the time the AI drivers fishtail and brake just the same as you.
Since this is more of an arcade-style game, you won't find nearly the same number of cars or tracks that you would in a more comprehensive simulation. Even so, the 18 different vehicles and 10 unique courses provide a satisfying amount of variety. Most of the game's options are contained within the championship and arcade modes. The championship mode offers four cups with a grand total of 18 races. Since there are only 10 different courses in the game, some of them are run in reverse. Before each race in the championship mode, you can participate in a drag race to qualify for a starting position and potentially earn a bonus upgrade point. The drag races are fairly unique in that you hardly have to steer the car. Instead, success depends upon how quickly you can tap up on the directional pad to shift into the next gear. Once you have the car going at its maximum speed, you can trigger a nitro boost to give yourself an added burst of speed. In the arcade mode, you have the opportunity to participate in full race, drag race, and time attack events on any of the courses you've unlocked in the championship mode.
Besides the arcade and championship modes, Drome Racers includes a quick race mode that automatically sets up a new race, as well as a multiplayer mode that allows four players to compete against one another using link cables and multiple copies of the game. Even with four people linked simultaneously, the action onscreen moves just as smoothly as it does in the standard single-player modes. A battery save rounds out the list of features, keeping track of championship progress, car upgrades, and top times.
The urge to ignore a third-party racing game sitting on a store shelf, especially one with the Lego logo somewhere on the box, is difficult to deny. Among the familiar Marios, Zeldas, and Castlevanias of the world, it's tough to green-light the purchase of a game that's relatively unfamiliar and unproven. Drome Racers is worth your attention, however, because it's the most technically impressive racing game to land on the GBA in quite some time. It's also quite fun.