Version tested: PC
Cut Ray Liotta out of your mental scrapbook and replace him with an MTV Europe News presenter from the early '90s. Now, replay the Goodfellas voice-over in your head. Congratulations - you're well on the way to understanding just how cringe-makingly horrendous the scripted introductions to each Crashday event are.
You're listening to a bloke doing an American accent, except English isn't so much a second language for him as a comedy routine. I survived about an hour before he segued from a chuckling Goldmember impression into my favourite of his inexplicable declarations: "Wild horses couldn't get me into that car!" With my skull threatening to implode, I turned the audio off completely - having discovered just such an option when I went to silence the music an hour earlier, it having reminded me of that Belgian bloke off World Idol who sang Lithium as though ending my life depended on it.
And, sadly, the bad impressions don't end with the audio.
Crashday adopts a similar mentality to Nadeo's TrackMania, offering you the chance to race, perform stunts, and create your own tracks in a tasty looking game engine that does shiny cars and enormous draw distances very well. Controls and handling are very TrackMania-like, with lots of oily powerslides and handbrake turns, and a similarly flamboyant relationship with the laws of physics, particularly gravity, to the one Nadeo's game enjoys. The main difference on the track is a permanent nitrous boost meter, which allows you to increase your speed almost exponentially on straights by boosting until it's nearly full, letting it subside and then hammering it again. Without it the game would feel leaden; with it you can make up practically any opponent's advantage. On top of that, German developers Replay Studios and Moon Byte have added Twisted Metal-style machineguns and missile launchers, and there's suitably spiffy damage modelling to go along with that.
Unlike TrackMania though, there's no campaign-based relationship between track-building and racing tasks; instead the Career mode involves completing tasks plucked from the game's less-diverse-than-it-thinks-they-are range of disciplines, including races, deathmatch, variations on timed runs, and CTF-style affairs.
Progression comes through blocks of four races, each of which has to be completed to move on, and as you move through the game's championships each of its various tracks becomes available in Single Event modes, while Mini Games - split between doing enormous jumps and going through record numbers of checkpoints against the clock - also become available. Another aspect of Career mode involves buying new cars, and upgrading the ones you already own, using a mixture of cash and "Respect Points", both of which you earn by completing races. Don't worry though, as there's not a smattering of neon and no underdressed ladies will try and drape their surgically implanted sandbags over your electric windows. Need For Speed this is not.
Still, at least that'd be memorable. Really the thing that'll most endure about the Career mode is the awful "anonymous millionaire" we're asked to believe is reminiscing on the halcyon days of Crashday racing - a kind of Mafioso Mario Kart. Each of his introductions gives the whole thing the air of one of those moralistic little plays my old primary school used to force the Year 7s to do in assembly; unconvincing both in delivery and content, like somebody who's sat down and worked out the lines based on what he reckons is expected of him.
The actual Career mode is over before you've had a chance to watch the second in-game hour clock up on the game-time counter. With extras like armour tipping the scales so much in weapons-based events and the nitrous to back you up constantly, what balance you can find is accidental, and easily lopped to the side that favours you by splashing a few dollar-bucks on an obvious upgrade. You may find you get beaten a bit in stunt and bomb events to begin with, but even they topple easily enough. For a game with titanic quarter-pipes, loops and more extravagant elevations than the Alps when they're feeling particularly vain, what little of a difficulty curve it can muster is troublingly flat. Worse, on that note, is that it flying through the air or going at 300km/h doesn't really excite you.
That said, the game's main trouble is that you're going to need other people to enjoy it, and even at that only a few of the modes feel like they will endure. Wrecking matches are deathmatch rounds in cars, and while it's good to see collision damage meted out more on the recipient's side, it still boils down to lots of circling and trying to find a lucky trajectory with missiles and bullets. Pass The Bomb, where the idea is to try and grab the bomb off whoever has it and then foist it on someone just as it's about to explode, is more competitive and enjoyable, while Hold the Flag, which involves grabbing a big smiley face icon and driving it through ten disparate checkpoints in a huge field while the other team tries to ram it off you, would be great on a decent-sized network.
Problem is, these aren't much fun against the fairly talentless AI, and soon your only outlet for the stuff that is is the Single Event screen. Races are good; tight and technical thanks to tough braking distances and spirally layouts; but you'll have to make your own fun or find online opposition to keep them going. Bomb Runs, which offer a Speed-style "slow down and explode" scenario, appeal and fall down for similar reasons. Stunt Shows are a bit of an odd one out; initially enjoyable, as you try and figure out what it is that scores big points and how to develop trick routes through each arena, they start to lose their appeal when you realise they're inherently repetitive, a bit unintuitive, and that you can't bank points from ongoing combos when time runs out.
The Mini Games, meanwhile, would be more fun if you could hotseat with a friend, taking turns at long jumps, but you can't, and there's no evidence of downloadable rankings or anything like that.
Online there's virtually nobody about at this stage, pre-release, but the games I could set up were quite fun in spite of a bit of lag. But of course, TrackMania already exists, so why gamble on switching over? Especially as TM exceeds Crashday's efforts in both game modes and track editor - the latter is easy enough to use here, but has some pretty basic interface issues and glitches where track pieces don't link up properly. It also crashed on me, and makes it hard to establish relative heights the way TM's in-engine approach easily handles.
Ultimately Crashday has two big problems. The first is its reliance on multiplayer and track-building to make up for the shortfall in single-player content, while TrackMania's success arguably holds the key to the other issue: TM's Puzzle, Race and Platform modes were inventive, challenging and finely poised, provoking a kind of sportsmanship among those who were capable of running its gauntlets; Crashday is too loose, and mastery of handling and track design is almost irrelevant. Consequently, it's actually quite dull, even though it's certainly playable. Best to stick with Nadeo for now - this wants to be crazy, but it's no mania.
6 / 10