Needs more Octan
I admire that so many developers and publishers out there are still chasing that kart racing checkered flag. Because there is one clear winner in this category, every other racer we get is just lucky to finish as a runner-up. Over the past few years, we’ve seen several new games in the genre come and go with little fanfare. I don’t know if the same fate will befall LEGO 2K Drive, but what I do know is the racing in this game is legitimately fun.
It’s just, well, a good chunk of everything around that racing is rather lackluster.
LEGO 2K Drive (PC, PS4, PS5 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S)
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: May 19, 2023
Welcome to Bricklandia, where racing is king, monsters are real, and you can’t get out of your car. As the newest driver on the block, you’re recruited by local legend Clutch Racington to prove your mettle on the track and defeat the vile racer Shadow Z to win the Sky Cup. It’s the exact type of simple story one should expect from a sandbox LEGO racing title, complete with child-friendly puns and jokes from the talkative supporting cast. While the story may live at the shallow end of the pool, the racing of LEGO 2K Drive has a surprising level of depth to it.
Don’t be mistaken. This is a kart racer through and through, with simple driving mechanics, weapons, boosts, and drifting that can take a bit of getting used to if you’re coming to it directly from the Mario Kart series. There’s also a handbrake that lets you do 90-degree turns on the fly, a mechanic the game makes full use of in its track design. All of LEGO 2k Drive‘s modes are available right from the start. There’s the story mode, where you compete in a variety of races and challenges as you work toward winning the Sky Cup. There’s the Cup Series, where you’ll race through four of the game’s 26 tracks trying the highest score to land atop (or above) the podium. There’s a Race mode where you can test each LEGO 2k Drive track individually. Finally, there’s a Minigame mode where you can play the minigames from the story mode. The Cup Series and Race modes can be played offline or online, though the latter option is only available if you sync up a 2K account to your game.
While the central appeal of LEGO 2K Drive lies in the sandbox areas of its story mode, its strength is in its track layouts. There are tricky tracks in Bricklandia, made trickier with the inclusion of small hazards like weeds that slow you down or spiders that block your view until you button mash enough to get them off of you. As you get into the meat of the campaign, you’ll unlock perks you can apply to your car that increase your boosting ability or give your vehicle extra health so it won’t fall apart so quickly from damage. While your driver level determines your overall stats, perks can give you a slight advantage. The first perk I unlocked improved the handling of my cars, which was appreciated given the initial handling was looser than I like.
Choosing the right perks is crucial because, throughout LEGO 2K Drive, you’ll be driving one of three different types of vehicles at any given time. As you compete in a race or drive around the world, your vehicle will transform between a street racer, an off-road racer, and a boat, depending on the surface you’re on. Each time your vehicle changes forms, it does so in an explosion of brick building that still puts a smile on my face. It’s a seamless experience, and the fact that you can have that kind of variety in a single race is why I find the racing in this game to be as fantastic as it is.
Also fantastic are the designs of the vehicles. LEGO 2K Drive comes with a fully featured vehicle design workshop where you can make just about any car you want so long as you have the pieces available for it. Or you can make a piece of crap like I did. As long as it has wheels to race on or a base to float on, you drive it. But know that size and weight matter, so don’t expect a ridiculously huge vehicle to handle like a nimble racer. There is an extensive tutorial that teaches you the most efficient ways to build your dream car. If you need inspiration, the developers did an outstanding job of putting together unique rides for nearly every racer you’ll face. My favorites were the hot chocolate mugs on wheels. For as much imagination as the developers put into the car designs, it doesn’t feel like that much thought was put into where you would be racing.
Bricklandia is split into four sandbox biomes. In the campaign, you’ll start in Turbo Acres for the tutorial before unlocking Big Butte County, Prospect Valley, and eventually Hauntsborough. Each area is pretty small in size. While the layout of each biome is unique and makes excellent use of the vehicle transformation gimmick, it was hard for me to shake the feeling of deja vu when driving through them. Part of the problem is Big Butte County and Prospect Valley feel interchangeable. That should have been something the developers tried to avoid when you only have four maps and one is for the tutorial.
The feeling of deja vu extends to the tracks. Because there are only three biomes beyond Turbo Acres, that means there are only three themes for all 26 tracks.
As you drive around each biome, you’ll encounter big blue arches signifying the various challenges you can attempt. Challenge types can run the gamut, covering everything from retrieving out-of-control jetpacks to driving your boat on a track designed for your street racer. My favorite of the game asks you to Wile E. Coyote it straight into a wall. Less fun were the challenges that involved pushing oddly shape objects to a goal point within a time limit. While I was happy to go for the gold in several of these challenges, there were more than a few I was perfectly fine sticking with my bronze.
