by Travis Fahs0
Still Bloody Good
The 1990s represents gaming’s awkward teenage years. It was during this time that people began to accept that games could be more than just kid’s stuff, and the industry aimed to prove it with a tidal wave of tasteless, hyperviolent, and crass titles that confused adolescent for mature. Carmageddon was one of the period’s most notorious. Taking a page from gaming’s first controversy, Exidy’s Death Race, it turned the usually nonviolent racing genre into a bloody mess of gibs that would make Duke Nukem grimace, as players chased down helpless pedestrians for extra points. Now, original developer Stainless Games is hard at work rebooting the series, and they’ve repackaged the original on our Android phones to reintroduce gamers to the franchise.
It’s a smart move. The series is often remembered for its sophomoric humor and dreadful console iterations (developed by Titus, not Stainless), and it’s easy to forget that underneath the carnage and camp there was actually a great game. Not only was it a solid arcade racer, but it was a technically innovative game that did a few things that still stand out today compared to its mobile racing peers.
The mobile treatment stays very faithful to the 1997 PC game that launched the series. The gameplay, graphics, and levels all remain close to their original form. The cars have been re-skinned with better textures, and the whole game benefits from the addition of lighting and shading not present in the original, but the blocky models and chunky textures will certainly remind players that this is not a modern game.
Despite this, the gameplay itself dates surprisingly well. It’s really striking how far ahead of their time the physics in Carmageddon were, even compared to other impressive contemporaries like Destruction Derby. These physics are put to good use, with psychotically aggressive enemy AI, crazy jumps, and even loops. Where other racing games are about rehearsed perfection as you lap around a circuit, Carmageddon’s races are pure anarchy.
In fact, Carmageddon is not really a racing game at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, you have to pass through checkpoints and complete laps before the timer runs out, but you aren’t trying to outrun your opponents, who are far more interested in driving the wrong way and T-boning you off a ledge than they are in beating you to the finish line. The levels are likewise huge sandboxes, and the circuits you race on merely loose suggestions. There are giant areas outside of this to explore, and often enough time bonuses and pedestrians to mow down to make a detour worth it. Since your only concern is the clock and your score, you don’t have to worry about enemies passing you while you wander off.
The flip side of this design is that it can sometimes be a little tricky figuring out where to go. There’s a map you can pull up that will get you back on track, but the mere need for such a thing shows how different Carmageddon is. Even worse, you can sometimes find it very difficult to get back to where you’re supposed to be, even if you know. There’s a “revcover” function that will back you up maybe 10 seconds or so should you fall into an inconvenient part of the stage, but if you don’t know to do this you might find yourself stuck and forced to take the long way (or abandon the level). It definitely takes some getting used to.
Porting controls from PC to mobile can be pretty tricky, but Carmageddon’s default control scheme does a good job of simulating the gameplay of the original’s keyboard controls. There are alternate analog slider and tilt controls, but these prove to be difficult to work with. Even on lower sensitivities the frequently lead to unintended spin-outs. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any controller support, at least not with the devices we tried. Fortunately, the default touch controls work perfectly well after a short learning curve.
The cheap thrills of Carmageddon’s gore an “edgy” humor don’t hold the same appeal they did when I was a teenager, but the crazy physics and freeform design are almost more striking now than they were in 1997. Especially on a mobile platform, where most racers are just linear steering exercises with auto-accelerate, Carmageddon is a breath of fresh air. Being able to drive and explore in all directions gives the stages a dimensionality that other handheld racers are lacking. There may not be much to update the series, but it turns out Carmageddon was a good game all along.
Summary: Despite it’s campy, crass, and ultraviolent presentation, Carmageddon is still an utterly unique racing game with some interesting gameplay ideas that stands out even more in the context of modern mobile racers.