LEGO® 2K Drive Review: LEGO, Mario Kart And Microtransactions [Guest Reviewer]

We were fortunate to have the chance to receive an Awesome Edition download code for the new LEGO 2K Drive. Released a month or two ago, I passed it on to Harry, our in-house gamer, to look at. Here are his thoughts…

A fun kart racer that exemplifies some of the gaming industry’s worst habits.

So, let’s talk about the kids’ game about building wild and wacky vehicles to get around and accomplish a variety of esoteric tasks in an open world that came out in early-to-mid-May, 2023. No, not Tears of the Kingdom; the other one. I’ll admit, I don’t envy the team at 2K right now because that’s got to have been a bit of a blow already, even before the whole micropayment issue, but I’ll get to that in due time.

After agreeing to three different EULAs and signing up for another reason to ignore my email inbox, I started on 2K Drive’s story mode and right out of the gate, it does very little to hold up the pretence of any sort of narrative beyond ‘it is a video game story’. Why do we hate Shadow-Z despite his complete non-presence in gameplay until the final race? Because stories need to have a villain. Why are we supposed to want the Sky Trophy? Because stories need something the protagonist wants…Okay, fine, your mentor character rings you up halfway through the game to say that his dog kept eating his bills and he needs the prize money or else the bank will repossess his headquarters. Will that do?

So, the writing isn’t one of the game’s strong points. I know this because it’s aiming to be a comedy game, with over-the-top characters who get introduced with a freeze-frame and a splash screen like they’re in a Guy Ritchie film (or a Borderlands game, given it’s 2K), a laissez-faire approach to vehicular manslaughter, and a smattering of minigame modes that sound like someone was filling out a mad libs page. But it didn’t make me laugh; well, tell a lie, there was one bit that got a chuckle out of me. Without wishing to spoil, it was the cutscene after the second major race against all the rival characters.

Game Play

That being said, the story isn’t necessarily what we’re here for in a racing game. It’s got an open world and that requires context, so here, have some; but the core gameplay loop is pretty clearly where the time has gone. And to be fair, it is rather fun; There’s a wide variety of main racetracks across three themed lands (American Desert World, Gold Rush World, and Spooky World) plus the tutorial race against the mentor character, Chuck Racington, and the Sky Cup against the main villain, Shadow-Z. In the story mode, each track has a rival character with a unique skill (such as being immune to a certain powerup or having extra shields).

The multi-vehicle transformation is also an interesting mechanic. There are three types of vehicles (streetcar, off-road car, and boat), and you have one of each equipped. You can create multiple loadouts with different vehicles for different tasks, and you unlock passive perks such as increased boost from breaking objects as well, which can augment your playstyle. The system works pretty well, though I do wish that you could have different sets of character perks with each loadout as well rather than having to switch them out manually, and I found it useful to easily switch between the vehicles I used for races and the ones I used for the tower defence and rescue minigames or open-world side activities.

I admit I was sceptical about the open-world format at first, and I still have some quibbles with it; my main one is the lawnmower. You can get a lawnmower from a quest in Big Butte (American Desert World) and use it to mow patches of weeds that slow you down in the overworld, which replaces them with crystals that give you a bunch of boost energy, and they stay this way in races that go past them (since all the racetracks are set in the overworld locations).

That being said, I like that the overworld provides downtime from the intensity of the race missions. Rather than making a beeline for the next campaign objective, I might get distracted by an impromptu race where I have to avoid hitting the fences around a short track, or spend a certain distance drifting inside a time limit, or use jetpacks to retrieve flying cows.

These side activities reward currency for Unkie’s Emporium (the in-game store) and XP for unlocking perk slots. You’ll need to do at least a few of these activities to progress as there are two points in the story where you are asked to level up before it lets you proceed. Some side activities also offer additional parts for vehicle customization or whole vehicles (such as the aforementioned lawnmower) for completion in addition to currency and XP. I also appreciated the existence of the overworld races that take you through the shortcuts for the different main tracks, though I possibly underutilized them in my time with the game.

LEGO® 2K Drive: Loot for coming first!

Except for the three Grand Brick Arena races and the Sky Cup, you only need to place ahead of the rival character to proceed; if you place third but they place fourth, that still counts as a win, which I like because it makes progress more accessible to less skilled players, such as kids, which are ostensibly the game’s target audience. Rather than being required for progress, placing first gives additional rewards, such as one of the rival character’s vehicles. My one quibble with how the main races are implemented is that they don’t have a quick restart button, so whenever I lost, I had to either pause the game before crossing the finish line to manually restart the race, or else sit through two loading screens and a (thankfully skippable) cutscene of the match commentators quipping about the upcoming race like Statler and Waldorf.

