There are a lot of things to appreciate about SMS Racing, indie developer Turbo Button’s upcoming mix of virtual reality (VR) racing and, of all things, texting. That core mechanic, for example, is a simple showcase of how VR can be used to create genuinely new concepts, while also bringing an all too rare hint of humour to the genre. But, before we can get to that, there’s one very basic element to VR that Turbo Button has really hit home on the Gear VR mobile head-mounted display (HMD); scale.
Sitting in one of SMS Racing‘s admittedly simplistic driver seats is one of the more convincing VR environments yet seen, especially on the Gear VR. The 3D effect is put to great use here, with the car’s roof stretching out in front of you and the passenger seat really feeling like this big open space to your right. It may not possess the detailed machinery of RIGS: Mechanised Combat League, but this is a space you really believe you’re in. The player’s character drives with one hand on the wheel and another grasping a smartphone, which itself feels like a solid, physical object you could really reach out and touch. Even before you put your virtual foot to the pedal, this is a title that impresses where VR really counts.
As with any racing title, securing first place is the main goal in SMS Racing, but this isn’t a simple as perfecting corners and following slipstreams. Instead, players will have to respond to text messages from their friends as they weave around the track. Replying is easy; the message you need to type will appear on the screen and then you’ll use the face buttons on an Xbox gamepad to type out one letter at a time, carefully choosing the correct one from one of four options. These aren’t full conversations; you’ll usually be writing up a meme, though they do vary in length and complexity. The difficulty comes from responding fast enough while also negotiating the track’s corners, obstacles and competition.
It’s impossible to have both the track and phone in sight at the same time, so quickly glancing between to two becomes the balancing act that serves as SMS Racing‘s main thrill. Missing a message or two isn’t fatal but keeping your phone buried in your face long enough to miss a turning can be. It’s easy to let one mistake on the road keep you in last place for an entire match, which may be something that Turbo Button has to address in the future; SMS Racing won’t be much fun if it’s one strike and you’re out at all times.
Driving itself is stripped down to the essentials, resembling a kart racer more than anything else. With that in mind; variety becomes the question at the centre of SMS Racing. Turbo Button assures that it’s loading the videogame with different message and replies but switching up the courses and cars in meaningful ways will be much more challenging. It affords some leeway appearing on Gear VR, but just how far that enjoyable juggle of a central mechanic can take the title remains to be seen.