Carmageddon is tasteless, completely ridiculous, uglier than Divine in a two piece... and its one of my favourite games of all time.
The GoodEasy to jump right in and play
Intense bursts of speed
Great track design with surprising amounts of freedom
Ridiculous physics are entertaining
Great sound effects
Grisly but cathartic deaths
Plenty of visceral moments and feelings of vertigo
Crashes actually give the feeling of impact
Addictive arcade style gameplay
Good vehicle damage models
The BadSome people may be turned off by offensive content
Uneven difficulty curves
Some bugs break the game in various ways
Putting in a password on each startup is annoying
Extremely ugly, outdated graphics
Earning brand new cars left up to random chance
Redbook audio is always a pain
Runs in DOS despite 1997 release date
Dares don't really amount to anything
The Bottom Line
In 1975, a film called "Death Race 2000," starring the late but great David Carradine (Best known for the legendary "Kung Fu" television series and the more recent "Kill Bill" films) was released into theatres. The concept was basic: A cross country race as a form of entertaining and pacifying rowdy and restless civilians; the twist being that this race isn't about coming in first place, the winner is chosen by how many innocent civilians and other racers are killed in the process.
The film wasn't well received, many critics and parents were offended by the films tasteless content. It was excessively gory, almost every female character in the film whipped out their breasts or went stark naked at least once, and the films sense of humour was extremely morbid and bleak, treating vehicular manslaughter and sexism as comedic relief. The film did gather a cult following (Including my wife & I) and whether you like it or not, it is arguably the prototypical "Blood Sport Opiate" film, appearing over a decade before "The Running Man," which is the film most people think of when dealing with a premise involving a blood sport as pacifying entertainment.
You're probably asking yourself, "What the hell does this have to do with Carmageddon?" Well, it has a lot to do with it. Carmageddon is clearly inspired by the film, in fact during its development process, it was going to be titled "Death Race 2020" and presented as a tie in with the comic book of the same name, intended as a sequel to the film. However, they could not keep the rights to the franchise and the name was dropped but in truth it can still be called a Death Race video game.
Save for a complete lack of breasts (Sorry, nudie fans), the game mimics the film exactly, from its tasteless sense of humour to its ridiculous amounts of gore and disregard for the laws of physics. Unfortunately, this lack of tact might turn a lot of people off which is a shame because if you look past this element, its one of the most entertaining games ever made and it would easily make my top 10 games of all time and there's almost no competition when it comes to being my favourite racing game, the closest being Need For Speed 3
The game is presented like your standard 3D racer, but it pans out very differently. The game is much more arcade focused, based on score more than pole position. This allows players to jump into the game quickly and not have to worry about falling into 8th place immediately and working tirelessly to get all the mechanics down. At the start of each race, you have a time limit like many other racers, but its not too hard to bring this time limit up. You can increase your time limit by getting points, which are achieved by damaging or destroying enemy vehicles, running over pedestrians, or getting time bonus pickups. You lose if your time limit is up, but this is rare, though keeping a high time limit is a good idea and the higher your time limit, the more points you get when you finish a race.
Finishing a race can be achieved in multiple ways as well. You can do it the old fashioned way, going from checkpoint to checkpoint and doing laps, but since pole position doesn't matter you will often focus on racking up points while moving from checkpoint to checkpoint. You can also win a race by destroying all your opponents. Vehicle combat is very fun and no doubt inspired games like Burnout
as you beat your opponents by crashing into them or staging elaborate crash scenarios. This is a lot of fun because the game really packs a lot of punch into the crashes, and you feel some impact whenever you make a high speed crash. The final and most arduous way to win a race is to kill every single pedestrian. Even though it is cathartic to run over pedestrians and you will no doubt kill plenty racking up that score, its not worth going after every civilian because there are hundreds and it can wear thin driving to every nook and cranny to find them.
The tracks are elaborate and well designed. They are extremely large and encourage exploration, which also adds to the replay value. There are several alternate paths that lead to more pedestrians and power ups, which often have bizarre but undeniably funny results. Some power ups do have standard invulnerability or speed boosts, but the ones that are the most entertaining are the ones that stick a monkey wrench in the already over the top physics, such as the power up that makes your car drive on only two wheels and collects scrap metal and giblets or the power up that makes you bounce around. Nothing blows off steam like picking up a bounce power up and bouncing randomly into a herd of cows or bouncing an opponents car and literally flattening it.
The physics are over the top, and I wouldn't have them any other way. The game is extremely fast and visceral. You'll fly through the air, spin around, bounce, flip, crush, get crushed, and defy the laws of physics in every way possible. But it only adds to the fun. The speed and physics are detailed despite being so silly, and you'll often get that funny feeling in your gut that you get when you go down a free fall or a slope in a roller coaster. This makes the game thrilling and fast paced. The biggest problem with the physics is that the controls suffer for it. The controls are slippery and cornering is pretty much impossible unless you are a god. You'll spin out of control all the time and while this can result in entertaining scenes, it can get annoying when you are trying to focus on getting to the next checkpoint, getting a specific powerup, or trying to ram an opponent. The game supports a joystick, but they are very hard to configure and they are just as slippery if not more so.
