The new Carmageddon offers a bloody good ride, but too often it's a danger to itself.
Much has changed since Carmageddon first crashed onto the scene in the spring of 1997. Back then, damage modelling in your typical racing game involved slapping a few scuffs on the paintwork and maybe a crack in the windshield, while the idea of aiming your car at helpless screaming bystanders and having their viscera sprayed at the screen in exchange for added time was seemingly - if the brief period of tabloid hysteria was anything to go by - beyond all common decency.
These days we expect a game's ability to display impairment to be not just realistic but applied universally, whether it's as a result of a collision between a vehicle and a building, or a bullet and a human skull - and if we can get a lingering slow motion repeat and some kind of award to go with it, so much the better.
More significantly in the context of Carma's 15 year absence, the concept of the vehicle-as-weapon is now so evolved and so commonplace as to be secondary to the immersiveness of the game worlds they occupy. The most recent iterations of Just Cause, Far Cry and Grand Theft Auto all come with advanced vehicular manslaughter fitted as standard, but they are celebrated more for worlds that are coherent and developed enough to put context and consequence to a whole range of players actions and objectives, not just running people over for the fun of it.
Carmageddon: Reincarnation, a reboot from the original developers Stainless Games, has locations that provide for circuits of big dumb fun, but it's not a particularly cohesive world, nor one that has much to offer those that stray too far from the blood-stained track. Compared to the world of adventure that is Los Santos, playing Carmageddon: Reincarnation is like a municipal playground tour, albeit one that allows for plenty of sociopathic mayhem at each stop.
To be fair to Stainless, reincarnating Carmageddon was never about instigating wholesale change or deepening its strangely unapocalyptic post-apocalyptic world, only to bring the look and feel of the original games in line with modern PC capabilities. For better or worse Carmageddon: Reincarnation remains a series of wacky races through cities and power plants, across ice and fields and inevitably into crushing contact with other vehicles, people and animals. Its raison d'etre; to provide for much impressive groaning of metal and squelching of flesh, remains intact, augmented of course with the requisite outpouring of smoke, oil and blood.
More or less the same riffs on classic cartoon cars line up on the grid, from the series' iconic red Eagle and the absurd drag racing Annihilator, to what has always been a personal favourite, Screwie Lewie's monster pick-up with its unsettling front-mounted corkscrew. Some cars are fast and light, others are truck-like, but for the most part they all handle as you'd expect a homemade vehicle that's been adorned with spikes and hasn't passed an MOT for ten years would.
Where the new game expands on the old is with a selection of new race variants. Dominant as it should be is the classic Carma mode, in which you must either wreck your opponent's vehicles to ensure yours is the last one running (the most fun), mow down all the pedestrians on the map (the most tedious) or just rush off to each successive checkpoint to reach the finish line first (the easiest). New to the mix are capture the flag-style races to bludgeon through tagged pedestrians and spawning checkpoints, the twist being that by wrecking other cars you can steal their points (and likewise they yours). Perhaps most fun of all is Fox 'n' Hounds, essentially vehicular tag, where as the fox you try to avoid outrun the other cars until your timer ticks down.
As has always been a hallmark of the series, it's the power-ups that deliver the snorts. Head on collisions and high speed jousting offers an undeniable thrill, but the game can often turn into a frustrating slog of near misses and ineffective shunts. Spend the time to collect a few abilities however, such as freeze rays to hold cars in place, mines and bombs to pile on the damage and respulsificaters to hilariously launch cars and pedestrians into walls and ceilings and gleeful adolescent fun is almost guaranteed. Throw in a few other non-essential powers, such as toxic car farts and having pedestrian heads explode at the press of a button, and it only adds to the enjoyment - assuming you're into that kind of thing, of course.
For all the gratuitousness in having so many innocent bystanders fall under your wheels or launched skyward, they're not the most convincing car fodder to have appeared in a Carmageddon title. Race into them at full pelt and bodies will disintegrate into a satisfying red mist. Merely clip one, however, and it looks more like a showroom dummy being dropped into a skip. They're not the most vocal bunch either. Pedestrians in the original game would scream and plead for their lives like the enthusiastic extras they were. Here they don't quite seem so keen to stay alive. The point is that for a game that trades so heavily on its grindhouse appeal, there is a slight but noticeable tameness that just takes some of that raw edge away.
Elsewhere, while the detail in the vehicles is pleasing, regardless of what state they're in, the landscapes are fairly bland host locations to the action. Buildings come across more like painted stage backdrops, which perhaps explains why their inhabitants are forced to walk the streets with such little purpose. Out in the countryside, open spaces lack the necessary detail to be convincing. There are no significant environmental effects either; no weather, no day or night - all of which adds to a lack of diversity that can make the career mode drag along as you work to unlock a meagre spread of car upgrades. That said, there are some notable locations that endorse repeat play. Bleak City is aptly named, but for Carma fans its streets are paved with nostalgia. Likewise the tight industrial driveways of Magnuchem, with its worker-packed courtyards and lakes of toxic sludge, probably offers the most satisfying venue for carnage in the whole game.
As someone who probably hasn't played a 'proper' racing game since Gran Turismo 3 and would happily leave the likes of Forza on the shelf if his game collection had to be rescued from a burning building, Carmageddon: Reincarnation's multiple routes to victory, puerile humour and impressive physics are almost enough to secure a recommendation, in spite of a how limited its palette for destruction is when compared to its more open-world contemporaries. Unfortunately, before Carmageddon can climb any kind of podium, some considerable developer effort is required to fix what for many seems to be an Austin Allegro engine powering Mad Max's Interceptor.
Since it first entered Early Access Carmageddon's drivers have complained about lengthy loading times, inconsistent framerates, poor optimisation, multiplayer desynchronisation and infrequent crashes. Unfortunately it seems that for many those same issues have persisted past launch. Players with PCs far in excess of the recommended spec report the game to be unplayable, while others with minimum systems might register just the odd stutter. I can only confirm my own experience with the game, which has has been almost entirely positive. Mine is an unimpressive rig (i5, 8GB, AMD R7 graphics), and flitting between medium and high settings all I've had cause to note are delays to get levels loading and a plunging framerate on the starting grid, otherwise Carmageddon has been perfectly reliable. More Megane than Allegro, at least
To its credit Stainless has recognised the scale of the problem and has assured players than it is working to get the game in a stable condition as soon as possible. Until a decent performance can be assured for all, however, or until it's recalled back into Early Access, we have to advise caution.