The powerups all feel useful, with nothing like the coins in Mario Kart that just take up your item slot. While lacking an equivalent to the Blue Shell to focus fire against the player in first, the game does seem to provide better powerups such as a teleport towards the front for players who lag significantly behind. I like that I rarely got stun-locked, and even when stuck by spider webs I could still move forward while mashing the button to get rid of them.

I’m also a big fan of the boost mechanic, where rather than being a single-use power up you have a boost meter that fills up on its own, with things like drifting and breaking Lego objects giving you additional boost fuel, and character perks that can increase how much fuel you get from certain sources. You can boost at any time, but waiting until you have a full boost meter (once you reach Class A at level 20, at least) lets you quick-bash, where you double-tap the boost button and get an extra-fast boost that damages other racers and Lego objects in your path.

First rule of GUI design: if it doesn’t need to be on the screen, don’t put it there.

I do have some issues with the GUI. When you destroy another racer, a notification pops up smack in the middle of the screen with the currencies and XP you get from it that blocks your view of where you’re going, and while the mini-map is in the bottom-left corner, there isn’t an actual map of the full track anywhere except for the loading screen. The left-hand side of the screen is taken up by a list of where every racer is currently placed, which is not necessary information to always have on-screen.

The Garage

But never mind all that. This is a LEGO blog, and a LEGO game, so you want to know about the vehicle building. It’s…well, it’s certainly there. The first issue is that there’s not really much reason to build custom vehicles since you have to pick from a selection of fixed stat-blocks, with the ones unlocked by default being easily outpaced in all areas by the vehicles you earn from completing story missions and the better ones costing between 800 and 1500 Brickbux. To put that in perspective, story missions reward on average between 100 and 200 Brickbux the first time you complete them with diminishing returns afterward, and online PvP matches award a frankly pitiful 25 Brickbux at the maximum, dependent on how you place; but I’ll get back to that.

The second issue with car customization is the controls. On mouse and keyboard at least they’re quite fiddly, and I frequently had to try multiple times to place a brick where I wanted it to go, and that’s when it isn’t just being obtuse. On one occasion, it wouldn’t let me place a 2×4 brick longways at the back of the car, but it would let me place a plate that went the same number of studs past the back of the frame and then place the brick underneath that. As an experiment, I tried to recreate the Ninjago set ‘Lloyd’s Race Car EVO (71763)’, a process which took about three hours. Part of this was wrangling with the controls, and part of it was figuring out where all the parts were in the interface. This, at least, was mitigated by the ability to filter the available parts by size on a popout grid, which was nice (despite occasional graphical glitches making me have to try a couple of times before it would show me the results). The main sticking point, though, was realizing that there are several pieces which I couldn’t seem to find in the editor, including the 1×2 grid piece, notable by its absence – given how often it is used for grilles on the front of vehicles. Additionally, other pieces are locked behind overworld quests and story missions (which is annoying but ultimately fine) or micropayments.

The Elephant in the Room

And here is the point at which the elephant in the room can be ignored no longer. The micropayments. For the less videogame-savvy among you, a micropayment is when you spend real money on an in-game item or currency. In the days of yore, this practice was only employed in free-to-play or mobile games, and usually for cosmetic-only items (i.e., things which have no effect on gameplay, such as different paint jobs for vehicles or outfits for characters). This was (and in some cases, increasingly rare as they are, still is) fine; in a game that is either free or only a couple of dollars, the developers have to keep the lights on somehow.

Games having micropayments that have an effect on gameplay, however, are known as ‘pay-to-win’, and are generally considered to be in poor form, to say the least. Common examples of this form of micropayment are games like Tiny Tower and its many derivatives, where you can pay to do things like speed up time-gated actions, or Genshin Impact and other ‘gacha’ games (from the word gachapon, referring to a sort of toy capsule vending machine) where items and characters are rewarded randomly from loot boxes which can be purchased with real-world money. Even in free-to-play games, this is where most gamers would draw the line as being unreasonable in the case of the former example and borderline illegal unregulated gambling in the case of the latter.

