Preview | Hands-On with SmuggleCraft
EDIT: Originally the story said there is no crafting in SmuggleCraft; in fact, there will be a crafting system used to create new ship parts used to customize the hovercraft. Also, Ben Triola was noted as a lead programmer; though he has done some programming, he actually is the gameplay designer and producer.
To dispel any potential confusion, SmuggleCraft isn’t a voxel game, and as far as I know, there’s no “crafting” to be found anywhere… At least, not yet. The “craft” in reference is a hovercraft, a customizable ship that you’ll race down procedurally-generated tracks to deliver smuggled goods from one place to another. The project, created by St. Louis-based Happy Badgers Studio, is slated for a Spring 2016 release, and I’ve already said once that the game makes me excited. Now that I’ve done some hands-on in St. Louis with the game, I can say I’m still excited; though there are some kinks to iron out between now and 2016, Happy Badgers has big plans for this little indie game, and it could definitely make for some great times.
Over the course of my time with the game, I did hands-on with both the single-player experience, split-screen competitive multiplayer, and the track builder. In single-player, you play as Ferre Astraea, a smuggler who’s in over her head with debt, but owns a pretty badass hovercraft. During the game, you’ll use that hovercraft to drive multiple courses on the planet Dirah, delivering various goods of various legality. But Dirah is a planet in turmoil; a rich, elite population thrives in luxury while many others struggle with no access to the technologies that make life so great for the rich. You’ll get to make decisions about who to make your deliveries to, whose missions to take on, and that affects the course of gameplay, steering you to one of the game’s multiple endings.
The Happy Badgers team wanted to disrupt the conventional racing space by adding elements of choice and consequence to each mission. Carol Mertz, the designer behind the game’s story and characters, studied various historical events and books to come up with many of the concepts behind the world of Dirah and the conflicts taking place. Though they’re not fully-developed yet, the team plans to implement multiple statuses that affect the course of gameplay. For instance, delivering contraband to the poor locals may win you favor with them, but you’ll likely anger the people who were originally supposed to receive the goods. Also, odds are that the locals aren’t going to be able to give you nearly enough money to take care of your debt, and increasing debt can result in many dangerous consequences as Ferre continues through her quest. Hopefully, these various effects will attach people to the story and characters of the game, though the racing will obviously be a strong draw as well.
Still, story aside, SmuggleCraft is a racing game at heart, and I had a lot of fun playing through roughly a half-hour of the game’s content. As mentioned before, each track is procedurally-generated by combining multiple pre-created track pieces. Still, as players travel from location to location while running missions, the game saves the track for each run, meaning that you’ll be able to learn your own, unique version of Dirah, different from any other player’s. Mechanically, the game feels great; driving the hovercraft feels fun and exciting, and the level design, spearheaded by Dana Huth, allows you to navigate the twists and turns of each course while keeping the speed up and the energy high.
It only took me a couple of minutes to get the hang of handling the craft, allowing me to focus on running the course and grabbing pickups and speed boosts along the way. Some of the track pieces didn’t feel 100% clear about where to go next; I got a bit lost while driving a U-turn hook at one point, but the hovercraft still handles well when off-roading, leading to a bit of a sense of exploration while driving courses. You’ll be under the pressure of time during each run, so finding minor shortcuts is crucial to success. Those minor course derivations also become key in multiplayer races, where you and a friend compete against each other (and the course) for success.
I played the split-screen multiplayer with Ben Triola, the one behind the game’s concept, gameplay design, and production; though I really enjoyed single-player, some of the game’s shining moments really came across while racing another player to get to the goal. There’ll be online multiplayer as well, but I have to admit that there’s something special about split-screen competitions, and I’m glad they decided to include it. There aren’t any weapons per se in SmuggleCraft like you would have in Mario Kart; outmaneuvering your opponent is the chief way of winning races. Still, your hovercraft takes damage from collisions, and if your craft blows up, you’re out of the race. Collisions between crafts generally harm both players, though one of the most exciting moments happened when Ben hit a boost that pushed him through my craft, instantly blowing me up while he continued on his way to the goal. It was funny and unpredictable, and those feeling of quirky randomness flowed through all aspects of the game, giving it a light-hearted fun that I really enjoyed.
At game’s release, players get access to the level editor, allowing them to create their own custom tracks. Originally developed as a testing tool, the team decided it would be fun to let players create their own races and share them with friends. Each track piece fits with the others like puzzle pieces: if you choose a starting piece with a wide opening on the end, it’ll show you all the other pieces that have that wide opening at their beginning for you to link to it. It’s quick and easy to snap a few track pieces together and drive, and it’ll be interesting to see how many track pieces they end up with when the game is fully-launched. I’d have loved the ability to customize the track pieces themselves, rearranging obstacles and boosters and the like, but for now there’s still a lot to explore in track creation.
Though I’m impressed with where SmuggleCraft currently stands (it’s actually rather far along in the development process already), there are a couple of issues I hope they find ways to address before the game’s release. Much of the game’s originality comes from its presentation and focus on story, but in its current state it’s pretty easy to breeze past the dialog before and after the missions just to get to the racing. I asked if they thought about adding voice-over to the characters for the game, but considering the cost and time usually bundled in to that process, it seems like that likely won’t happen. Though I think having the various “alignments” will push players towards caring about their choices more often than not, I’m still hoping that they find a way to push players towards really delving into the characters and story behind SmuggleCraft.
From a multiplayer perspective, one of the game’s unique facets is that you can’t win the race simply by being the last person standing: you have to complete the track to win. If your craft blows up, you’re out of the race and stuck watching other people try to complete the track; this could be interesting if you’re only watching 20-30 seconds of remaining race, but it’s not a great feeling when you wreck early-on in the race and are just sitting back and watching someone else have fun, and I feel like it would be hard to convince people to hang out in online matches if that happens repeatedly as well. I definitely enjoy the “no-respawn” mechanic, but I hope they find a way to make sure players stay engaged in the race, even if they’re been knocked out early.
Overall, I’ve got high hopes for SmuggleCraft, and for Happy Badgers Studios as well. The “quirky randomness” that I mentioned earlier isn’t specific to the SmuggleCraft project; all of Happy Badgers’ games have a level of unpredictability and style that I find refreshing and interesting. By bringing that feeling to the racing genre, I think they’ll be able to grab a solid player base that’ll hopefully put this team on the map in a larger scale. But aesthetics aside, Happy Badgers created a fun, accessible take on racing that will give players tons to do.