Next to classics such as Road Rash and Twisted Metal, Carmageddon is considered one of the grandaddies of the vehicle combat genre. Developed by Stainless Games, Carmageddon: Max Damage marks the island studio’s return to the series almost twenty years after its creation. Although a younger generation of gamers may have missed its released, the controversy it spawned is still talked about to this very day. At the time, violent video games were on the rise, causing widespread concern among the mass media and politicians.
Needless to say, Carmageddon got quite the reputation, so when Stainless revealed its plans to crowdsource a full-on sequel, they put themselves smack bang back in the crosshairs. With backers’ money and a legacy to uphold, charging from that particular trench has been no enviable task for them and while they manage to dodge a bullet or two with the occasional flair, an equal number of rounds find their mark.
Don’t expect to fall in love with the new Carmageddon straight away. Although many parts of this cult franchise have undergone some mild modernisation, it remains unapologetically old school at its core. So be warned, if you missed out on the car combat craze of the nineties, much of what Max Damage attempts to achieve shall likely elude you.
Instead of racing head to head across a series of finely tuned tracks, Carmageddon is built around scrappy freeform carnage. Bar one or two exceptions, its environments are huge in scale with plenty of hidden backstreets and off-road areas to explore. This almost complete lack of linearity, especially in comparison with most driving games, will certainly put some players on the back foot.
Although it’s easy to get your head around some of the basics, Carmageddon takes racing game tropes and turns them on their head. For example, being first past the finish line counts for nothing in all but one of Max Damage’s game modes. The rest of them will either have you bashing bumpers or stampeding from one checkpoint to the next.
Wedged between these flimsy rule sets and open environments are hundreds of innocent pedestrians, or ‘peds’, going about their business. They’ve always been a highlight for the Carmageddon series and it’s easy to see why. Whether electrocuted, napalmed, catapulted, or eviscerated, each bystander is their own mobile resource node. The points gained from mutilating these bystanders can be used by players for a number of actions in game, such as buying specific power ups and repairing car damage, while progressively unlocking new career missions to play. Regardless of their practical uses in-game, there’s a perverse sense of joy to be had in hunting the peds down, watching their lifeless bodies ragdoll across the screen.
Despite all the blood and body parts, Max Damage never takes itself seriously. The game’s overall tone echoes the dumb, overly edgy youth culture of the nineties with a side helping of crass British colloquialism. While some may baulk at the use of words such as “spastic”, most phrases are fairly harmless and actually quite funny, depending on your comedic tastes. Even when struggling with some of Carmageddon’s most pressing issues, I couldn’t help but giggle when I first saw “Get yer’ flaps out” flash on-screen.
Sadly, those aforementioned issues all stem from how the game plays. Vehicle handling is remarkably poor during the early stages of the game, no matter what terrain your driving on. Things improve as your start to upgrade your ride though targeting specific objects and NPCs can feel like trying to tap a nail with a sledgehammer, one handed. Every corner quickly becomes a gamble as you spin out of control, leaving you wide open to attack. Although fairly brainless when it comes to more complex tasks, the AI will take every opportunity to inconvenience you in any way they can. It can get pretty tiresome, especially when you find yourself pinned against a wall and unable to move for the umpteenth time.
Features such as the recovery and repair buttons help in these situations, as do the game’s broad array of power ups. Driving into coloured barrels scattered across each map will help top up your arsenal with these bizarre treats. While some will improve or hamper mobility, others can change the behaviour of nearby peds, causing them to burst into dance or even run at speeding vehicles. However, when looking to pick off your opponents, it’s the red barrels that become particularly important. From anvil launchers to Carmageddon’s “mine shitting” power, they’re the easiest way to secure a quick win. Without them, you’re forced to awkwardly joust with other drivers, ramming them before reversing and doing the same over and over.
As we’ve come to expect from games sporting premium price tags, Max Damage has plenty of content to wade through. By mixing and matching the various mode and map combinations, its longevity doesn’t feel completely organic, though the prospect of finding new cars and upgrade tokens help to incentivise play.
Compared to top flight racers such as DriveClub and Forza, Carmageddon isn’t much of a looker. Although the game runs fairly smoothly, there’s some shoddy texture work to soak in and an overall lack of finesse to the gritty visuals. Without the same AAA budget, this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, nor does the generic audio effects and soundtrack. Serviceable is definitely the word we’re grasping for – Max Damage may not be a work of art yet this doesn’t hamper it in any serious way.
Carmageddon’s revival gets off to a sloppy start, though it gradually gets better with perseverance. Drawbacks such as the fickle handling and the so-so presentation become easier to overlook, but those first few hours can be a major slog. Swapping out AI racers for real life opponents will no doubt help to alleviate some of its issues, but even then, Max Damage doesn’t manage to propel this much-loved franchise back past the growing pool of troubled combat racers.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4