Trailblazers channels Splatoon into an energetic, clever sci-fi racer

It's weird—refreshingly weird—to be playing a racing game and thinking about strategy moment-to-moment.

I've been a bad PC gamer lately: instead of playing PUBG or CS:GO or Rainbow Six: Siege, I've been playing Splatoon 2, Nintendo's colorful take on the shooter. It's a great game, and the idea of covering the playing field in ink to help you swim faster—and balancing that goal with the more immediate payoff of killing enemy players—is ripe for remixing in other genres. I didn't think the first would be a racing game, but after half an hour of playing Trailblazers, I feel pretty confident in saying the idea works brilliantly. It's the first racing game I've played where co-op is the core conceit: you're always racing with a teammate or two, dragging paint behind your car to carve a colorful trail in your wake that doubles as a long, winding boost pad for your team. The idea takes only a few seconds to understand, but it brings a surprising amount of strategy to a genre about going fast.

For example: maybe it's not actually that important for you to go fast. Trailblazers' roster of eight drivers have varied stats for painting (how long they can lay down paint before the tank's empty and needs a few seconds to recharge), boosting, and handling. In team racing (3v3) and partner battle (2v2v2), which I expect will be Trailblazers' bread and butter, your final team score comes from a bunch of factors: which positions your drivers placed in, how much painting and boosting you did, and so on. Getting first is worth a load of points, but it isn't the end-all be-all.

Good teams will pair complementary drivers. In one race, I played a balanced racer who could lay down loads of paint while my colleague Lucas from GamesRadar played a boosting fiend who could hit major top speeds but sucked at everything else. I mostly followed in his wake and made sure our turquoise paint trail was interrupted around the entire track, leaving a clear boosting path from start to finish. But it may have been just as effective to weave across the track painting over our opponents' color, interrupting their ability to boost. 

It's weird—refreshingly weird—to be playing a racing game and thinking about strategy moment-to-moment, and changing that strategy a few times every race. Trailblazers does a smart job of adding bits of complexity around its paint idea: most stages have branching paths, and in one race I took the same route on every lap but the last one—a costly mistake, because suddenly all the boosting surface I'd worked up was wasted when I needed it most. At other moments, I had to choose between a steady stream of paint behind my car or using the entire paint meter to fire a paint volley ahead, causing an enemy racer to spin out if I made my shot right. It's a simple offensive move, but I love the depth it adds—in a pinch, you can also use your paint attack to patch a hole in your trail and keep your boost chain going.

None of this would ultimately matter if Trailblazers didn't feel good, but it has the spot-on physics of an arcade racer. Its hovercars aren't too floaty but respond with more snap and less weight than the engine-heavy ships of Wipeout. You'll need to brake and drift around sharp turns, and some of the harder tracks have F-Zero-style 90 degree turns that will mess you up if you're not quick on the brakes. Its car and track designs are also a joy to race around: they're just popping with color and an exaggerated sci-fi aesthetic that's a refreshing change from the racing genre's obsession with detail and realism.

Look at that giant robot head! Man, that's a cool track.

It's also refreshing that Trailblazers isn't locking anything away behind a progression system. It's determined to be a convenient multiplayer game from the moment you boot it up: all 10 tracks can be played immediately in four ways (forwards, backwards, mirrored and backwards mirrored), all the characters are unlocked, and you can play split-screen local and online, if you have a friend over. There's a story mode with weird aliens and goofy dialogue, and race modes like time trial that are still built around the paint system. It feels like a game from another era, and my only worry is how short-lived that might make it as an indie racer. 

Racing games like Forza Horizon 3 and Project Cars, the kinds that tend to be big on PC, are vast and deep, games you can play for dozens of hours as you unlock new cars and parts and challenges to complete. I think Trailblazers will be as fun after 20 hours as it was in the first 30 minutes I played, if you have a team to race with and competitors to find online. It has the same appeal as Mario Kart, with decisions to make every few seconds that will vary every single race. It just doesn't have the breadth of stuff that so many other racers do.

I hope that doesn't hold it back, because Trailblazers deserves better. It has a great idea, and it executes on that idea in ways that are more clever and thoughtful than I expected. I already want to play more of it and talk paint strats with a co-op driving partner. It's not far out: Trailblazers lands on PC and consoles in May.