2020 has been a pretty good year for racing games. Between Trackmania, F1 2020, and upcoming offerings like a new Dirt game, racing enthusiasts are really spoiled for choice right now. When I first started playing Drag I thought a lot about those first two games. This is a game that is, in many ways, the polar opposite of F1 and Trackmania (funny because they very much oppose each other as well). In spite of that, Drag is also a game that has these two racing game greats baked into its DNA in more ways than one.
But let’s back up. What is Drag? Drag is a simulation racing game designed to simulate open wheel off-road racing vehicles that seem just over the horizon from reality. Think Warthogs and military prototypes. This approach to simulation racing has served developer Orontes Games well. Without the constraints of licensed cars, this developer has been able to tailor the simulation to their vehicle design and vice versa. It further helps this tiny German team get around the need to pay for expensive licensing. The result is really quite something.
The eternal carrot that sim racing games (and even other vehicle simulations) chase is a connection to the vehicle. The goal here is to give you the feeling of driving/flying/sailing/whatever-ing a vehicle and letting you translate that feeling into realistic control inputs. This is usually very difficult without expensive equipment. What Drag does is combine gamefeel, animation, sound, and rumble to connect you with these cars on an impressive level, even on a gamepad. Part of why this works is that the cars require you to adapt to them, rather than the other way around.
When I pitched this game to the rest of the Fyx team, I said I found the Dark Souls of racing games. That’s because Drag is hard. Really hard. This opening Early Access salvo features two vehicles and three tracks. This may seem thin from a content perspective, but it’s easily a set of options that could keep you busy for hundreds of hours. This is because these vehicles and tracks are just so challenging. After several hours of play I feel confident enough to try full time trials of tracks, but I barely feel in control. In this way, Drag perfectly captures the thrill of real life auto racing.
The tracks themselves feel carefully built to create truly challenging racing lines that are insidious in their nuance. Visual spectacles these are (largely) not. The environments have a sort of Death Stranding aesthetic, with two of the three offerings featuring the same tileset with totally different layouts. The third track feels like the Trackmania track from hell, or like a terrifying raised highway from Hideo Kojima’s open world deliver-em-up. This is where my earlier comparisons to F1 2020 and Trackmania come in. The star here is the way these specific cars interact with the tracks, much like Trackmania. At the same time, the precise physics at play feel like F1 in their adherence to complexity (even if the feel of these cars is totally different than a Formula 1 car).
But so far I’ve fawned over the physics and track design without touching on structure. This is, unfortunately, where Drag achieves mixed results, through no fault of its own.
The game features time trials, daily challenges (described as “special events”), and single player challenges. The latter of those actually serve as an ingenious tutorial system designed to teach you the tracks. Over a dozen or so challenges per track, you’ll set medal based times through specific track sections. The final challenge on each track is to put it all together into a lap. It’s a simple but effective way to teach you the tracks turn by turn.
While all of that is enjoyable enough for a few evenings, the real draw here is multiplayer. This is also, unfortunately, where a crowded marketplace has impacted the game. I have no doubt that the combination of Drag’s incredible physics engine, slipstream based jockeying, and simple boost mechanics translate to an excellent multiplayer challenge. What’s more, this is a game that practices a “when you’re out you’re out” mentality that applies to the absolutely brutal physics based damage that can pull your car apart. The problem is that the game has a painfully small playerbase. This has made getting into a multiplayer match challenging.
My hope is that Drag catches on. This is a promising multiplayer game that feels great to play and should have a bright future. Unfortunately with Steam existing as it does, tiny games like Drag often get buried in a deluge of releases. The other piece of this puzzle is Drag’s high price tag, which is a tough pill to swallow for many players ($34.99 normal pricing on Steam in USD at the time of this writing). I can unquestionably say that I think the game is worth the price of admission, but only if there’s a playerbase to play with, and therein lies the rub.