Fun fact: if F-Zero GX—the last home console game in Nintendo’s seminal futuristic racing series—were a person, they would be old enough to vote now. Indeed, it’s been far too long since we’ve gotten a new F-Zero, which has led to copycats filling the void as best as they can. Some of these, like Fast RMX or WipEout Omega Collection, have done a great job of adding their own spin on that intense gameplay. Others, like Warp Drive, have fumbled the ball a bit. Warp Drive started as a mobile game a couple of years ago and now has made its way onto the Switch, but don’t let its origins immediately turn you off. Despite its shortcomings, there’s a genuinely enjoyable time to be had here; we only wish it could be more consistent.
Though Warp Drive is certainly a fast game, we would say that its gameplay has more in common with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe than it does with F-Zero or Fast RMX. Though you’re moving at lightspeed through gravity-defying courses, much of your success hinges on how effectively you can acquire and use items to give yourself an edge. Much like in Mario Kart, there are various points on the track where you can drive over a line of ‘warp crystals’ that will give you an item, though here the effect is not random. You can hold onto each crystal as long as you want, and each one can be used to either launch a missile, activate a short boost, drop a mine behind you, or teleport you to an alternate route on the track at specific points.
We appreciated the removal of the randomized items as it allows you to take a more strategic approach to driving and doesn’t leave you out of luck if you get a bad roll. Everyone’s been there in Mario Kart 8 where you desperately need help holding down first place, but get a useless coin from an item box. Here, there’s always something useful you can do with your crystals, although we found that their application leaves a little bit to be desired. The missiles, for example, can only be fired if you’ve locked onto an enemy in front of you. Not only is it difficult to lock on to target the specific car you want to hit, but we noted many instances where firing the missile crashed into the wall instead of another car.
Track layouts are a little homogenous, they do have a multi-tiered track design, and we enjoyed how each course had distinctive themes, though we wish these themes were integrated better as gameplay mechanics. At various points in a track, you can choose to either trigger a boost to go through a false floor or a short-range teleport to take you to an alternate route. These secondary routes take about as much time to traverse as the primary path, but they’re useful for those moments when you’re stuck in the middle of the pack and keep getting blasted by items, as you can thin out the herd a bit by taking another way.
The main draw of the experience here is the tournament mode, which sees you going through themed bundles of four tracks at a time. After each race, you’re then given coins and experience points according to your performance. We’re not really sure what the experience points actually do—maybe unlocking access to better things in the shop?—but the coins can be spent to randomly selects three upgrades or cosmetics you can apply to your car. Once you’ve bought it in the shop, you then own that part forever and can later swap it with any other parts you’ve acquired.
At first, we were a little bothered by this shop system, as it doesn’t give you full control over how to build your car. Maybe one of the parts on offer is somewhat appealing, but you’re never sure if the next round of shop offerings might have something better that you won’t be able to afford if you buy something now. Still, we appreciated how this controlled approach to the shop keeps you guessing and makes you try out parts you otherwise might not have considered. Plus, it doesn’t take that long to unlock all the parts anyway.
In addition to the core tournament mode, there are also mission and survival modes. Mission mode tasks you with objectives like collecting a certain number of coins in a tight time window or hitting a specific number of rivals with missiles within a single lap. Each track has its own suite of missions on offer, which helps familiarize you more with their layouts while sharpening your driving skills, and the missions progressively get more difficult as you unlock more.
Survival mode sees you running a gauntlet of races through randomly picked tracks, with each one asking you to finish the race in a certain place at a minimum. Surviving each race will net you coins, and as your win streak goes up, the number of coins you get also increases. While these two modes don’t necessarily add any new content to the mix, we felt that they still added to the experience by introducing some interesting modifiers to the core racing. They also act as a nice means of farming experience and coins, which can help build up your collection of parts faster.
Unfortunately, the technical performance is not quite up to snuff. Warp Drive appears to aim for 30 FPS, but we noted intermittent instances of chugging frame rates in every race we participated in. This is somewhat understandable given how chaotic the action on the screen can be, but then the visuals don’t appear to be that advanced for the Switch hardware—this was originally a mobile game, after all. Hopefully, the developers will find a way to patch out these issues in an update; the frame hitches aren’t bad enough to ruin Warp Drive, but they certainly do negatively affect the experience.
These technical issues become especially obvious in multiplayer. Though there isn’t any online multiplayer, you can play locally with up to four players in split screen, but the implementation here is middling at best. Having just two players on is at least a decent and mostly stable experience, but ratcheting up to three or four players causes performance to drop substantially. This is especially disappointing given the clear potential here for a fun competitive experience; what could be an interesting and cheap alternative to Mario Kart 8 becomes a poor imitation that you’ll hardly feel like showing to your friends.
Despite the technical issues, Warp Drive’s presentation still manages to impress with the strong art style on display. The heavily saturated neon colors, bright lights, and 90’s punk aesthetic all combine to create an overwhelmingly trippy world. Whether you’re racing alongside a pirate ship or beneath the tentacles of a giant squid, every track has some kind of visual spectacle to set itself apart from the others. All this is met with music that mixes together rock and hip-hop with a whole lot of synthesizers to make for a high-octane soundtrack that keeps the energy level high. Warp Drive may be a little disappointing in its execution, but never let it be said that it doesn’t at least leave an impression.
Warp Drive feels like it’s a strong predecessor to what could be a great sequel someday. Its high-speed, strategic approach to racing is a joy to play when the FPS slowdown isn’t getting out of hand, and its art style feels like something truly distinct in the 'kart' racing genre. If it weren’t for a collection of some important misses—like the awkward item usage or the instability of multiplayer—this one could be a real winner. Even as is, it’s still a game that we would recommend you pick up when there’s a deep enough sale. There’s enough single-player content to keep you busy for a while and even if it disappoints, Warp Drive can be quite fun once you get into it.