Xbox on Windows Phone Review: Cracking Sands
The Xbox on Windows Phone lineup is starting to amass a fair selection of racing games. We’ve got street racers, kart racers, and one awesome boat racer (Hydro Thunder GO). Now a new entry has come along: Cracking Sands - published by Microsoft and programmed by Swedish developer Polarbit, who also made Reckless Racing for Windows 8. If you’re looking for a racer that looks and plays differently from the others, Cracking Sands might just fit the bill.
What’s in a name?
The English student in me can’t help trying to dissect this game’s unusual title. Does it mean that sand is cracking part? Or that something called ‘Cracking’ actually distributes sand to things? Hmm…
My best guess is the title’s ‘cracking’ is the British slang use of the word, meaning impressive or great. “That’s a cracking good biscuit, govnah!” I can just hear Windows Phone Central’s Rich Edmonds remark. So, apparently the sand in this game is great. Still, even if we accept that meaning, it doesn’t exactly describe a racing game very well, does it? Perhaps it makes more sense in northern Swedonia from whence the game hails.
Down to business
Silly title aside, Crackings Sands is an ATV (all-terrain vehicle or 4-wheeler) racer. Groups of tiny male or female racers who resemble Xbox Live Avatars but with far less polygons drive around a handful of mildly fantastical tracks, each selfishly trying to come in first, the jerks.
The game consists of two primary modes: Campaign and Single Race. The latter starts out locked, but as you complete cups in the campaign, four Single Race types eventually unlock. The first type, Time Trial, is exclusive to Single Race as it doesn’t turn up in the Campaign. As you’d expect, Time Trial allows players to race on the track of their choice without competing against AI racers. It also supports downloading your Xbox Live friends’ ghosts and competing against those, which you’ll need to do for an Achievement.
The campaign is divided into four cups. Once you complete every race in a cup, the next one unlocks. To unlock individual races within a cup, you’ll need to earn a certain number of stars from other races in that cup. Coming in first gets you three stars, second two stars, and third one star. Any place lower and you fail the race.
Three types of races pop up in Campaign:
- Race: Vanilla racing. Complete a certain number of laps.
- Elimination: The racer in last place after each lap gets eliminated.
- Head of the Pack: A sort of king-of-the-hill race. Every five consecutive seconds that you remain in first place earns a point. Reach the race’s point goal to win. If you don’t get into first place quickly, the AI will likely win.
The game has four unique environments, three of which have three track variants and one with four variants. That makes for a total of 13 tracks, though it feels like less because of the recycled environments. How many of those environments are actually sandy?? Just one: the Guano Desert. Pirate Bay has lots of lava, Downtown holds a ruined city, and Creek Mountain features water and mountains.
Initially, many players will struggle to even complete races in third place, let alone reach first. The AI racers are extremely aggressive and will nail you with advanced weapons from the get-go. If you’re not terrible at racers, you should be able to start passing races before long.
The coins you find scattered throughout the track and the money you get from coming in third place or above will allow you to buy upgrades and become more competitive. After a few upgrades, the game actually gets easier, and I often came in first place on my first try. That said, several races in the fourth cup return to frustrating difficulty. Enemies pummel you with weapons repeatedly and it sometimes feels like you need luck to come out on top.
I’m not referring to the game’s single music track, which gets old very quickly. Come on developers, the public domain is your friend.
Actually, the Garage is where you’ll go to buy upgrades and equip weapons. Note that each type of upgrade actually has multiple subcategories to choose from! They’re easy to miss, which could put new players at a disadvantage.
- Character: Buy skins, hats, eyes, and mouths for your racer. This category is extraneous, so you’ll probably want to save your money for the actual upgrades.
- Vehicle: Buy new ATVs, engines, and tires. Each raises one or more stats, which can make a big difference in winning races. Buy the best engine as soon as possible.
- Weapons: These come in offensive, defensive, and other. I found rockets and mines to be the most useful early on, but buying and upgrading the weapons that have their own Achievements is important too.
I ran so far away
The camera takes a zoomed-out third person view, giving a much more distant look at the action than previous Xbox Windows Phone racers. Don’t confuse it for a top-down racer (à la Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2), though; Cracking Sands still plays like a more traditional racing game.
The distant view lets you see more of the surroundings to your side than a close perspective would, but it also makes it hard to discern environmental details. Objects routinely block the player’s view of his or her vehicle and the path ahead. In all likelihood the zoom level was probably chosen to hide the relative low fidelity of the graphics from the player. It doesn’t hurt the game too much, but it takes some getting used to.
Tilting to steer the vehicles works well. Your ATV automatically accelerates and there is no brake button. The default control scheme allows you to tap anywhere on the left side of the screen to jump. Putting your right thumb down on the right side causes four item buttons to pop up, at which point you sort of rock your finger in the direction of the item you want to use. Frankly, this method of item selection is like trying to brush someone else’s teeth while they’re riding a mechanical bull. Challenging, but not fun.
You’ll want to turn off those ‘floating action buttons’ right away. With that option off, the buttons simply have dedicated places on screen. Unfortunately, jumping reverts to single tiny button on the left of the screen. I wish we could just tap anywhere on the left with floating action buttons deactivated.
The game has Achievements for getting three stars in every race, a couple of Time Trial Achievements, two for buying and upgrading every single weapon, and several weapon-specific Achievements. I actually found some of the weapon Achievements (like the freeze ray one) to be tough because when you’re in first (which you have to be just about the whole time in order to avoid losing) you won’t get to shoot them. Still, as long as you master the game’s difficulty curve, you can probably get them all in just a day or two.
Cracking Sands’ difficulty curve will probably scare off casual players, which is a shame. Getting shot to pieces by the other racers is definitely annoying; I almost wish weapons could be disabled. The game also crashed and glitched on me a few times, but it’s less buggy than Extraction, at least. Those annoyances aside, Cracking Sands does have a terrific upgrade system and a fairly well laid-out campaign, which puts it above Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Asphalt 5 in my eyes. If you’re fairly good at racing games or want some pretty fast Achievements, take a crack at these sands.
Cracking Sands costs $2.99 an there is a free trial. Get it here on the Windows Phone Store.