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Written by Dave Gamble on 2/16/2018 for PC  
More On: Trailmakers

I have often stated my belief that the ability for both small and large development teams to gain access to large numbers of testers while also generating some revenue via Steam’s Early Access model is one of the best things ever to happen to gaming. Consider the alternative: developers release a game that has not been adequately play-tested, the game tanks, and despite their best efforts to make improvements and release updates, they never fully escape the shadow of the initial negative reviews. Note that in this case I am talking about play-testing to ensure the game is actually fun, not so much to test stability. The devs can find and kill a great deal of bugs, but I think that sometimes they might become too familiar with the game play to see it in the same way a buyer would.

Case in point: Trailmakers, by Flashbulb. As a game, Trailmakers refuses to be pigeon-holed into a single category; it exhibits the traits of a single/multiplayer sandbox adventure-ish game that also includes heavy doses of racing (in multiplayer) and vehicle construction. With a garish mix like that, you could be forgiven for thinking that a jack of this many trades would be the master of none, and you wouldn’t be wrong. That’s not a problem, of course, because Trailmakers doesn’t actually need to be excellent in every way. In fact, it needn’t be a master of any particular facet - all that’s really required is a good balance between the different facets and for none of those segments to be terrible.

It does not yet quite reach that bar - there is one thing in particular that destroys any balance that may have existed. That said, it is early access, so please keep that in mind as I describe my experiences with the game as it stands today. A lot of things can change before it goes to full release.

Before we get to that, let’s take a look at what they’re trying to accomplish and which parts of the Early Access work well. I am stating opinion as if it were fact, a notable trait of game review writers, but I believe the core mechanic of Trailmakers is the vehicle construction aspect. It is also a part of the game that works very well in its current state of development. I cite as evidence for this belief of primacy the fact that there is a sandbox mode; in sandbox mode, every potential piece of a vehicle is unlocked and the game more or less becomes all about vehicle construction. This differs from the “expedition” mode that we will discuss a little later. With all possible pieces for vehicle construction freely available, the only limit to what you can build is your imagination. Well, your imagination and physics. I imagined I could build a helicopter, but physics proved me wrong. What I actually built was a “helicopter” that just sat on the ground spinning around opposite to the direction of the rotor. It is thusly that I learned that the concept of torque has been baked into the game’s physics model. It is also how I learned that I am by no means an aircraft designer. Of course I had already learned that decades ago through my aborted pursuit of an aeronautical engineering degree, but had seemingly forgotten.

The build process is relatively easy, although there is one part of it that can be infuriating. Although the artistic style looks to be “ready for VR,” this is not a VR title. As such, you have no depth perception when selecting parts and assigning their locations to be installed on the chassis. If it looks well positioned from the side, the depth is likely nowhere near where you want it. You can spin the camera around with the mouse, but no matter what angle you choose, there is likely to be a major mismatch that can only be seen from a different angle. It can be very fiddly trying to get parts to attach where you want them. I can’t say for sure, but that seems to be just the kind of thing that tends to be easier in VR. In any event, you get used to it, but it’s always a bit of a frustration with some of the parts.

The simplest vehicle you can build is basically some beams with a motor and four wheels attached. In sandbox mode, that’s just the start. In Expedition mode, that’s as far as you can go without driving around in the world hunting for hotspots to unlock more parts to attach to your car. These can include various types of motive force in the form of piston engines and jets, more advanced suspension pieces, aerodynamic fairings, propellers and rotors, wings, tail fins, etc. You can also collect blue bolts, but many of those are positioned out of your reach unless you do some tricky, stunt-like driving. I never did learn what the purpose of collecting those was.

Expedition mode is provided, I believe, as a reason and/or impetus to make you build better vehicles or, at least, vehicles better suited to the challenge at hand. For example, I had a nice little rail buggy to drive around in and I was quite happy with it, right up until I came to a span/bridge made out of two long, narrow beams. The beams were spaced apart such that I would only be able to cross the span in a vehicle with wheels further apart. Luckily, you can stop and go back into Build mode just about anywhere, so I quickly resolved that dilemma by adding a few more parts to widen the stance of my buggy.

There is also a multiplayer capability to provide for head-to-head racing. If history is any indication, if there is anything that will convince you to spend more time in the shop improving the speed and handling qualities of your car, it’s racing! I was unable to test that functionality but, quite frankly, I had no desire to. Why? Well, this brings us to the one thing that I just could not get to work to my satisfaction, or even minor dissatisfaction, truth be told.

No matter how many times I tried, no matter what I changed in the design of my vehicles, I could not drive the cars with any kind of sustainable control. My first attempt was with the keyboard, but the steering was almost binary in that it was either straight ahead or full turn. That caused nothing but spin-outs. That’s more or less to be expected when the keyboard is used as a steering controller, but the problem was just as bad with an Xbox controller. I checked the Settings screen, but there was no option available to slow the steering response to something more usable. After awhile, I just gave up.

Naturally, the inability to control the buggy in Expedition mode greatly increased the difficulty in finding and unlocking parts. This problem was also exacerbated by a wonky camera control that never seemed to choose the spot I wanted and insisted on not staying where I put it. Even when I could get the camera behind me and keep the car on a more or less straight path, poor world design in the form of blind cliffs often caused fatal crashes. Note that checkpoints are plentiful and resets of your car are very easy and cost-free, but even that wasn’t enough to compensate for a truly frustrating and aggravating collection of dozens upon dozens of spins, crashes, and fatal plummets off of cliffs and into pools of lava.

Conceptually, Trailmakers is on the right track, so to speak, but it is marred by one glaring issue (drivability) and by a number of things that need a little more tuning. Fortunately, this is precisely the kind of things that Early Access is intended to unmask in time to effect a repair before release. I had a little problem with the tutorial and received a helpful response from a developer very quickly, so I do believe that there is some hope for these flaws to be addressed before it’s too late - they are definitely responding to feedback. Also, it is important to note that my inability to control the car could have more to do with my own innate weakness when it comes to driving with anything but a steering wheel than it does a flaw in the game mechanics - if that is the case, then Trailmakers looks to be pretty close to completion and should be quite fun to play with.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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