After the presentations wrapped up at Namco Bandai's recent UK event, I was left talking to a few of my colleagues and competitors in the bustling main room. A couple of beers were consumed. Wagers were made. Stories were swapped. And it quickly became apparent that we needed to find some multiplayer shenanigans as soon as possible. On cue, the crowds parted to reveal a lonely dev console bristling with controllers, offering a handful of local multiplayer levels for Ben 10: Galactic Racing.
Our course was clear, the gauntlets were thrown down and we revved our engines - and after a few minutes, we were surprised to discover that it's actually shaping up rather nicely. Ben 10: Galactic Racing is great fun with a few mates to overtake - but there's unfortunately a massive potato in its exhaust pipe.
We frequently argue that there's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from good places, and Galactic Racing succeeds mainly because it gleefully and shamelessly plunders almost every aspect of its design from the original seminal template. Mario Kart, obviously. You'll race around a selection of colourful tracks (one of which is an instantly recognisable homage to Rainbow Road complete with light bridges and yawning chasms), hit boost panels to gain speed, drift around corners, collect powerups to knock out the competition and even deploy a carbon copy of the terrifying Chain Chomp in order to blast through the pack. Galactic Racing offers nothing new and is about as derivative as you could expect from a karting game (what's new?) - but what should have caused a small team of gaming hacks to laugh in derision actually had us glued to the screen for several minutes. The controls are capable, the mechanics are instantly accessible and the courses contain just enough curvaceous corners and multiple routes to remain interesting.
In terms of characters, Galactic Racing includes a number of (what I'm told are) fan favourites from the Ben 10 television series. They all offer slightly different stats and handling styles, but each racer possesses a unique special ability that can be deployed after collecting powerups. Ben, for example, can turn into a variety of aliens using his Ultimatrix. Heatblast summons a massive burst of flames that increases his speed. Swampfire boosts along on a cloud of noxious fumes. Each character also has access to light and heavy cars, which provide the traditional balance between high acceleration and top speed.
As well as the singleplayer and multiplayer Grand Prix modes, players will be able to compete in time trials that promise to contain online leaderboards and possibly downloadable ghosts. However, as with all karting games, the multiplayer will almost certainly be the only relevant part of the package.
Unfortunately here's where my mixed praise has to pull into the pits - to be replaced by what can only be described as outraged bewilderment. Galactic Racing would be perfect as a downloadable title on XBLA and PSN; where it would be able to inspire impulse buys by offering polished content at a competitive price. Effectively, it could even corner the market on the under-supported kart racing genre if handled properly. I mentioned this to one of the nearby reps, who smiled, agreed, and promptly frowned as he realised the massive error in this statement.
Namco Bandai will be releasing Galactic Racing as a full price retail release. In an age where value has never been more important to gamers - and middle of the road titles flounder and fail nearly every month - this is nothing short of a potential disaster. The Ben 10 branding will probably guarantee that it ends up under some Christmas trees this year, but it's equally likely that many gamers will shun it out of hand. Galactic Racing is fun - but could a basic karting game with no track creation mechanics possibly justify a premium price tag?
Ben 10: Galactic Racing has a lot to prove in order to be worth £30-£40. We're looking forward to seeing whether or not the gamble will pay off.