Trailmakers (PC) Early Access Preview

Developer/Publisher: Flashbulb || Outlook: Seems Promising

My generation, like a couple of other generations, had access to physical toys, such as building blocks or “LEGOS.”  You could build spaceships, castles, cars …or at least something that could pass for them.  In many ways we see that “idea” of creation in many of the most popular games today, but getting back to the basics of “creating a car” with building blocks is what Trailmakers attempts to do.

Now this particular concept isn’t new to gaming, but since I’ve never played Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, it’s new to me.  I’ve seen videos and heard awful things about that game.  So, to me, Trailmakers, seems like someone had a part in developing that game, thought they could do a better job in retrospect, and from that comes this Early Access title.  Flashbulb, the developer, is apparently made up of Rare and IO Interactive veterans, so the scenario is entirely plausible.  Obviously at this point, the game doesn’t feel anywhere near complete, but there is plenty of foundation built into it, and is seemingly waiting for the content to make it “fun.”  There have already been a couple of updates that add different modes, so the focus of the game has already changed since I initially began playing.

In Expedition Mode, your character arrives to this “racing planet” full of hazards, ramps, and lots of annoying shit to collect along the way.  The more things you collect, the more things you unlock to customize your vehicle.  You can save as many versions of your creations as you like, modify an existing blueprint, import blueprints, or start from scratch just to get through one hazard.  Once you have more pieces unlocked, your creations will obviously get more complex, with engines, wheels, different size blocks, doohickeys, gizmos, dildos, and an assortment of other random things I don’t know how to use correctly.  This might be fun for some people, but unfortunately if you’re impatient and don’t really find the enjoyment in tinkering around using a mouse/keyboard (or a controller) to build vehicles, it becomes a tedious task.  The builder itself is about as good as it can be, but since you are building in a 3D space, it can get annoying to see where things are being placed without moving your camera multiple times for each piece.  It just isn’t the same as holding blocks in your hand and putting things where you want them to go.

The driving isn’t necessarily that much fun, and the map is full of forks and different paths that lead to the same end point.  There’s also a lot of empty space, but considering you’re meant to drive around, its probably not that big of a deal.  Outside of collecting shit, there’s not a whole lot “to do” other than get past hazards and get to the next zone to collect more things.  More plainly, the gameplay loop is lacking severely; there’s just basically no reason to play unless you really enjoy making new things in the builder.

The driving controls are floaty as hell, but I’m unsure if this is part of the design or not.  The point of collecting better upgrades and designing a vehicle that works well aerodynamically and with the types of engines you are using seems to be part of the challenge, but it isn’t structured very well.  There are no early-on upgrades that can improve your controls very much, and its a constant struggle considering they intentionally make them worse if you aren’t designing your vehicle correctly according to the in-game physics.  Another annoying aspect is that the camera isn’t able to be controlled while driving, at least with a controller.

I think the fact that it is an open world with no other “racers” to race against is a large part of what makes the game feel boring outside of building.  There isn’t any motivation to continue dealing with the crappiness of the controls or tediousness of having to build something to just get through one hazard. Redesigning everything from scratch over and over becomes an exercise in “doing the bare minimum” to get past whatever is stopping you.  You might be able to stumble through hazards with your same vehicle, but you’ll be dying over and over.  There’s a lot of things that will clip your vehicle or make you blow up, so you’ll constantly be respawning at the last checkpoint over and over.

The Race Island mode, which was recently added, allows you to more fully tinker around with the game’s systems as everything will be already unlocked.  You’ll only be doing “time trials” as there are still no other racers to race against, but it is more satisfying to be able to mess around with a large array of items from the beginning — it doesn’t feel like you’re “missing” anything.  However, without proper tutorials you’re going to be building some really wacky things that don’t work the way you think they should, and all of a sudden you have a helicopter that flies upside down and goes directly up.

Trailmakers will probably appeal to a certain set of gamer that really enjoys fiddling around with mechanical engineering concepts.  Seeing what works and what doesn’t work in a real physics-driven world is pretty cool considering the amount of freedom you’re allowed to build things.  I would have really appreciated some sort of generic base blueprint archive of some sort so that I could just click it and go with a new vehicle once I had everything unlocked and then modify it as I saw fit.  As of now, there’s plenty more that needs to be added to the game to make it more appealing to someone like me, but with the existing foundation already included, it seems promising that a worthwhile game could be made out of this.