Platform: Wii U
The Wii U needs Mario Kart 8 so desperately it isn't even funny, and as much as I was having a blast zooming around tracks that will now see Mario and his chums racing their karts and buggies and bikes up walls and along ceilings, I had to remind myself that we're all going to have to wait the better part of a year for this game, and that I won't be able to play it with the family at Christmas.
This sucks. Mainly because it's really good fun.
That should come as no surprise to anyone: Mario Kart is fun, that's a given. Nintendo perfected the kart racer a long time ago and have been gently tweaking it ever since, careful not to disrupt the party or rock the boat too much. To be honest, given that we only get one Mario Kart game per console that's not such a bad thing. And whatever you consider the series' lowest point too be, I'll bet you still had a blast playing it.
But you need to shake things up a little bit, and Nintendo's gimmick this time around is anti-gravity: hit the blue strip and your vehicle will transform into a magnetic hovercraft that will flip your perspective. There are courses -- such as the Mario Raceway-esque track I first encountered -- that offered up a blue strip that spanned the whole track, forcing all of the players onto a different racing plane and unifying perspectives as we all streaked towards a topsy-turvy Peach's castle in the distance. Other tracks, however, provided options, giving players a choice between terra firma and a risky, but potentially swifter route via the anti-grav feature.
Flipped up onto the walls, and scattered across different planes, it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of your opponents, and it will be interesting to see what new weapons appear (there were none in the demo we tried) to tie into the new feature. Combined with the glider, which returns along with submersible racing from Mario Kart 7, the change in gravity becomes rather mind-bending and, certainly if you're using the motion controls, it might take a little getting used to.
Speaking of motion controls, there was one thing I noticed very clearly during both my hands-on with the game, and observing others: the GamePad makes for an outstanding, borderline unfair steering wheel. I was a complete and utter failure on Mario Kart Wii using the Wiimote and the steering wheel peripheral, it was a disaster. But the precision afforded by the GamePad is seriously impressive. Moreover, it makes powersliding the easiest thing in the world and, for long sweeping bends in particular, is incredibly intuitive. Feathering the opposite-lock to maintain a perfect slide is easier than it has ever been before and, even for a powersliding veteran, I found the process rather more fiddly using the sticks.
Put simply, from my initial impression of the game, anyone using the GamePad might well have a serious advantage, and in a world where the Wii U can't support multiple GamePads, that could be an issue for local games. It's impossible to make a judgement call on this yet, we're not saying the game is broken, and we'd need serious time with the game to make absolutely sure, but my lap times were significantly better using the GamePad than on the Wiimote wheel or using the traditional stick-based controls after just my first race.
The risk/reward nature of the anti-grav feature is further explored in the handling model. The hovercrafts are a little more skittish and floatier, requiring a slightly greater degree of skill to manoeuvre deftly, particular around tight bends. There tend to be a few more traps and obstacles to void too, at least as far as we could tell from our three-race cup run, such as marauding Boos on the twisted walls of a haunted house. That level in particular threw everything at us: mind-bending shifts in perspective and multiple routes, track stretches littered with monsters and obstacles to avoid, a water-filled basement and several hang-gliding opportunities. It was fast, frantic, furious fun.
There are still questions to be answered, however, and hopefully Gamescom will provide some answers. Though the anti-grav feature does open up tracks very cleverly across four planes rather than one, I found that it made for a bit of a solitary experience at some points. One of my favourite tracks is Double Dash's Baby Park becuse it's a simple oval that gives players seven laps and a ridiculous number of powerups and disruptive items. It's carnage, but it firmly encapsulates a good deal of what Mario Kart has always been about: besting your chums in a damn close race that could be decided at the very last moment.
We need to see some new items and features, and it's worth noting that the tracks we played were certainly Mushroom Cup-esque affairs. The Luigi's Mansion level was impressive, but not exactly hugely taxing, and it's to be hoped that Nintendo really cut loose in some of the later tracks. I can't wait to see what the hell they do with Rainbow Road this time around.