You seem to be crashing a lot, Grasshopper
There are several moments where Absolute Drift looks and feels like an isometrically-viewed rally game, albeit without the snow, mud and “Samir, you’re breaking the car”. And sure enough, developer Funselektor did release Art of Rally on PC after this one, so maybe this really was a prototype build that played well enough and looked stylish enough in its untextured state to be packaged up and released as an ‘artsy’ indie game?
Either way, it’s convincing enough and looks rather lovely on the Switch’s screen. But totally unlike rally games, Absolute Drift hardly ever asks you to do anything quickly; this is actually about taking your time and mastering the handling model, which is superb. Alan Partridge’s voice comes to my mind saying: “that’s liquid driving”. And he wouldn’t be wrong.
The game centres around your manipulation of just four main inputs: Go, stop, left and right. It’s a lot like Codemasters’ classic Micro Machines 2 in that respect, and handles a lot like it too. Manual gears are an option if you absolutely must keep it in 2nd, and there’s also a handbrake button but that’s only really used for special moves like donuts or decelerating while getting the car into a drift ready for a hairpin bend, which you won’t need until later in the game.
There’s genuine beauty in the sense of inertia and the way your car teeters on the edge of control. Overcook it and you’ll spin (and in how many driving games do you actually spin these days?), but go too slowly and you’ll fall to the inside wall and drop your multiplier. Your car always leaves a black line behind each wheel – even in the air, which is odd – making the smooth arcs of your power drifts and donuts appear as art and turning every frame into a story of your triumphs and failures.
The game feels small in scope and scale, but it’s proficiently structured and there’s enough to do, even if it does get a bit samey after an hour or so. You can enter a Free Roam mode where you’ll find tutorial events, woo at jump ramps and search for collectables, all the while completing mini-challenges like doing donuts around a digger. Drive into a coloured block to start its challenge area, where you’ll be asked to complete challenges while a generous clock ticks down. Once unlocked, you can race these challenges from the main menu without having to drive to them in Free Roam. You can unlock new cars as you go, and change their appearance with some simple, preset decals. But apart from some online leaderboards to ogle, that’s it for the mode list.
I should mention the difficulty because it’s a tough one to put a finger on. Personally already understanding how a car drifts and having had plenty of practice in other games, I didn’t find it too hard to complete all of the criteria in each event before moving on. Some challenges require pinpoint precision, like drifting along two consecutive marker lines in a midnight race (complete with headlights illuminating the flat-shaded road) or drifting close to bonus poles to rack up points. Hitting the top score brackets is challenging but never so frustrating that I wanted to give up.
The game’s three difficulty options have nothing at all to do with the score tiers. Instead, they relate solely to your car’s handling stability. Even so, my advice is to just stick it on Hard and do it properly, without your hand being held. Once the car is free, so are you (yes that does sound profound, which is fitting), and you’ll have more fun as a result.
The visuals may be simplistic but run very well on Nintendo Switch, and the midnight races look sufficiently nice with their lighting effects and translucent tyre smoke. The sound is cool, with music reminiscent of Ridge Racer: Type 4, although the high-revving engine note is less pretty – and you’ll be hearing it a LOT.
The other thing I should mention is software instability. My game crashed during World 2, wiping all my progress, meaning I had to start again. To my horror, after surviving another crash message that didn’t wreck the game, I was almost onto World 4 when it crashed again during loading and wiped my save file. Again. Quelle horreur. My Switch isn’t prone to crashing, and other players have reported similar issues so there seems to be a genuine issue here, and it spoiled my fun. After the second wipe I tried moving the game to the Switch’s internal hard drive instead of the Nintendo-licensed Micro-SD, and it didn’t crash again, after which I breezed through the free-roam section of the game in about an hour, having had lots of practice by this point. The many events take plenty of time to master, but free roam is basic and short.
So we come to where it sits in the echelons of driving games. Is it a classic? No, I’m afraid not. Is it a good fit for the handheld? Yes, definitely. The challenge-based gameplay is perfect for pick-up-and-play fun. And should it have been that rally game all along? Well there’s the kicker. Art of Rally isn’t on Switch, but a rally game using this engine, perhaps with head-to-head play, would be awesome on this machine. It’s harsh to judge a game on what it isn’t, but Absolute Drift does feel like a tech demo rather than the game it has the potential to be.
Still, Funselektor has managed to take hardcore driving sim gameplay physics and dress them up as a casual-friendly time killer, and any casual game that champions complex driving physics should be celebrated. Even so, Absolute Drift only just justifies its price tag of $11.99/ £8.99, so if you ever see it for 50% off or better, that’s probably when you should pick it up.
|Developer||Funselektor and Stellar Entertainment|
|Release date||3rd December 2020 (Switch)|
|Available platforms||PC, OS X, Linux, Xbox One, PS4, iOS, Android and Nintendo Switch|
|Version/s tested||Nintendo Switch|
|Best played with||Joy-Con and Pro Controller|
Full disclosure: We bought this game for the purposes of review. Here is our review policy.
If you’d like to read about more games for the handheld Nintendo system, why not read our ‘Seven great racing games on Nintendo Switch‘ article?