Cracking Sands is a mobile racer that has just come out from developer Polarbit. It sports a cartoony style and promises a lot of mayhem within the confines of its portable world, but does this racer have us revving for more or does it run out of juice right before the finish line?
Polarbit's repertoire happens to include a great number of racing games (and one game starring a chicken), so I was confident that this game would be fun. After seeing the gameplay trailers, different screenshots, and other tidbits of info floating out there in the ether of the internet, I was positive that I'd get a kick out of racing around and shooting my fellow racers with mini-guns and rockets. And for the most part, I did.
The controls are very simple in Cracking Sands, which lets you tilt your device to steer your racer. You view the action from a third-person perspective, which kind of cuts off your view of the dangers ahead, so you really have to maintain your focus. One wrong tilt and you could be careening off a cliff. Thankfully, Cracking Sands includes a button that resets your position quickly. This ensures that you can always literally get back on track, albeit at the cost of precious race time.
In addition to the normal races, you'll be racing around tracks while playing with a few different rules. Head of the Pack tasks you with staying in first place for the duration of the match. A timer will count down from five seconds for as long as you stay in the lead. Each time it reaches zero, you get a point. First one to the max number of points wins. Then there's the Elimination mode, in which the timer counts down to zero every so often, eliminating whoever's in last place each time. Last one standing wins.
There are virtual face buttons on the screen that let you jump and use your weapons/gadgets. Buttons to fire your machine gun and activate your NOS boost are available to you from the very beginning, and you can always upgrade them or buy new weapons.
One weapon that was expensive, somewhat wonky to control, but overall very satisfying to use was the Guided Missile. Once deployed, you'll automatically go into a first-person perspective while you tilt your device to coax the rocket to your opponent's face. And what could be a more personal way of saying, "Hey, I'd like to win this race!" than by firing a missile at the dude in the lead's butt?
There are objects in the environment that can help you out as well. Batteries and charge pads give a boost to your power, which is expended every time you boost or use a gadget, so judicious driving and careful steering can ensure that you never run out of resources. Yellow pads give you an added jolt and send you flying forward, usually to prep you for some thrilling maneuvers, like a jump across a ravine.
It shouldn't be too hard to spot these helpful items, but the tracks usually have long, winding routes and many areas that offer divergent paths. You could stay on course, collecting batteries to top off your power, or you could stray from the path and go up a small ramp, which will then reward you with coins to spend in the shop. Sometimes these branching paths weren't very obvious and sent me screaming into a gorge, but at least the reset button proved to be useful.
It pains me to say that Cracking Sands does have its low points. For one, the AI racers will leave you in their dust almost all of the time once you get past the tutorial cup. The game forces you to replay races to get coins so you can upgrade your vehicle and weapons. But you can bypass that by purchasing the coins with real-world money. The game already costs a fairly premium price at $4.99, so how about we just take out the in-app purchases and make coins easier to get? No?
Also, the floating controls are horrible. Never switch from the tilt controls, because you will end up accidentally using up all of your energy by shooting off your machine gun. You'll then get very frustrated and snap your device in half, which none of us want to happen.
But if you can get past the almost-crippling difficulty, the forced in-app purchases, unclear terrain layout, and useless alternate controls option, you'll find a wacky racer that's fun to play and even has enough going for it to be a daily diversion.