I embark on writing this preview with some major trepidation: for starters, driving and racing games are not my forte, so it would only make sense I’d pass upon participating in the Early Access for Trailmakers, an indie driving game from Flashbulb Games. Nonetheless, the emphasis on a DIY sandbox — a concept supported by its Lego-esque cars — within the premise of exploring an uncharted alien world struck me, and so I decided to take the plunge. As I forged on, however, the ensuing trial-and-error frustration had me worried it was not Trailmakers‘ failure to properly lecture me on its DIY design, but in my own ignorance of Driver’s Ed.
Is that the case? Well, let’s look at the actual game first: Trailmakers — or at least its Early Access version — offers single-player and multiplayer modes, the former featuring an Expedition and Sandbox mode and the latter a series of online rooms featuring more sandboxes and a “Dethrone” mode. Admittedly, I was a little too ashamed of my failed experiments to show them off to others, so I mainly stuck to tinkering in the Sandbox and setting off on the Expedition, wherein you gradually accumulate materials as you navigate an unknown planet. Thing start off fine there: through a series of tutorials, you construct an ideal vehicle, learn how to navigate the camera, how to automatically repair your car, and adjust to the controls.
That it starts off well enough is what convinces me Trailmakers isn’t a broken product: the cars operate as you’d expect, and as this is DIY, the physics feel natural in appropriately adjusting to whatever you craft. Moreover, earning parts is tied to progression: as you reach checkpoints, you’re rewarded with engines and suspension springs and the like, so you’re encouraged to experiment as the game goes on. These aren’t just haphazard rewards, either; the terrain adjusts to their respective quirks, so you’re more or less required to apply them (for instance, you’ll certainly more engines to climb that hill, or a RAW Jet Engine to fly off that ramp). Meanwhile, hidden parts are strewn across the world, so you naturally feel compelled to explore.
Therein lies where my troubles began: as the game gradually holds off on the tutorials, you’re expected to figure out the inner workings of crafting. That’s not problematic in itself, but as I obtained more materials, I naturally began expanding my vehicle with extra blocks and engines and whatnot, only for hardly any of my modifications to, well, work. My vehicle would spin wildly out of control, or loop about in circles, or crash into a wall as I helplessly attempted to back up. Needless to say, hours of failed experimentation can be quite irritating, but I wasn’t ready to blame the game: as I mentioned earlier, the physics feel on-point, so the natural conclusion would be wherever I went wrong in my faulty reconstructions.
However, Trailmakers fails to provide any such guide for my woes. Sure, the Help section in the pause menu provides some tips, but even those beg further questions: for instance, we’re told curved blocks are helpful when considering our vehicle’s aerodynamics, but what exactly is it referring it to? A quick inspection of the Sandbox mode, which features all the unlocked parts, does not indicate we have these in our possession, and even then, where would we put them? I fear I would simply make more mistakes when applying them to my car, and I would continue to be eluded as to why.
The problem, then, lies not in Trailmakers‘ current inability to get players started but in providing helpful blueprints for their success. Obviously, this is not to say we should be spoonfed every thirty seconds, but a game such as this shouldn’t be afraid to guide its users, and I fear players such as I — who may not be intimately familiar with driving or cars — may feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the final product. I may be aware of the suspension spring’s use in shock absorption and smooth driving, for instance, but unless I know how to use it, it remains out of my reach.
It’s a shame I walked away discouraged from Trailmakers, as everything else feels spot-on: the minimalist sound accompanies a captivity world, the instant-repair option is more than convenient, saving and importing vehicles is a common-sense feature, and the addition of GIF-making will certainly lead to hilarity. What we have here is a game providing a great base, but lacks the tools to make it truly accessible for players like me, and I believe that should be the focus for Flashbulb moving forward. I will be watching Trailmakers to confirm if it meets this goal, as I hope it doesn’t continue to leave me in the dust.