Version tested: Xbox
It's a minor miracle we ever manage to write anything on Eurogamer when games like this show up. So face gurningly addictive are top down racing games, you're almost morally obliged to stay right where you are until bodily functions dictate otherwise (or your better half simply drags you away, in the case of this reviewer). Mashed isn't exactly doing anything new as such, but aside from its decidedly wonky camera still manages to press all the right buttons for most of the time you're playing it - whether single player or in full-on four-player party mode.
The first clue as to why it's worth sitting up and taking notice of is its pedigree. Coded by Supersonic, old hands will recognise that as being the same team that brought us such delights as Micro Machines 2 (and Antz Extreme Racing, less excitingly), so it's small wonder that many of the basic gameplay mechanics have made a seamless transition into Mashed.
In basic terms, it's exactly the sort of simple four-way top down racing game you'd expect, with the familiar premise of having to inch ahead of your opponents until you get almost a screen's distance away in order to score points. At the start, you have four points each and every time you pull off this trick scores the winner another one, while conversely losing your opponent one. This little tug of war ensues until you eventually score eight points and win the match (or the game gets bored of your antics and invokes its Game End mode and merely awards a point to the winner) - sound exactly like the way of settling matches in Micro Machines? It is, pretty much.
Another of MM's influences is the plethora of weapons littering the track, which give each player the temporary ability to take out opponents, either in front, to the side or even behind at any given time - depending on the weapon. Nine are present in the game, with old stalwarts making an appearance such as mines, flame throwers, homing missiles and oil slicks and an air strike giving you plenty of chances to claw yourself back into the game or assert your supremacy. Although this time you're not racing toy cars, you may as well be, seeing as they look and feel much the same in truth, with a fairly flimsy constitution. In addition, the tracks still present plenty of death traps, ramps, collapsing objects and various opportunities to plunge to your doom in precisely the same way that the Codemasters-published classic did down the years - but we'd hardly say all this was a bad thing given how good MM was in its day - notwithstanding its own largely ignored remake from a year or so back.
But it's not strictly as simple as just taking this basic mechanic and running it in a new engine. All but one of the game's 13 tracks are open to you at the start. Should you win the Bronze medal, not only does the Silver version open up, but it then unlocks the Bronze version of the subsequent track and so on. But rather than simply making the race more difficult with harder AI, new variations of race appear on the same track, often with completely different scoring systems or tasks. One, for example, has you hunting down a fleeing fugitive, or completing a set number of laps while a bomb ticks away threatening to explode.
Mind that temper young man
At other times your task is to simply win the race, but at no stage is it anything less than thoroughly and instantly enjoyable. Some of the single player challenges are a little light on the difficulty - sometimes winnable first time around - while others can have you chucking the joypad down in petulant frustration as the AI gets the better of you, but it's as addictive as you might fear. Time after time you'll just want to jump straight back in and prove the game wrong and ram those excruciatingly irritating AI heckles back down their throats ("monkey brain" for gawd's sake). Very quickly you'll also be able to unlock a Time Trial mode too, but in truth that's no more than a side portion to the main dish.
For all its charms on your lonesome, the experience is rather brief and it's no surprise to find that four player party action is where it's at, and so long as you can be bothered to unlock all the numerous multiplayer maps in the single player mode first you'll be in for a long session of ludicrously playable racing fun. Apart from the occasional camera issues, which we'll come to in a moment, it's the sort of simple instantly endearing gaming experience that's utterly timeless. The handling feels spot on, allowing you to almost glide the cars around the tracks, complete with obligatory boost start. Admittedly, this is an unashamed old school title that's about as far away from realism as possible - and no-one should be under any illusions about that - but if you hanker after a racing game that's been designed from the ground up with the ethos of pure playability, then you won't be disappointed.
Of course, times have moved on to enable Supersonic to deliver the game in a far more polished state than it could have previously. Naturally, the game is presented in full 3D, albeit using a slightly dated engine which pans and zooms whenever it deems it necessary, either getting right in behind the car like a traditional racing game or moving back to a birds-eye view when the distance between the leader and the stragglers begins to increase. Up close it's not exactly the benchmark of current generation racing games, but it's not ugly either. It may lack the texturing, bump mapping and damage modelling of the very best games out there, but for the purposes of the being a top down racer it's perfectly serviceable.
Baby's got the bends
But while it's great in theory to utilise dynamic 3D techniques in order to spruce things up a little, the reality is that it overstates the fact that it's in 3D. The scale of your viewpoint at any given time can change so radically and so quickly that it entirely throws your perspective of the driving literally off course. More often than is acceptable you'll find yourself looking good for your next point, getting well away from the pack only for you to take a sharp bend and find that the over zealous cameraman has suddenly decided it'd be a really good idea to zoom right in and leave you high and dry, disoriented with no sense of where to go.
More specifically, if you happen to be approaching a hairpin left and your opponents are far behind, as soon as you turn into the bend all four cars may be artificially close together as a result, which cues the camera into believing that the best viewpoint is therefore zoomed in. It isn't the best view, however, and you almost always end up crashing as a result or at best being thrown off course, causing much frustration if you artificially lose points for the sake of the game's attempts to give a more 'dynamic' view. After a while you wish you could simply set the camera manually to offer a permanently zoomed out perspective or that the game simply based its zoom on how far the leader is in front, but bafflingly Supersonic has not included this option - especially when you think how easy it would have been for them to do so. As a result, you're simply left to try and second guess when this is likely to happen and work around this glaringly obvious design flaw. It's arguably only an issue on some portions of specific tracks, but you'll certainly be screaming at the console when it happens and you've lost a crucial point because of it.
Putting this relatively minor niggle to one side, it's encouraging to see a game like Mashed appear and revive an old school gaming concept and remind us how addictive such simple pleasures can be. But it's not the full package it could have been, and you're left mulling over a list of "if onlys". If only Supersonic had tweaked its camera system, delivered a few more tracks and considered online play, we might be talking about a must have game, as opposed to merely a highly recommended one.
7 / 10