Tiny Trax captures the simple joy of slot car racing, using virtual reality to push it to new levels of excitement and wonder.
If there’s one thing that FuturLab is great at, it’s taking a fairly simple idea and delivering it to perfection. Just look at Coconut Dodge, a game that’s literally just about moving a crab side to side to dodge falling coconuts that nonetheless provides hours of fun through its fiendish but captivating level design. Or Beats Slider, a sliding puzzle game that gives the timeless time-waster a new lease on life with a musical component. The Velocity games took things further to create deeper and more expansive experiences, but they’re still built upon a core of simple, endlessly satisfying loops.
When I saw FuturLab included in the long list of studios working PSVR titles prior to the headset’s launch, I got very excited. I can’t lie, I was mostly hoping for a “Velocity VR” or some such, but when that game was finally unveiled as Tiny Trax, I was pleasantly surprised. Now that I’ve had a chance to take it for a spin, I can say without hesitation that FuturLab and VR are a match made in Heaven – the study’s approach to rich, simple games is a perfect fit for both the strengths and the weaknesses of VR.
Essentially, Tiny Trax is a slot car racing game with a dose of kart racer inspiration. With your chosen vehicle, you hoon around eccentric courses, without having to worry about things like racing lines or crashes because you’re tied to a track. Instead, this game’s skill is in drifting around corners and managing the boost that you get as a result.
Unlike your typical slot car, the rides in Tiny Trax have a steering system which is primarily used to control your drifts around corners. Being on a track, you’ll go around any bends automatically, but if you don’t steer into it – or if you steer too much – you’ll go through it at a snail’s pace. With the right degree of turn you’ll slide around the corner without losing any speed, and if you hit it just right you’ll charge your all-important boost meter.
Earning and spending boost is the key to winning races in Tiny Trax. The speed increase is nothing to sneeze at, and with skillful drifting you can have it in action for almost an entire race. You don’t have to worry about flying off the track like you do with real-life slot cars, so a lot hinges on precision drifting and smart use of the speed boost that gets you. It took me a bit of getting used to, because the cars handle very differently to any other racing game I’ve played, but once I got a feel for it every race was a rush.
Tiny Trax isn’t beholden to the laws of real-world physics, so you can change tracks anywhere in a race at the press of a button. Each course has two tracks side-by-side, and while these they’re identical along the straights, every corner presents a choice: go with the inside track and shave precious milliseconds off your time, or take the outside for the bigger drift and more boost? The differences are slight – and to be honest, it’s not something I think about too much – but when a race is neck and neck, it can be the difference between first and second place.
You don’t need to worry about the positioning of other racers when you’re hopping from track to track (or even just looking to overtake someone), because cars in Tiny Trax simply ghost through one another instead of crashing. I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, it’s one less thing to think about, and it avoids the potential game-breaking issue of being stuck behind two cars taking up both lanes. On the other, having cars occupy a physical space would add an interesting tactical element, and could deepen the game for more hardcore players. On balance, I prefer it the way it is to having collisions be built in, but I think it could work well if it was an optional race setting.
The courses themselves are a joy to behold, with fantastic cartoony settings that fit broadly into three themes: Tropical Adventure, Frozen Forgeway, and Galactic Odyssey. Right from the first, each one is a roller coaster of bends, loops, and vertical sections. Not only is this exciting on that very primal level (who doesn’t love sending toy cars flying around loops?), but it adds an interesting challenge to steering. You view the course from a mostly static position in front of it, but vehicles’ turning is based on its own facing, a la Micro Machines, only now you have to factor in three dimensions of positions when you’re figuring out which way to turn. For the most part, this comes naturally – or at least, it does after a few mistakes – but there are still a few tricky sequences that still trip me up on occasion even after many hours of play.
That brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of Tiny Trax: the way it handles virtual reality. Instead of a camera sitting behind or inside your car, you watch each race from above the sidelines like you would a real-life slot car set. You can move your head around to get a slightly different perspective, and most courses require you to move your head around at least a little bit to follow the action. Aside from the courses themselves, there’s plenty of creative props to add to the excitement, and fun little easter eggs like an underwater section that you can dunk your head into.
Tiny Trax is a game that’s great played in short bursts, which also makes it a perfect fit for VR. This technology is still in its infancy, and motion sickness and comfort issues mean that longform experiences are still tricky to make work. With Tiny Trax, each race takes a few minutes at most, giving you lots of natural breaks to take your headset off, grab a drink, and bring yourself back to reality for a moment. Doing this, I was able to play hours-long sessions without any discomfort, which isn’t something I could say about any other VR game I’ve played. It also makes this a great game when you have a few spare moments to kill – not quite as pick-up-and-go as something like Coconut Dodge, given the hardware involved, but still a good choice for a quick burst.
Despite concerns about the alleged lack of support for PSVR even so early in its life, it’s a platform that’s going from strength to strength. Tiny Trax is the latest in a long line of fantastic games that know how to play to VR’s strengths and deliver experiences you couldn’t get anywhere else, and it’s one that any VR owner should have in their collection.
(I’m still holding my breath for Velocity VR, though. Make it happen, FuturLab!)
Tiny Trax is developed and published by FuturLab. It’s available now for PlayStation VR.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.