The arcade style can be addicting, not only is it simply fun to climb the score board, the developers have added a few hooks to keep you playing. To progress in the game, you must progress a ladder. You start at rank 99 and will increase in rank for every race you win. Depending on your score, your rank increase will range from 2 to 6. This system is a little stingier in harder difficulties, but this is to be expected. You beat the game once you reach rank 1, and if you own the "Max Pack" version of the game like I do, there is a second disc that has another campaign that is equally good and addicting.
There are some confusing aspects of the core gameplay, mostly revolving around how to get new cars and "dares." Dares are occasionally given by other racers, but they don't really have any requirements and don't bode any rewards. No cash bonus, no point bonus, no bonuses of any kind, and all the dare does is swap your position at the starting grid; which doesn't even effect the gameplay anyway. The only change your position in the starting grid makes is that there is a bonus for whoever splatters the guy waving the checkered flag first. Its a completely useless addition, and it could've easily been used for bonuses, in fact it could've been used to put you and your opponents cars in the pot and if you won their dare, you get their car, if you lose, they get yours and you have to go back.
Speaking of acquiring new cars, this is another confusing element. In most racing games, you use cash to buy new cars. Here, cash is used to upgrade your car, but not to buy new cars. The only way to get new cars is by random chance, which is a majour pain. Once you reach rank 89, you have a chance of winning an opponents car, provided you destroy it in the match. There is no threshhold for what car the game will reward you with and whether or not the game will even give you a new car is random. This is frustrating, especially when you are stuck with only one car half the game and the more exotic cars come in. Naturally, the cooler the car, the more the player will want it. There's a car in the game that zaps lightning at pedestrians, not only is that cool, it would've made it easier to keep a good time score while going for checkpoints. It took me literally 8 years to finally play a match and get that car, and by then I didn't really care and was pissed off at the random chance aspect.
Multiplayer is fun, though it is disappointing that only 2 players can play the 2 player mode. Granted, there will still be AI drivers, but it would've been cool to have all 8 cars player controlled. Regardless, its a lot of fun to play with a bud and set up tug of war mode, a mode where you and your bud fight for the top amount of pedestrian kills in two separate track areas.
The sound is excellent. The screams of pedestrians, soft bellies bursting underneath your treads, metal scraping, loud crashes, squealing tires, cheers and hollers from your drivers and so much more all sound great and make the action even more stylish. The game has a CD based soundtrack with some cool heavy metal, but sadly it uses Redbook Audio. If you don't know what Redbook audio is, let me sum it up. Redbook audio was a method used by early CD based games where the audio and the data would be separate tracks, the data would have its very own "track" while the music was placed on separate tracks and burned exactly like a music CD.
This was done for two reasons; one, it would save space on the disc and the hard drive because the music wouldn't have to be copied to the hard drive or coded into the data. The other reason is because not everyone had top of the line audio cards and audio cards were still fledgling, and often couldn't handle CD quality audio without bogging the system down, but with a Redbook CD the sound card would only render the sound effects and the music would be run by the CD drive itself.
The negative is that most modern computers don't like Redbook audio, its nigh impossible to get it to play the music, and even if it did work, a scratch on the disc and a single skip in the music could cause the game to crash.
The last thing I wish to address are the graphics. The graphics are TERRIBLE. It would be believable that this game was made in 1995, but the fact it was made in 1997 is ridiculous. The game suffers from texture warping and pixelation. To avoid suffering migraines, you have to add a command line for hires mode, and even then it still looks outdated. Save for the cars, which have cool details and great damage modeling, everything is a pixel and levels are often very boxy. Granted, many of them take place in industrial and modern city environments, but it'd be nice to see some more curves. The sprites of the pedestrians are low res and are rendered in 8-bit colour. Come on! 8 bit colour in 1997? It was outdated in 1996! The best that can be said about these sprites is that the deaths are gruesome and detailed, and the crimson blood looks great. I will grant the graphics some amnesty, I can understand that in 1997, a game with so much chaos on screen and tons of moving sprites mixed in with the chaos might be bogged down, and a racing game without speed is like a shooter without a gun.
It also doesn't help that the game is Dos based. There is a Windows 95 executable on the Max Pack edition, but ONLY on the Max Pack edition and even it doesn't look much better, in fact unless you use the highres command line, it looks worse than the dos version. You are not given a choice of resolutions, and the maximum is 640x480, with the standard being 320x200. There is also the option for Glide rendering provided you can find the proper patch, but the Glide render only works with the dos version, and getting the DOS version running fast is arduous enough without having to configure and modify the DOS executable with a glide wrapper on modern computers.
Regardless of its issues, Carmageddon is one of the most fast paced, intense, visceral and downright entertaining arcade racers. Its insane, addictive, highly replayable, and if you aren't offended by its violent content, very cathartic. Carmageddon knows how to be one thing: Unabashed, brutal, intense FUN. Realism doesn't drag it down and there is never a dull moment.