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'Mario Kart 8' Preview: New Features, Courses, Cups, Items... (And Mario Kart, Obviously)

04/04/2014 13:47 BST | Updated 04/04/2014 13:59 BST

Mario Kart 8 will be released on physical disc and digital download for the Nintendo Wii U on 30 May 2014.

After a few hours spent with Nintendo's biggest game of 2014 - and the most important release ever for its Wii U system - one thing is abundantly clear: in the world of Mario Kart, everything old is... well, if not new again, at least back again.

Don't get us wrong - there is a lot that is genuinely interesting and different about 'Mario Kart 8' compared to its predecessors. But it's worth stating - preferably in big, size 42 font letters, right up front - that this is still Mario Kart.

Which is lucky, as it turns out. Because as we've said elsewhere, Super Mario Kart is objectively the greatest game ever made. And the new one might just be the most fun new game you'll play all year.

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In our time with Mario Kart 8 we were able to try 16 courses of the 32 that will be included (8 all-new tracks, 8 re-imagined 'retro' tracks from previous version of the game). We also tried four- and two-player races, a single-player cup and tried out a bunch of the control modes, including Pro Controller, Wii U gamepad and Wiimote with Nunchuck.

And - as we've said - at its core this is very much a Mario Kart game. The controls are familiar in the extreme to anyone who has played a recent instalment, rewarding judicious use of items and power sliding, and the game has the same 'rubber band' style, keeping players in the race until very late in proceedings. It's fun, frustrating and maddening. It's Mario Kart, with 12 racers instead of eight.

What that familiarity fails to overshadow, however, is just how beautiful and alive the game looks. This isn't just the first Mario Kart in HD, it's the first one that feels like a true spectacle. It's bright, colourful and smooth, running at 60 FPS in single player. The crowds are fully animated and dense, the lighting is luminous and each course is filled with details and embellishments, from the live-relay Mario TV screens to signs for 'Bowser Oil' and 'Lemmy's Tire Service'. You might not notice the sheer quality of the visuals at first - cartoony games like this rarely 'dazzle' quite like a more photo-realistic FPS shooter. But let someone else take a spin and you'll gaze in wonder at the imagination on show. Alas, there's a dip in visual quality when you play in three- or four-person multiplayer, as the action tracks down to 30 FPS and the details start to drop away. Multiplayer is split-screen only too - even with one player using the Gamepad. But they're not massive niggles.

In pure mechanics, the biggest additions are the new Anti-Grav sections. In these parts of the track - sometimes optional, sometimes not - your wheels instantly slide up Back To The Future style, and you stick to the twisting road which scoop up your racer into loops, or dive them down and around impossibly tight bends. It's disconcerting at first, but gradually adds a new sense of momentum and fun. There are levels where you'll be racing literally above or below other drivers, while even the Retro tracks have new anti-grav paths and routes to find.

And there are implications to racing strategy involved too. In Toad Harbour, a track set in a seaside city with aspects of San Francisco and New York, the anti-grav sections are presented solely as alternate routes, rewarding skillful drivers with a slightly faster path through the level. There's also the addition of Spin Turbo, where a collision with another player in anti-grav will give you a boost. It's a cool new addition, and should lead to new types of strategy for experienced drivers.

Mario Kart 8: Screenshots

Of the tracks we've played, Shy Guy Falls (an expansive outdoor track with flying sections), Twisted Mansion (a new take on the classic haunted house theme) and the gorgeously colourful Sweet Sweet Canyon are our favourites. But all have their highlights, and will definitely reward further play throughs. We can't wait to see the rest - typically Mario Kart tracks only get bigger and more complex as the game moves on. Of the retro tracks on show, we liked the refreshed DK Jungle from Mario Kart 7 and the Dry Dry Desert from Double Dash the most - but again all were creatively remade to incorporate most of the new mechanics, rather than being straight ports from the older games.

As you'd expect, the game features a number of new customisation options. There are lots more characters including all seven of Bowsers evil henchmen, bikes make a return as well as karts (there are no wheelies this time, but stunts make it in) and there are two new weapons: the Piranha Plant is a neat addition, attaching to the front of the kart and munching other players as they pass by (as well as banana traps and coins), while the Boomerang Flower is a throwing weapon which comes back for three complete throws, and can also be tossed backwards. Both are really fun, though possibly not the game-changers you may have hoped for.

One other small addition will make a big impact for hardcore karters though - the fact that you can now see what items are in your rivals' hands. If the player in front has a red shell, you'll see it - and you might hang back until they've launched it, for instance. The game also has live recorded music and an enhanced replay mode, with editing and uploaded options too.

There are a few disappointments in the build we played, however - among them the fact that the Gamepad is not really used to its fullest, being either a map or a horn, but not allowing for any other interaction by a third-party or second player. There is also a lot we haven't seen - we've only played half the tracks, haven't seen the Battle mode and haven't had a chance to join in 12-player online races, which sound nuts.

But it's hard at this point to see how Nintendo can mess this up. With the core of the game so tight and finely tuned, with a creative approach to its newly 3D tracks, and an attention to detail that puts even its own recent triumphs to shame, it's almost a lock that this will be one of the Wii U's finest games.