It's hard to believe that Carmageddon was once the bęte noire of gaming. Back in the innocent halcyon days of the 1990s, when Mortal Kombat's crudely digitised dismemberment was enough to ruffle the feathers of the great and good, a game where you were actively encouraged to roar around in armoured vehicles, murdering pedestrians with crazed abandon, was like a red rag to a morally indignant bull.
Today, Carmageddon's gore-soaked take on Wacky Races seems positively quaint, its squealing guitars and brattish sensibilities no more likely to topple society than Limp Bizkit is to reinvent rock music. What was once forbidden fruit has become a strangely cosy nostalgia brand - but while Carmageddon may no longer be guaranteed to raise tabloid ire, that doesn't mean it's stopped being deliciously transgressive fun.
Now available for Early Access purchase on Steam, the version of Carmageddon: Reincarnation on offer lives up the billing. This is a very early build - pre-alpha, in fact - so anyone still harbouring the notion that "early access" means "demo version" will be in for a surprise.
Only one game mode is included at present, with only two tracks to play it on. Neither of these tracks is fully finished, which means that entire textures are missing, papering large chunks of the terrain in default grid patterns, while some objects simply don't exist, appearing only as blank, blue placeholder assets.
The game mode in question is Classic Carma, a free-for-all affair that harks back to the original. You have complete freedom of movement and a countdown to beat. Victory comes from completing the alloted laps first, destroying all the other racers or killing the required number of pedestrians. Scores extend the timer, and it's up to you which of the three goals to aim for.
The gross-out adolescent tone is present and correct in the cartoonish vehicles and their various drivers: a rogue's gallery of punks, goths, dominatrices and gimps, led by leather-clad Jason Statham lookalike Max Damage, and all drawn from a 1980s teen boy's idea of what sexy and cool would look like if smashed together. That's not necessarily a criticism. There's a lowbrow pleasure to be taken in a game that offers a score bonus called Up The Arse for reversing over people and that decorates its Quit Game screen with the taunt "Return to a life where you don't get internal organs in your hair?" It may be crass and dumb, but Carmageddon commits to its Beavis and Butthead milieu fully and without apology.
Less confident, and understandably so given how early this build is, are the core systems. Handling, at the moment, is heavy and prone to oversteering. It's hard to tell if that's just down to the fact that both tracks - Ice Cubed and Oil Be Damned - are supposed to feel slippery, or if it's another aspect of the game that is still being tuned. The camera, too, is a stiff thing, struggling when it needs to be fluid enough to cope with sudden changes in direction.
Yet even with control that feels a little too much like hard work for such a knockabout romp of a game, the joys of thundering into an opponent with a spiked battering ram, or sending ragdoll civilians pinwheeling into the air in a shower of blood, is still pretty potent. This is a game that remains quite simply fun, at a very innate, primal and, yes, gloriously dumb level.
Right now, that fun comes more from the moment-by-moment mayhem of being free to careen around causing gory carnage, however. The design of the tracks, unfinished though they are, is more than a little confusing - particularly since they need to serve as both linear courses and bloodbath arenas at the same time. Routes are crudely marked, and checkpoints are easily missed. A tiny and rather useless minimap in the corner of the screen isn't much help for getting you back on target if you get spun around and still hope to win on laps.
Even so, winning the race isn't particularly hard. The AI racers don't seem too concerned with victory, so once you've got your head around the rather bizarre U-turns and twists of the race layouts, you can easily power to victory just by concentrating on hitting the checkpoints. Winning on the other criteria is more of a dark art. Damage to vehicles is hard to gauge and often feels inconsistent. Sometimes you'll ram a rival at top speed to no apparent effect. Other times they'll explode after the tiniest shunt. When the systems do align, the effect is very satisfying. I found that whizzing alongside racers with whirling blades protruding from my hubcaps had the pleasing effect of making their wheels fall off.
Even in this embryonic form, Carmageddon: Reincarnation retains the same splat-happy thrills and lowbrow chutzpah of the 1997 original
They can damage you back, of course, but you can repair yourself at the cost of points earned. Holding the button down rebuilds your car, and the more repairs you carry out, the more points you lose. At the moment these points don't really seem to have any bearing on the outcome of the event, and you'll easily accrue more than enough to reconstruct yourself from any disastrous wrecks, but hopefully such decisions will add a more tactical level as the game develops.
And develop it will. The greyed-out options on the menu hint at modes yet to be implemented, from basic Death Races to the tag-styled Fox N' Hounds mode. There are dedicated modes for trashing other vehicles (Car Crusher) and splatting pedestrians (Ped Chase). Most importantly, there's multiplayer still to add and a modding tool known, somewhat inevitably, as Carmodgeddon. Those could well be the magic ingredients that take Carmageddon's boisterous but basic carnage and give it some real long-term appeal.
To drop Ł20 on Carmageddon: Reincarnation in its current state, you'd have to be pretty confident in that long-term future, since there's very little here right now to warrant that price. It is, at least, surprisingly stable with very few terminal crashes or game-breaking bugs. The only aspect that has been included that really seems to not work as planned is the post-race replay, which I found had a tendency to hang the game completely the more I fiddled with it.
What can be said with confidence is that even in this embryonic, rough form, Carmageddon: Reincarnation retains the same splat-happy thrills and lowbrow chutzpah of the 1997 original. Whether it can evolve on that template - and whether it even needs to - is what the developers must now prove.
Eurogamer's alpha and beta reviews are reviews of games that are still in development but are already being offered for sale or funded by micro-transactions. They offer a preliminary verdict but have no score attached. For more information, read our editor's blog.