If challenges aren’t your thing, know that you don’t have a choice if you want to see the story through to the end. LEGO 2K Drive likes to put up as many roadblocks as reasonably possible to keep players from progressing too fast. Whether it’s forcing you to reach a certain racer level or requiring you to beat a minigame before you can participate in a race, you’re going to be spending time just driving around looking for challenges to complete. But even some of those are restricted until you hit a certain level, which goes against the spirit of a sandbox racer.
This style of gatekeeping is an outdated idea of extending gameplay, and it sort of backfires here because it shows LEGO 2K Drive is light on content. Twenty-six tracks isn’t a lot, and while the number of challenges might look numerous while playing, I came to realize that’s only because they’re all crammed into these small sandbox maps. It might not be so bad if the reward for completing some challenges wasn’t so pitiful.
The big rewards are in the races where you’ll face off against an eclectic group of rivals. There are three race difficulties (C, B, A) that correspond to your driver level. When going through the campaign, you’ll start in C until you win enough checkered flags and raise your driver level high enough to jump to B, and then again to A. What’s strange is I had a more difficult time winning in the C-class races than I did with the B-class or A-class. Maybe it’s just because I got better at drifting and boosting, but I find it odd that all my wins in C-class were by tenths of a second, while in B and A, I was winning by two or more seconds each race.
Part of the reason all of my wins were by a few seconds or less is LEGO 2K Drive has a nasty case of rubberbanding. Think of the worst AI-come-from-behind win you’ve experienced in Mario Kart and get ready to see it in every race you enter. Couple that with the AI utilizing shortcuts you may not have had a chance to discover yet, and I wouldn’t blame you for calling BS if you lose the checkered flag in a photo finish. Again, I still won all of my races, it’s just rubberbanding made my wins far narrower than they otherwise would have been.
One thing to know about the races of LEGO 2K Drive is they can get hectic. Between gigantic vehicles, LEGO pieces flying all over the place, weapons coming out of nowhere, and a terrible item that portals you from your current position to near the front of the pack—and often right into a wall or hazard—it can be tough to get a clear sense of what is actually going on around you. There were a few races where I completely missed a turn because I was racing against giant vehicles that blocked my view while I opted for a tiny car I built myself. I would have attempted to build larger vehicles if unlocking the pieces wasn’t such a chore.
There is a fair number of pieces available right from the start, but earning new pieces playing the story mode can come at a snail’s pace. Sometimes you’ll unlock one new brick type, while other times, a single decal. More pieces are available in the in-game store, which might be a dealbreaker for most players.
As you play through the campaign, you’ll collect Brickbux with each race and challenge you complete. Sometimes, it’s pocket change, other times, you’ll score a decent bit of cash. Brickbux can be spent at Unkie’s Emporium, where you’ll learn most everything in this game is way overpriced. Vehicles start at 10,000 Brickbux, while new minifigure avatars can run you 2,000 ‘bux and up. New pieces for the vehicle workshop are several thousand ‘bux as well. By the time I completed the campaign and won the Sky Trophy, I had about 33,000 Brickbux. Took me all of four purchases to wipe out my earnings. Considering how slowly ‘bux are earned from completing challenges and the fact you will hit a difficulty spike that may have you looking at the Emporium for answers, the publisher is clearly hoping people shell out real cash to supplement their in-game wallets. That probably explains why there’s no create-a-Minifigure feature here.
Can you just build whatever they sell in the Emporium? Maybe. I didn’t take enough time to make my own version of the Hamburghini to see how it would match up to the store-bought version. But the cars up for purchase may come with stats and pieces you won’t be able to recreate in the workshop. If you don’t want you or your kids dropping real money in this game, you can keep Unkie’s Emporium inaccessible as long as you don’t link up your game to a 2K account. But that comes at the cost of not getting access to multiplayer.
As I said at the top of this review, I think LEGO 2K Drive is a legitimately good racer. It handles well, it runs at an unshakable frame rate on PS5, the vehicle workshop is easy-to-use, and the track designs, while sorely limited in theme, complement the eccentricities of the gameplay. When I’m playing through the Cup Series either against the AI or online, I’m having a great time. It’s when I go back into the story mode that I’m reminded these worlds are rather basic, the monetization is questionable, and there just isn’t enough content in it right now.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]