In the mid-to-late ’90s, vehicular combat games had come into their own. From the famous Twisted Metal, to the lesser known Vigilante 8 and Rogue Trip, the culture of the ’90s and the blossoming 3D technology melded perfectly. It introduced gamers to a new form of violent, fast paced action. Along these same lines came the Carmageddon games. The series combined racing and mayhem with a unique style that resonated strongly with gamers. A successful kickstarter campaign revived the series in 2015 for PC, with Carmageddon: Max Damage finally releasing on consoles this month.
Sadly, for all the waiting and all the promise, Carmageddon: Max Damage just doesn’t have the wheels to make the finish line.
The game is short on story and cutscenes, and quick to take you straight into the action. The game’s marquee event, Classic Carma, allows you to win in three different ways: by driving a set amount of laps, by destroying all of the opposing vehicles, or by killing every pedestrian on the course. The latter option is far and away the most difficult. There are hundreds of pedestrians on any given course, and they’re not shown on the map.
Other events include racing, wrecking other cars, playing tag, and collecting checkpoints that randomly appear across the map. This latter event relies heavily on random chance. Checkpoints may spawn next to you, or they may spawn across the map near an opponent.
The variety in the match types is limited, but it wouldn’t matter at all if the game was fundamentally sound. Vehicles handle sloppily, as if the cars are perpetually slipping across oil. Driving is a chore, from turning to breaking, to even going in a straight line. Sometimes, your vehicle will inexplicably veer to one direction, and any attempts to correct it result in fishtailing and spinning out. Turning is difficult in tight quarters, and navigating narrow roads and passageways is much harder than it should be. You need to constantly pump the break and gently finesse the gas to keep from careening into walls and spinning off course.
The mechanics are particularly frustrating because they’re so far behind the industry standard. Even overcoming the controls and winning events brings little joy, because the obstacles are more aggravating than fun. Still, it’s not an overly difficult game, and that’s partly due to your one great advantage. The AI is buggy and idiotic.
Your opponents struggle to move about the map, often flying off of cliffs and driving around aimlessly. Sometimes enemy cars stop moving entirely, particularly if they become stuck or overturned. The overturned enemies stay that way until an outside force flips them back over, but this doesn’t seem like deliberate design. These enemies aren’t counted as “wrecked” for scoring purposes and will simply lie on the track until you destroy them. It’s weird, and it gives the game an unfinished feel.
More obnoxiously, enemy cars are often more interested in pinning you against walls than they are in winning the competition. Larger vehicles can obstruct the screen when they’re behind you, making it impossible to see where you’re going. You will spend lots of time lodged against walls, crammed into corners, and wedged into cracks and crevices. There’s a recovery button that allows you to respawn back on course, but using it costs points, and these losses add up quickly.
Since you’ll spend much of your time fighting enemy cars, it’s important to master combat. Vehicles can be destroyed by crashing them into walls at just the right angle and velocity. This is harder than it sounds, and is difficult to do with any regularity. Enemies can also be damaged by ramming them on the open road, but it’s ineffective and tedious. Without walls or the right momentum, you can slam into a guy twenty times without really hurting him. This is where weapons come in handy.
Items like bombs, mines, and attack rays are scattered around the environment. A couple well-placed shots is often enough to kill an enemy. There are lots of items and weapons to collect, but few that you’ll actually want. Many are made exclusively for use on pedestrians, and they’re all functionally similar and equally useless. You can napalm pedestrians, make their heads explode, shoot them into the air, bounce them around with a spring, cut off their arms, cut off their legs, zap them with electricity, make them dance, make them blind, make them slow, etc. There are tactical reasons to kill pedestrians—such as to collect points or additional time—but running them over is perfectly easy and functional. All the extraneous items just clog up your inventory and make it harder to find anything useful.
Carmeggedon is a bad game brimming with ideas, many of them bad, but some of them very good. It’s certainly not without its redeeming qualities. The maps are big and diverse, with lots of fun visual treats like hidden caves and alien containment centers. Smashing pedestrians provides the visceral, irreverent thrill one would hope for. Upgrades can be purchased for your vehicles. There’s an in-game replay feature.
The damage mapping is also innovative and dynamic. As cars are beaten up, windows shatter, wheels fall off and the body gets blown into pieces. Damage changes the way that vehicles drive and function, and it’s fun to see your opponents get mangled as the match goes on. It’s a great feature, but it’s soured by the fact that the controls are lousy enough before your wheels fall off.
The game also has plenty of variety. There are lots of cars and arenas, and you have a great deal of control when making a custom match. Unfortunately, most of this content is locked at the start of the game, only becoming available as you make your way through career mode. In the case of cars, the later vehicles are strictly better than the earlier ones, so it’s not so much a choice of picking the vehicle that fits your style. It’s about picking the vehicle that’s objectively better.
The emphasis on unlocking new content is a problem because career mode is overly long, composed of sixteen chapters, each with three to five events. Worse, you may have to play them multiple times, since new chapters are unlocked not through winning but through scoring points. Since there are only six event types in the game, this means a ton of repetition. Finishing career mode is a grind.
The worst thing that a game can do is make you yearn for another title, but that’s exactly what happened during my time with Carmageddon. Car combat games are supposed to be fast, thrilling and skill-based, but Carmageddon is clunky and awkward. Too many results are decided by broken AI and random chance. It’s a shame, because there’s a ton of content. Too bad its rendered irrelevant by odd design choices and poor fundamentals.