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Deathsprint 66 is Mario Kart by way of The Running Man by way of Squid Game

Red shells with a lot more red

A collection of clone racers wall-running in Deathsprint 66
Image credit: Secret Mode

If you're from the USA, Britain or France, and also possibly a Victorian time-traveller, you might be familiar with the dunce cap - a conical humiliation bestowed on struggling or misbehaving schoolchildren, who were then told to go sit in the corner and think about their sins. Well, get ready for the dunce cosmetic. In Sumo Newcastle's Deathsprint 66, an 8-player on-foot racing game based on Stephen King's dystopian novel The Running Man, players build a Hype multiplier by combo-ing stunts such as railgrinds, and also, murdering each other.

Hype unlocks combat abilities in the race itself. Once the race is over, it's converted into a Fame rating, which can be used to attract sponsors who will shower you in glossy new suits, character meshes and player banners, that you may cut a dash while you're carving a swathe through the other runners. "It's important that we have a huge degree of player customisation for when you're making those kills," notes game director Andrew Willans. "So you can peacock when you do put someone down - the classic Call Of Duty killcam stuff."

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As any 24/7 streamer knows, however, fame has to be maintained once earned, and nothing turns fans off faster than the sight of their champion getting repeatedly decapitated by a flying buzzsaw. As a "clone jockey" wired into the brain of a freshly vat-grown athlete, you can "die" an infinite number of times in Deathsprint, but every tumble will cost you Hype and Fame - and besides, you only have a limited supply of clones in your sponsor's colours.

"If you burn through those clones in a race, we put you in the network suit of failure, which is kind of like a dunce's costume - it's a crash test dummy suit," explains Willans. "So there is an element of ridicule there, and hopefully players will enjoy and celebrate that, much in the same way that when you die, it needs to be laugh-out-loud funny. You shouldn't feel too frustrated by the deaths, because you're going to see heads rolling and bodies spinning around, and hopefully people will embrace that and lean into it."

It's hard to say without actually playing the thing - during the presentation, I only got to see a few minutes of very pre-alpha capture, with the all-important gore yet to be added - but Deathsprint 66 does look quite funny, though I can imagine it falling foul of the "git gud" crowd. It's also a denser blend of cultural inputs than I was expecting. The Running Man aside, the game's inspirations include Alita: Battle Angel - "very much the PG-13 take on the concept" says Willans, which I'm not sure is an assessment I agree with, having read the manga - and Netflix show Squid Game, which is now also a videogame because irony is dead.

A group of clone runners crossing a hazard yellow line in Deathsprint 66
Image credit: Secret Mode

As a racer, meanwhile, Deathsprint is kind of a mixture of Mario Kart's maddening yet somehow irresistible unfairness and the snazzier, UK-developed racing games of yesteryear - arcade roadsters like Blur and, sob, WipEout. "I've made a lot of racing games over the years," Willans reflects. "I was on Driver: San Francisco, then we did a lot of driving missions for Watch Dogs, and then we worked on The Crew. So yeah, there's quite a lot of experience from that side of things in the studio. And also within the broader Sumo family there's Team Sonic Racing, so it would be crazy to think some of that DNA hadn't bled into it."

Going by the presentation, your character in Deathsprint handles more like a car than a person. You hold right trigger on a gamepad to accelerate, and you can drift improbably around corners to keep your combo going between crowd-pleasing moves such as wall-running. It's no kind of serious racing sim, but there are nuances that remind me of trying to shave off seconds in Mirror's Edge. You soft-lock to a rail while grinding, for example, but you can also lean with the analogue sticks to increase your speed or avoid a trap. There will also be a decent selection of capital-A Accessibility features, Willans says, including automatic acceleration.

Traps! We probably shouldn't skim past them. Track hazards include spike pits, swinging blades and lasers, all tricky to avoid when you're stampeding around a corner, but it sounds like the greater threats are other players. Power-ups include the Buzzsaw - Mario Kart's unguided Green Shell, except it'll cost the target limbs rather than coins - and a proximity mine that can be glued both to floors and walls. "Probably a more recent touchpoint would be something like The Boys," Willans says of the resulting carnage. "We want that those laugh-out-loud, shocking moments of gore and surprise, but not gratuitous, you know, not kind of venturing into SAW territory."

If Deathsprint 66 draws on a lot of different sources, it's also a much more focussed project next to Sumo Newcastle's previous Hoods: Outlaws And Legends, which Willans concedes was wildly overscoped. The new game began life as a PvE escape room experience, closer to the plot of The Running Man book. "But as we kind of followed the fun," Willans says, "what we found is that we just needed to simplify, and we learned a lot of lessons on Outlaws and Legends - we tried to do too much with that game. There were a lot of mechanics, a lot of features, and a lot of kind of all-or-nothing objectives.

A lone clone runner in a starting crouch in Deathsprint 66 against a backdrop of angular lights
Image credit: Secret Mode

"So we thought, let's not go down that path again, let's just keep trimming until we have something which is very pure, you know, an experience where the three C's [Character, Camera and Control] feel best in class - that sensation of a flowstate should be present at all times. And if people feel that quality, you can add things to it, without people booting it up for the first time and going 'what am I supposed to be doing, am I running, am I shooting' - too many kinds of competing objectives."

Deathsprint 66 will release with one core mode, the 8-player gallop. The developers have experimented with other modes, including team-based and last-person-standing modes, which might end up in the game, but for launch, they're trying to conserve their resources and avoid splitting the (skill-based) matchmaking pool. I'm definitely going to end up in the shallow end of said pool, "suit of failure" and all, but I do like me some dystopian arcade racing with buzzsaws now and then, and this has the makings of a champ.

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