2K putting ‘pay-to-win’ microtransactions as described above in a game which is already full price[1] is therefore, to put it democratically, incredibly brave of them. To do so in a game aimed at kids is, while distressingly common, nonetheless reprehensible and potentially dangerous; I’m sure I don’t need to remind the parents among this blog’s readership of the horror stories of kids racking up huge bills on microtransactions because they either didn’t realise it cost real money or somehow got access to their parents’ account. While the assorted vehicles in the in-game shop can technically be purchased with currency earned from gameplay, they are priced in such a way as to make this impractical. The higher-end vehicles cost between 10,000 and 14,000 Brickbux each, and in my entire playthrough of the campaign, I only accrued about 17,000 with a reasonable amount of side questing; and I remind you that repeating races in story mode gives diminishing returns, so you wouldn’t reasonably be able to just grind the rival races until you could afford whichever car or flair you wanted. This is intentional; 2K want to be able to say you can buy these things with just currency earned in-game so that miserable bastards like myself who remember a time when you could buy a game in a shop and be done paying for the wretched thing won’t kick up a fuss about it; but they don’t actually want people to do that, they want people to give them more money. Part of the reason this review didn’t get published until well after the game’s release was that I wanted to comment more directly on the micropayment currency, and the prices for that weren’t available until after the official launch[2].

To keep things simple, any reference to real-world money here will be in AUD. The exchange rate of coins to AUD is variable, with more coins per dollar given the larger the pack of coins you buy (though this plateaus with the last pack denomination). A pack of 500 coins, the premium currency, runs you $8.45 and can be exchanged for 10,000 Brickbux. This is about two-thirds of what a purple-tier vehicle will cost you, or enough to buy six or seven of the purple-tier stat-block options for custom vehicles (1,500 Brickbux each).

However, many of the purple-tier vehicles from Unkie’s Emporium come with additional bonuses on top of the higher stats, such as getting health from damaging opponent vehicles or faster boost-meter build-up. In this way, 2K is again playing both sides; the price of the custom vehicle stat-blocks is much more reasonable to grind for in-game, but the off-the-rack vehicles have the advantage with extra perks, incentivizing paying real-world money for Brickbux and further solidifying the game as pay-to-win; one such vehicle belongs to one of the rival characters and, while I can’t prove this, I swear they made him harder than all the other rivals to encourage people to buy his car in the store. Additionally, the fact that the cheapest tier isn’t quite enough to get one of the purple-tier vehicles on its own incentivizes players to buy the more expensive currency pack, which will leave them with leftover currency after buying a vehicle and thus more likely to justify to themselves buying another small pack of currency later to make up the difference. This means that to just buy the Brickbux required to get a high-tier vehicle (disregarding offers like the Awesome Edition or Drive Pass) costs $16.95, more than the price of a small LEGO set IRL (e.g., 71784 Jay’s Lightning Jet EVO, RRP $15.99 AUD).

In Conclusion

Despite 2K Drive’s comedic tone with its wacky characters and vehicles, it’s an incredibly cynical game; and the more you think about it, the more cynical it starts to feel. The fourth wall breaking of the story as though they couldn’t even bother to hold up the pretense for five minutes. The insultingly low rewards for online matches in comparison to the item prices. I should say here, there were points during my time with 2K Drive where I genuinely had fun and wanted to recommend it, but I just can’t in good conscience recommend a game that makes me want to spit every time I have to interact with its reward systems. 2K built this fun little paddling pool of a game, and then they tried to hook a bunch of whales in it.

If you can look past all the micropayment bollocks and lack of effort in the story department, there is a fun kart racing game here that can fill the gap between releases of new Mario Kart tracks; but not only is it bordering on impossible to look past that, you shouldn’t.

[1] more than, actually; the deluxe edition is $179.95 AUD on Steam at time of writing, which is more than the combined costs of the three IRL LEGO sets being released as tie-ins (60395 Combo Race Pack, 60396 Modified Race Cars, and 60397 Monster Truck Race, each retailing for $52.99 AUD)

[2] I also had a bunch of uni assignments I had to do, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Rambling Brick was provided with a download code by 2K via the LEGO Ambassadors network: All opinions are our own.

Thanks Garrus42 for that insightful review. Since the game was released, there have been some LEGO City vehicle sets announced that include 3 in 1 builds of 2 cars each.

These do not all seem to line up exactly with vehicles available in-game for purchase, at this point – butthere is some passing resemblance to a one or two of them vehicles. I am curious to see if they turn up sooner or later… and at what cost…

I’d love your feedback: have you played Drive 2K yet? How do you feel about the microtransaction model? Leave your comments below.

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Play Well!

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