MMOs don't always have to be RPGs, as Drift City proves. Sam "azerian" Maxted takes it for a test drive to see if it's worth playing, or best left alone.
Some of you might remember that a little over a month ago, I was lamenting the lack of a triple-A driving MMO. Driving is definitely a genre that could be made to work in MMOs and while previous attempts have failed, this type of games shouldn't be written off as a bad idea. In the absence of a big name title to play, I decided to try one of the free-to-play games currently on the market. In the end I settled on Drift City, as it seemed to have the most in common with traditional MMOs.
Unlike some other online driving games, Drift City features an open world containing a variety of solo and group-based content. Most of the other driving "MMOs" I looked at were simply a series of lobbies, from which players could compete in one-off races. This isn't the case with Drift City, and if you can get through the confusing installation process, there's actually a decent little game in there.
On logging into the game for the first time, players are given a group of low level cars to choose from. It's at this point you'll notice that although the game only has only licensed a few car manufacturers, it hasn't stopped the developers from stealing the likenesses of whatever cars they wanted to use. As a result, you'll see licensed Dodge Vipers driving around with rip offs of everything from Ferraris to Smart cars. Each car in Drift City has a level limit, meaning that beginners won't be able to drive an Enzo right from the start, no matter how much money they have. Some cars also need to be unlocked before they can be purchased through a variety of methods, such as hitting a certain number of jumps, winning races or spending a certain amount of time in-game.
It's a Ferrari Enzo in all but name.
Once you've chosen your starter car, you'll be put through your paces in a series of tutorial missions, which introduce you to some of the game's features. However, these are far from exhaustive, meaning you may need to refer to the guides on Drift City's website from time to time. Early missions consist mostly of "get to your destination before the timer runs out", but other quests could also ask you to drive safely, limiting the number of times you can crash before reaching your destination. Delivery-type missions also have leaderboards attached to them, so you can see how well you're doing compared to other characters of a similar level.
As you progress through the game, you'll be given other missions such as tailing a car at a safe distance, or even "arresting" HUVs (High-tech Unmanned Vehicles) by ramming them off the road. These missions can see you going up against one or more vehicles, which take more damage depending on where you hit them, as well as how hard. Single-target missions tend to be easier, as multiple-target ones often see your enemies spreading out across the city, meaning you'll struggle to complete the mission before time runs out.
Group content in the open world section of the game involves a number of different game modes, such as "Rush Time". This mode needs at least 10 players to take part and pits you against one of a number of giant - and incredibly durable - HUVs. Each of these has its own special abilities, and one that I went up against was a giant dumper truck that dropped crates and gas canisters out of the back. These missions are very difficult to complete, but players who take part can cash in regardless of victory, as each hit on the target gives you an upgrade for your car.
Rush Time HUVs are big, tough and hard to kill.
Cars in Drift City are upgradeable through a number of methods, the easiest of which is to purchase basic upgrades from stores, or receive them as rewards for completing tasks in-game. The auction house is also awash with second-hand parts, so it's worth checking to see if you can find a bargain. These basic upgrades can also be improved, although this comes with a risk: these items will sometimes break when doing so, rendering them useless. The final method of upgrading your car is how Drift City makes its money, with certain body mods and parts only being available through micro payments. While it is possible to obtain equivalent items through other means, their quality is lower than ones you have to pay for. In other words, things are biased - if only slightly - in paying customers' favour.
The mechanics of driving in Drift City are relatively simple: the arrow keys (or WASD) control your car, while the Shift key causes your car to drift and Ctrl activates your booster. This charges gradually as you drive, although the process is quicker if you take risks such as driving on the wrong side of the road. Skilful driving also rewards you with consumable items, including ones that increase the amount of damage you cause to enemies, or protect you from losing a portion of your boost gauge if you crash. The game works surprisingly well on a keyboard, giving you plenty of control over your car. In other words, those used to using gamepads or steering wheels won't miss them as much as they might think.
While Drift City isn't just a collection of lobbies for multi-player races, they are present here. You'll receive cash, items and experience for competing in multi-player races, although the rewards are obviously higher if you win. Certain daily or "instant" missions also encourage participation, by promising extra rewards for victory, or even just taking part. Races are split into various categories in order to keep things fair, meaning that beginners shouldn't see their races dominated by higher level opponents.
If you take too much damage in a race, you'll have to stop for repairs.
Graphically, the cars and environments look pretty good, especially for a game that's nearly two years old. Sure, some parts of the environment look a little dodgy in screenshots (look at these boats for example), but you don't really notice when passing them at speed. The only real gripe here if that the game suffers from some pretty horrendous pop-up in places, with buildings and other large structures being drawn in later than they should be.
The kindest word to describe the game's sound would be "functional". The sound's there to do the job, but no more than that. That's not to say the audio is bad, but there's nothing special about it. The only neat feature is the ability to play your own mp3s in-game, although this is made almost compulsory given the game's limited soundtrack.
It's all looking pretty positive so far, isn't it? However, Drift City isn't without its problems. On logging into the game for the first time, you'll probably be bombarded with messages in the public chat channels using abbreviations you don't understand, while one half of the community accuses the other half of scamming. Both types of message were pretty constant while I was playing, filling the chat window with a mix of gibberish and accusations. This can make it difficult to hold a conversation, especially as you can't drive and type at the same time.
Another problem with the game is that characters start with a pitifully small inventory. This can fill up just half way through a Rush Time mission, meaning you either need to stop and dump items of lesser value, or forego the rest of the mission's loot. The only way to increase your inventory's size is through micro payments, which I can see players doing more out of necessity than anything else. Lag also rears its head at times, particularly when there's a lot happening on-screen. This can result in you running into obstacles that weren't there a second ago, because your connection couldn't keep up with the action. In addition, some of the game's missions can get a little repetitive. However, maybe this should be expected from a driving game, as it limits the types of tasks players can be given.
Despite all the above criticisms, Drift City's definitely worth a try. Larger developers would do well to look at it before creating their own driving MMOs, in order to see what works and what doesn't. Overall, Drift City gets a lot of stuff right (certainly more than it gets wrong), meaning it's well worth a try if you want a break from more traditional MMOs.
SAM "azerian" Maxted