There's a saying, applied to sex and pizza, which suggests even when these things are bad, they're still pretty good. You could probably make a strong argument for a few game genres that could join the list. Top-down racers, for example. Even when such a game is demonstrably bad, the core appeal of whizzing around a track, shunting and wrecking your friends, is strong enough that the experience can still be fun.
That's how Wrecked, a sequel to cult 2004 racer Mashed in all but name, squeaks by. The game itself is riddled with problems and flaws, but in among all the irritations there's a kernel of classic entertainment that makes itself visible enough that the game doesn't feel like a complete waste of time. Of course, those sporadic glimpses of multiplayer greatness also make it all the more frustrating that Wrecked isn't a whole lot better.
Developer Supersonic, which features original team members from both Mashed and Micro Machines 4, certainly hasn't ventured far from the comfort zone on this one. There are no new ideas, only ones that have been proven to work in decades past. You race dinky cars around hairpin bends, trying to force other racers off the road, causing them to be caught by the elimination line that trails at a set distance behind the leader, or by demolishing them with the selection of weapons that can be picked up along the way.
Earn enough points to fill your score meter first and you're declared the winner, earning XP which can then unlock new cars and customisation options. If these impact your driving in any way, the game doesn't let on. The nostalgic appeal is clear, but almost immediately the game begins to chip away at its inherited goodwill
It's a thin concoction, especially given the steep 1200 Microsoft Points price. You get six short and rather anonymous tracks for your trouble but, with generic names like Jungle Temple and Arctic Outpost, few stick in the memory. They boast all the requisite sharp turns and ramps, but rarely in configurations that inspire smarter racing.
Only the self-explanatory Ice Bridge stands out, a blatant remake of the Polar Wharf track from Mashed. With two long, unprotected frozen straights, linked by tight hairpins at either end, it's easy to see why it's an enduring favourite. Everyone skids and slides, and played with friends it's an absolute blast. If you want more tracks and challenges, you'll need to add another 400 points to the price tag for some day-one downloadable content.
"Wrecked offers a tissue-thin single-player mode, poor frame rate and camera, bland track design and clumsy online multiplayer, all for a premium price with expensive, community-splitting day one DLC."
The second disappointment in Wrecked's grisly pile-up of half-baked features is that single players are stuck with a series of standalone challenges, while the bulk of the racing action is limited to local or online multiplayer. The challenges are varied and often quite fun - navigating courses with a caravan in tow, for instance, or driving with your throttle jammed open - but they're a poor substitute for actual races.
The absence of AI cars for solo racing is baffling, and the reliance on online play optimistic. The game is really only worth playing with a full complement of four players, yet even after several days on sale the battle leaderboards are still showing fewer than 500 scoring players. That's a long way from the sort of community momentum a title like this needs to endure in the short term, never mind the foreseeable future.
Even during the races, silly problems persist. The camera is an energetic thing, too often abandoning the useful, practical top-down viewpoint to swoop around a corner or zoom in on the track, sometimes at the expense of clarity. This is compounded by laggy netcode and a stuttering frame-rate that only gets worse with a full roster of four players. As players are knocked out, they can unleash air strikes on the surviving racers, which tanks the game's engine further still. At key moments the game can be reduced to a juddering, lurching mess, perhaps tolerable on the PS2 but inexcusable in an online multiplayer focused title in 2012.
Weapon balancing is all over the place, leaving some pick-ups virtually useless (the feeble machine gun that seems to have no appreciable impact) while others are grossly overpowered (the shocker, which sends cars careening off-course at random). There can be enjoyment in the chaos, but where combat is concerned, success comes less from in-the-moment skill and more from anticipating and exploiting these awkward bumps in the game design, with a large side order of blind luck.
And still the annoyances continue to crash into each other. The lobby and matchmaking system is crude, and boots everybody back to the menu screen should a player drop out. Given the game's tendency towards "oh for goodness' sake" moments, multiplayer is blighted by rage-quitting, rendering entire matches null and void each time. The game's knockabout nature can make this worse, as some players have already worked out that, from a pole position start, a quick tap on the reverse button is enough to shunt the racer behind into the elimination zone almost immediately. Defeat rarely feels fair, victory rarely feels earned.
Stranger still, once you've started a multiplayer race, you're restricted to the same track over and over. If you want to race somewhere else, you need to retreat back through the menus, select a different track and start all over again.
All told, Wrecked offers a tissue-thin single-player mode, poor frame-rate and camera, bland track design and clumsy online multiplayer, all for a premium price with expensive community-splitting day-one DLC. It's a litany of needless aggravation and missed opportunity, a line of haphazardly placed dominoes waiting to fall over at the first sign of trouble, so the fact that the game still manages to burst into life with the right combination of players is a small victory almost worth celebrating.
That entertainment comes from the innate appeal of the genre, however, rather than anything specific to this title. By leaning so heavily on Mashed's cult kudos, the game ultimately invites unflattering comparisons to a superior title already eight years old. Wrecked may be designed to remind players of Mashed, but it does nothing to move it forwards or to build on its ample foundations. In too many areas Wrecked not only fails to advance the Mashed template, it often falls far short of it; a smaller, clumsier echo of a beloved retro favourite.
It shouldn't be this way. The top-down multiplayer racer is one of gaming's most underused genres, but few titles today (with the honourable exception of MotorStorm RC on Vita and PS3) seem to know how to pull it off. Despite its pedigree, Wrecked is sadly no different. Just because it's possible to still find pleasurable bites in a disappointing pizza, it doesn't mean you should go out of your way to order one.
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