Lego 2K Drive review: a charming open world kart racer slowed by live service roadblocks
Not built different
Lego 2K Drive has stirred up a surprising amount of thoughts, perhaps moreso than any other video game so far this year. I think it's because the game is an open world kart racer, a combination of words that sing to my nostalgic love for old-school racers, where as a kid I'd worshipped the majesty of Muppets Race Mania and Mario Kart (this is the only time I mention Mario Kart). In all respects, 2K Drive nails Lego's historically strong presentation, with slick courses and a genuinely lovely combo of grassy hills and dusty plains which certainly seem like a chip off Forza Horizon's shiny paint job. Building is upheld too, as a mighty garage lets anyone create an interesting set of wheels. The wheels start spinning, though, as the live service gates start closing. I don't think the gates totally shut off what's meant to be a fun time, but it certainly tries. Even an innocent kart racer can't escape the perils of live service, it seems.
2K Drive joins the club of Surprisingly Polished Lego Games - I don't understand how they're always so polished, but I am here for it - as it genuinely looks as if Bricklandia's been built brick by brick. Everything from the menu's thocks and snaps, to the sheen off a character's plastic casing suggests a level of care the Danes would be chuffed with. It doesn't click more true than those first cruises through its open zones, as blocky clouds drift over communities of aliens turned cowboys and swamps home to scarred megalodons. A bear informs me that he's in the midst of some info-collection among his clan, a red hat as his disguise. At one point you challenge a literal house fly to a race. Sure, the game's geared to a younger audience but it has an infectious charm and playfulness anyone, regardless of whether you're someone who has lower back pain or not, can appreciate.
Turn your attention to the garage and it's where the Lego bricks truly twirl. I am quite possibly the least creative, least patient person when it comes to building in video games, and yet I managed to make something in Lego! Having watched an excellent tutorial, I modified an existing boat by snapping a dick on it, topped with a muscle car-style thruster. All the tools are easy to rotate and select and paint, so while I had no inclination to do so, I'm confident you don't need to be an expert builder to craft whatever you'd like.
Driving, yes! Driving. I am… unsure how it feels in the hand. There are three different types of terrain: road, off-road, and water, each home to its own category of vehicle. So, as you explore the game's open world or participate in races, your vehicle automatically morphs back and forth to suit whatever terrain it's tackling. Alongside your own creations from the garage and story unlockables, it might seem like you've got an embarrassment of riches at your disposal; all the surfaces a way to cash out on a dizzying array of vehicular nuance.
Really, once you've driven a few cars and boats, you've driven them all. Some come outfitted with different perks, like one cadillac of mine which spits balls of explosive yarn out of its exhaust every few seconds. Another teenie offroader lets me heal loads when I drift and, somehow, it has the turning circle of a 32 metre tugboat (they all do). But you'll gravitate towards the most boring of all your bricky bangers because its needle hovers perfectly in your accelerometer's grey area. In the end, the one car which is medium sized and handles sort of well will be your go-to. That's not to say it isn't fun to create your own contraptions and swing them around tracks, just don't expect the act of driving to ever properly get your gears turning.
I'm holding the game's driving to high standards because of its open zones, each of which you'll unlock across its story mode and each suggestive of a freedom to progress at your own pace. In essence, it's Lego's attempt at a "Baby's First Forza Horizon", with maps home to quest markers and the like. Your ultimate aim is to win races, qualify for the three big grand prix cups, win those, then dethrone the evil villain. Except, unlike Forza Horizon, the emphasis is less on the act of driving and more on collecting. Again, like so many other Lego games, you're pushed to pocket something, except in this case these things are bound tightly to a dear old friend (enemy) called… *drum roll please*... live service.
"Where 2KDrive shines is in its races, which ironically, feel freer than its open world"
Never once did I have a pang to just drive for a bit, to either soak in the open world or bask in how certain cars perform. While each zone is genuinely beautiful and filled with personality, they alone aren't enough to inspire a lazy swing around some corners. Usually, I'd think it fair enough for a kart racer whose top priority is chaotic fun with power ups, not the girth of its Pirelli tyres. But the trouble is, 2K Drive's concerns lie with your holding attention span, employing textbook live service tricks to keep it from wavering. The ascent to the Sky Cup isn't as straightforward as a few race wins at your own pace, oh no, it's glued to an EXP bar and the most irritating of gatekeeping crimes.
The most forgivable of the open zone tricks are blue gates that'll pop up as you explore. Pass through one and you'll seamlessly enter a mini-challenge, which could see you snake around corners for as long as you can possibly drift, to simply taking in a new zone in as quick a time as you can. They're varied and challenging in a way that promotes using all the driving tools you've got available to you in creative ways. Unfortunately, there's no getting away from the pain. To progress, the story will artificially inflate itself in the laziest way possible, asking you to earn "26 flags" or "explore to reach level 20!". Sometimes, you'll arrive at a quest, only to be told you've got to complete a nearby mini-game which hadn't thought to spring up beforehand. Quickly you realise it would be more fun to tread on Lego in the dead of night when desperate for a piss, than it would be to defeat several waves of robots or chase after some dolphins, in what are often finicky, dull missions.
What riles me up about the whole live service side is the way it doesn't really mean anything. I liked unlocking new vehicles, but not once did I consider the EXP I'd earned and the level I'd attained anything other than a sequence of massive gates I'd need to slowly prize open. And not once did I think, "Hmmm, I'd better go and earn some EXP to make winning a bit easier!", because the perks and the green bars and the whatnots didn't ever seem to make any difference. Even the rate at which you earn currency is stingy, so spending in the in-game shop is a push. And yes, there's a battle pass and premium currency called BrickBux and I wouldn't be surprised if the algorithm is engineered to loosen the bank of mum and dad.
Where 2K Drive shines is in its races, which ironically, feel freer than its open world. Here you can employ boosts, jumps, and drifts to soar past your opponents in traditional kart-racing fare, collecting power ups to blast opponents to bits with. Tracks are well thought out, too, with one of my faves leading you up through a gigantic miner's tunnel where you'll need to weave through cart tracks to avoid a tirade of massive boulders. Little Lego touches add some interesting strategies too, as smashing into things helps regenerate your boost bar, as does a cheeky drift. Unlock a lawnmower vehicle and you can actually trim weeds out in the open world, turning them into boost-boosting crystals for when you enter a nearby race track set in the same area. One of my favourite teeny touches is watching my car reassemble itself as it heals, the pieces snapping together as I career off a ramp.
If you're uninterested in the Story mode, you can hop into separate race modes which have all the tracks unlocked if you'd rather just pootle about in those. There's the option to go up against bots or matchmake against up to seven players, although when I gave online matchmaking a go, races often devolved into lots of people disconnecting and driving into walls. Maybe this will iron itself out on release, so I wasn't too fussed by it (a win is a win). You might find the non-story modes a bit lacking in the course department, though. There's quite a few in each rotation, but because they're all set in the game's limited selection of open zones which can get a bit samey after a while. Or rather, I was hankering for a bit of a break from green and brown.
So yeah, Lego 2K Drive lacks the purity I'd hoped it would bring to the kart racing table. There's still plenty of character and a bustling world filled with charm, all slickly presented. The races are great fun, with some fantastic tracks to blast around with your pals online or off. But there's no escaping the live service roadblocks, which casts the game in the same unfortunate pall as so many other recent games. It's a Lego racing game, come on man...
This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the publisher 2K.