Mad Dash Racing Preview

We get a chance to try out a new build of Crystal Dynamics' Xbox racing game. Details inside.

Hex wants the Mad Dash participants to collect meteorites located at the end of each track.
Hex wants the Mad Dash participants to collect meteorites located at the end of each track.

One of the first games announced for the upcoming Microsoft Xbox was the fast-paced footrace game Mad Dash Racing. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, creator of the popular Gex and Soul Reaver franchises, Mad Dash Racing is a revisited concept that some players may be familiar from its previous appearances in Running Wild for the Sony PlayStation and Sonic R for the Sega Saturn. The idea is simple enough--instead of karts, Jet Skis, monster trucks, or whatnot, your colorful characters race through each track on foot. There are obstacles to impede your path, of course, such as wild animals, malicious cavemen, animate dinosaur skeletons, and scalding lava flows, as well as subtler impediments, like water-filled areas, scalable fences, and walls. And like in the game's inspirational predecessors, each of the selectable characters specializes in a particular skill such as gliding, dashing, or bashing. What separates Mad Dash from other games that have tried to popularize the rarely explored footrace genre is the ludicrous speed your momentum can build into, the focus on combat elements, and the sheer immensity of the colorful, unpredictable courses. To top off the package, Mad Dash Racing also offers a pretty hip soundtrack and some challenging boss battles.

Mad Dash features a colorful cast of characters to select from.
Mad Dash features a colorful cast of characters to select from.

The story behind Mad Dash Racing and its characters is unveiled in real-time cutscene sequences. According to the introductory cinema, the racers have gathered to pit their skills and speed against one another in the hopes of cashing in on the big reward offered by the game's head bad guy, the diminutive mad genius known as Hex. His plans are nefarious enough--he's using the racers to collect the giant meteorites at the end of each course so he can use them to power his evil machine. Naturally, he doesn't expect to honor his promise to the racers once his evil goals have been met, so he has offered them his magic scepter as the grand prize, which is, of course, valuable enough to sucker in the game's cast of goofy characters.

The attractive cel-shaded characters are all bipedal animals with an appropriate stereotype or gimmick to match their respective racing abilities. In a perhaps extreme effort to turn their cartoon protagonists into edgier, more mature heroes, the racers have been endowed with some rather tasteless personalities. Sid, the cat with the "No dogs allowed" T-shirt, is a wisecracking trash talker. Chops, the rowdy warthog biker, is the rude and crude rebellious type. Zero-G, perhaps the most recognizable personality of the main cast, is seemingly a combination of a delusional Buzz Lightyear and Drill Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Other characters can be unlocked upon completing the adventure mode, like the Mr. T wannabe Big Blue or the paste-eating, spastic weasel Spanx. The characters are attractive and detailed, and they look great as they race through the lively courses. We've had occasional frame rate issues in our preview copies, but indications are that in the final version, the action will be incredibly fast-paced.

Mad Controls

At certain points, you'll have to rotate the analog sticks to swim and climb.
At certain points, you'll have to rotate the analog sticks to swim and climb.

To fully experience Mad Dash, you need to get familiar with a complex set of controls very quickly. The four face buttons on the Xbox controller are mapped to the jump, attack, weapon, and powerslide commands, while the shoulder triggers can initiate dash and bash moves when the appropriate meter has been filled. Double-tapping jump lets you glide, which is useful for navigating past the many pits and traps each course will throw at you and generating enough hang time to pull off various stunts. Racers can also grind on any rails they may happen upon using the powerslide button. Upon reaching an obstacle that you can't run past, such as a scalable cliff or a river, an onscreen indicator spurs the player into action, asking for a quick rotation of the right analog stick. The faster the stick is spun, the faster your racer will climb or swim. The quick switch from the very involved running, leaping, grinding, and bashing of the regular racing sections to the frantic, analog-stick-spinning minigame feel of the climbing and swimming sequences adds a nice change of pace. It may be worth noting that the analog sticks on our Xbox controllers have endured a number of races nicely and can seemingly take a considerable beating.

Mad Dash's large tracks are filled with plenty of shortcuts and obstacles.
Mad Dash's large tracks are filled with plenty of shortcuts and obstacles.

Getting a good feel for the controls will allow players to excel at Mad Dash Racing's adventure mode, which currently features five normal stages, two hard levels, and a final boss stage. Each course is truly extensive and includes loads of scenery, obstacles, and theme-specific details to make it unique. Hitting nearly all the major course types we've seen in kart racers, Mad Dash Racing's courses are set in a tribal village, a futuristic sewer facility, ancient ruins, and a snowy mountainside, among other places. The courses are absolutely immense--in fact, a single lap around each is all that's required to advance. Some of the obstacles we encountered were both visually exciting and challenging to maneuver by, like a fire-breathing dragon and a set of annoying desert twisters. If you're successful at outrunning your opponents during the main courses, then you must pit your skills against the boss villains in a one-on-one competition. Using traps, weapons, or cleverly manipulated course-specific machinery to deplete your foe's life bar will earn you eventual victory. Winning every race and completing the adventure mode will in turn unlock a number of other modes, including time attack, stunt, and a cash collecting challenge.

One of the most appealing aspects of Mad Dash Racing is its excellent licensed soundtrack. Artists from the world of electronica have lent some of their most popular, energy-driven tracks to a compilation that does much to enhance the fast-paced feel of Mad Dash. Moby, Overseer, and Meat Beat Manifesto have all contributed tracks. Audiophiles will also be pleased to experience the Dolby multichannel capabilities that should make good use of their sound setups.

From what we've seen so far, it appears that Mad Dash Racing is making headway toward a final product that will be a refreshing addition to the racing genre and a competitive and genuinely fun diversion for Xbox owners. Mad Dash Racing is currently scheduled for a November launch alongside the Xbox.

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