In the ’90s, there was a clear divide between PC gamers and console gamers. Console gamers had brightly-colored cheery games hopping on platforms for babies, and PC gamers had edgy games that were hardcore with gore and swears and metal solos. And so it was with Carmageddon, a series all about squishing pedestrians and blowing things up. After nearly two decades away, the franchise is back to show console kids how it’s done, but does it have anything in the tank other than ’90s nostalgia?
Carmageddon: Max Damage (PS4, Xbox One)
It has to be said, for a dev company that’s spent a lot of years in the wilderness of porting Atari games and bringing board games to consoles, Stainless Games’ return to Carmageddon looks pretty good. It’s not going to stun you with how amazing everything is — this is hardly Gran Turismo in the graphics department. The cars look good, although the environments and pedestrians you splat look a bit last-gen. Still, considering how rough the PC game was when it first launched, this is a decided improvement.
As for the audio, it’s mostly screams, splats, revving engines, and thrash metal. It’s fairly generic, and you might be genuinely surprised to learn these are actual songs, not just generic metal from a bed music CD. Combined with the game’s tendency toward sophomoric jokes and bad puns, it’s all pretty amusing in a Beavis And Butthead sort of way, but it wears thin.
Like most games that made a fortune on Kickstarter thanks to nostalgia, this is deliberately not reinventing the wheel. You’ve got your racing, you’ve got your splatting pedestrians, you’ve got your car wrecks, and, well, that’s pretty much it.
Scrape away the headbanging and guffawing at runnning over fat people, and what you’ve mostly got here is Mario Kart, a racing game full of goofy power-ups that knock everything wildly out of balance, often deliberately. And that becomes more and more of a problem in the playing, because apparently there’s an assumption we were longing for the terrible game design of the past.
The basic problem is that you’ve got three main goals, and the game actively fights you every step of the way toward completing them. First, you can race, but the cars you find all have absolutely terrible handling even when they’re not smashed to hell. Granted, the franchise has always been about trolling the player, with previous entries even going so far as to use rear-wheel steering on some cars just to mess with you. But not being able to take a gentle curve without spinning out or trying to steer away from a wall from a thousand feet away and slamming right into it anyway because your car handles like a brick with wheels gets obnoxious fast.
Secondly, you can trash cars. But to do that, you’re located in giant arenas you can often wander aimlessly around in, and since your car has all the aerodynamics of a broken Frisbee, lining up a hit on the fly, let alone taking out an opponent, can be a tough proposition. Worse, that means it can quickly get dull, which is the last way you should describe smashing a car into a wall repeatedly. Landing a hit can be incredibly amusing, but the game doesn’t offer enough strategy or enough consistent tools to make it anymore than an opportunistic bit you can attempt to get a leg up. Recent car combat games such as Mad Max solved a lot of these issues, too, such as letting you hit a button while alongside an enemy and knock them off the road, which makes this all the more frustrating.
Finally, you have, of course, the goal of flattening pedestrians. Kill enough of ’em, and you can win. But, the huge maps and poor handling, not to mention needing to flatten literally hundreds of them, means you’ll be sniping at a tiny target with a potato cannon. That can get aggravating with the game’s Gotta Squish ‘Em All! stance. And some maps have more than 700 pedestrians to find, so good luck getting the win with that one. The result, every time you play, is a game that feels unfocused, a sandbox with not quite enough toys to play in.
The game attempts to season, or really cover all this up, with lots of gore and snotty humor, and truthfully, there are some good ideas here, like fixing your car on the fly and rewarding exploring the levels. But after a certain point, the jokes just wear thin, and frankly, many just aren’t all that funny in the first place. Oh, ha ha, I hit a fat guy and you put up the words “BACON SLICER!” on the screen. That surely will be funny a hundred times from now.
Sixteen sets of levels in the career mode, lots of modes on each map, and freeplay add up to a lot of playing time — at least eight hours worth. You won’t feel stiffed on this one.
No DLC, although the loading times can be pretty bad if you’re impatient.
There’s a lot of nostalgia on the shelves recently, with franchises being revived and unofficial sequels rolling out. But consistently, the problem with these “nostalgic” games is that they stubbornly refuse to admit anything might have changed. Games like Mighty No. 9, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5 and this one just copy what worked in the past, flaws and all, because it worked before, so it has to work again, and that’s what people want, right?
I’d argue the real nostalgia from games like this is from the developers, not the fans. And to some degree I can’t blame them, not really. Everyone yearns for a simpler time, when things felt easier. But it doesn’t matter how much money a Kickstarter rakes in or fans donate, there’s an inexorable truth developers can’t fight: Spending too much time looking backwards only ensures being left in the dust.