Lego 2K Drive Is an Open-World Physics Sandbox Masquerading as a Racing Game

Screenshot:  2K Games
Screenshot: 2K Games

When a racing game developer talks up the authenticity of its driving model, you can typically assume the kind of experience they’re going for. More often than not, it’s a full-blown simulation, like iRacing or Assetto Corsa. At the very least, the title in question is at least based in some semblance of reality, like Forza Horizon. But Lego 2K Drive, a game in which you can use plastic bricks to build a car that looks like a hamburger and also turns into a boat, is decidedly not a professional training sim. Not unless you’re training to be a Lego master, anyway.

So you can imagine my surprise when I sat down to chat with the Visual Concepts South team about its new open-world romp, which releases May 19 for current- and last-gen platforms, including the Nintendo Switch and PC. The subject of our conversation was about driving dynamics, the backbone of any good racer, arcade or sim. Only, unlike practically any racing game you can think of, players in Lego 2K Drive are free — nay, encouraged — to create their wildest brick-built dreams on wheels. That complicated the physics side of the project.

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“We struck a nice balance between some more arcade-driving dynamics and some more simulation-feeling dynamics,” Senior Engineer Ryan Kehlenbeck told Jalopnik. “I think the simulation elements really come in ‘feel’ — we wanted everything to feel the way it looks. We wanted bigger cars to feel weightier, smaller cars [to feel] more nimble, and then that also ties into some of the more arcade elements.”

Not unlike Mario Kart, larger, heavier vehicles sacrifice maneuverability for an edge in collisions, not to mention superior durability. But Lego 2K Drive takes those arcade sensibilities a step further. It has to, because none of the game’s vehicles (sparing a handful of licensed ones based on real-world cars) are “pre-authored,” in the words of Visual Concepts General Manager Steve Ranck.

Screenshot:  2K Games
Screenshot: 2K Games

“The player can literally build any vehicle they want. So our driving mechanics system will analyze this vehicle and determine whether it should be a light, nimble vehicle; or top-heavy, if it should behave that way. If it has a ton of bricks on it, it should have a lot of inertia to it.”

The system is so dynamic that it will even account for changes to a car’s shape in the middle of a race.

“So if I have a vehicle that has a lot of bricks on it and feels like it has a lot of bricks on it, as I crash into things or get attacked and those bricks fall off, our system constantly, dynamically analyzes the build and changes the driving mechanics based on it,” Ranck said.

The strategic implications of being able to modify the handling characteristics of your vehicle in real time through crashing and repairing are fun to think about. I theorized you could start a race with a heavy, lumbering car, and intentionally shed pieces to catch up with competitors if you fall too far behind. Ranck, a veteran designer whose racing game résumé goes back to the arcade classic Hydro Thunder, said it’s entirely possible.

Vehicles in Lego 2K Drive fall into three classes — street, off-road and water — and they’ll tend to favor one of those categories more than the others. According to Kahlenbeck, 75 percent of a car’s stats come from game progression, and those stat boosts apply to a player’s whole garage. It was important to the dev team that players wouldn’t feel forced to stick with one or a handful of cars to develop and improve, instead of experimenting with a variety of builds and jumping into whichever suits their fancy in the moment.

Screenshot:  2K Games
Screenshot: 2K Games

Racing is just one activity in Lego 2K Drive. The game features a variety of mini-games and goofy story-based missions as well, and the breadth of creativity the vehicle editor and physics system affords means players can craft cars to tackle specific objectives. Creative Director Brian Silva presented one example he affectionately named “Mr. Putt.”

“We have a miniature golf, sort of putting green mini-game, and if you use a little vehicle for it — it’s difficult to maneuver the ball to the cup, because the ball’s oversized. [...] And so what I did was I created an actual putter vehicle, with a putter face, and used that for the minigame. And it works fantastic. So there are all sorts of ‘thinking-outside-of-the-box’ moments in the game that you can apply to things like that.”

Silva expects the building aspect to take on a life of its own. It’s hard not to see how, provided it works intuitively enough. Consider video games like Minecraft, Roblox and even Fortnite to some extent, that cater to kids’ sense of creative problem solving. Lego is one of the real-life instigators of that mindset, so it’s fitting to imagine the brand bringing those sensibilities to a racing game. Though it won’t be possible at launch, eventually players will be able to share their creations with each other, subject to a content approval system to maintain a safe atmosphere.

Screenshot:  2K Games
Screenshot: 2K Games

“Somebody built a spaceship from...” Ranck paused. “A certain science fiction franchise,” Silva interjected. “Space Battle, or something.”

“Yeah!” Ranck laughed. “But what they did, they made it a boat. The boat has to have a boat hull. So they made the boat hull translucent, and a couple bricks connect the boat hull to the spaceship, that were also translucent. As you’re driving the boat, there’s a water spray that kind of covers [the hull] up. So it looks like it’s a spaceship that’s sort of skimming across the water.”

What will you make? You have some time to think it over; Lego 2K Drive launches May 19, and you can expect a full review in the weeks ahead.

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