Carmageddon

Carmageddon
3.5
Game Name: Carmageddon
Platforms: DOS/Windows 98
Publisher(s): SCi Games
Developer(s): Stainless Software
Genre(s): Demolition derby racer like dealy
Release Date: 1997
Notes: GOG.com has it; think you get a free copy when you pitch in for the remake.

I don’t know with how much authority I can say it, but I don’t remember Carmageddon being that popular in the U.S. Certainly not to the level of nostalgic adoration it seems to enjoy in Europe (Twisted Metal 2 was the new hotness in my circles). So I write this having no history with the car combat game that’s begging to be notorious right from the menu screen – featuring a severed hand tossing blood droplets around as you move the mouse. After far too much time spent racing past cows spraying diarrhea, through helpless lumberjacks and police officers, and directly into the metal flanks of my foes, I come back with some thoughts on the original in this mayhem simulator series.

Grease the flagman at the start for extra points.

Grease the flagman at the start for extra cash.

Carmageddon started as a licensed recreation of cult classic Death Race 2000 – there are still cars in the game influenced by Stallone and Carradine’s racers in the film. Carma shifted toward the generic when that deal fell through, but the basic concept remains identical. You’re participating in a series of bloody cross-country races. “Races” here is intentionally used loosely. There are checkpoints, laps, and a finish line, but these only represent one way to win. You’re simultaneously encouraged to crash into opposing racers or barrel over pedestrians milling about the course. Dealing enough damage to your opponents will knock them out of the race and leave you with an automatic win, while squishing every last bystander under your tires is yet another victory condition.

An extremely generous time limit gives you some focus, though colliding with opponents, killing pedestrians, or passing checkpoints all keep the timer so well-fed that you can pretty much stay in a race indefinitely. Your opponents will never complete the race themselves, so you’re free to sandbox around and spend time pursuing whichever goal you choose. In fact, the game prides itself on this freeform nature, and even the manual itself encourages you do jump in a race and do whatever strikes you. You’re also the only car that can repair itself (with the Backspace key) or reset your position (with Insert), giving you an insurmountable advantage when smashing up your AI opponents. And should you actually want to play it as a racer, there’s incentive there too – with any time remaining traded in for upgrade cash.

Your ultimate goal is to rise from 99th rank to numero uno, which you do by winning races and accumulating cash. Money allows you to upgrade the armor, speed, and damage of your vehicles, and moving up the ladder unlocks new races to tackle. You can never purchase a new car, but you can earn opponents’ wheels by destroying them. As your rank rises, you have an increased chance of reclaiming certain cars after you knock them out of a race. Your upgrades carry over, and each car displays some slightly different handling characteristics. Some are light and better suited for racing, some are beefier and better suited for smashing, and some, like Vlad’s rocket sled, are complete pieces of shit.

Wheeeeee

Wheeeeee

Interestingly, Carma doesn’t control like an arcade racer. Weight is considered in collisions and jumps, grip appears to be modeled, and some speed is required to cause any damage the game deems worthy of cash rewards. However, it’s not fully realistic or intuitive either. Physics are gleefully exaggerated to create cartoonish jumps or flips. Small bumps in the terrain can send your car flying, cars can roll and spin for blocks, and basically, once you’re going over 60 MPH, all bets are off. The physics system also seems to emphasize momentum over all else. It’s extremely easy to oversteer or fishtail, and once you start skidding off the track, it takes forever to stop. It gets even worse when ice, water, grass, or oil slicks gets introduced.

Because of this, you NEED to play Carmageddon with a joystick. While you can control your vehicle reasonably well with the keyboard numpad, the binary nature of the inputs make steering an absurd challenge with this physics system. When I first played (using the keyboard) I had an absolutely miserable time. I was spinning off the roads, crashing past turns, getting spun around by enemies and generally having no fun whatsoever. A gamepad gave me the control I desperately needed. (On a modern note, you may need a joystick mapping utility like Joy2Key or Xpadder to get the analog effects you’re after. Though joysticks are supported natively, the game doesn’t appear to handle USB correctly.)

Carmageddon is at its best when you’ve got an open map (like the city or countryside), with plenty of wide stretches to floor the accelerator and smash into opponents. Since earning new cars requires you to destroy other racers, the game seems biased toward this victory condition. It’s also the easiest, the fastest, and the most fun. The exaggerated physics make every high-speed hit enjoyable, and point bonuses for head-on collisions or impossible air flips further encourage a raucous demolition derby. The ability to push opponents into walls or off cliffs (to their demise!) is extra icing on the cake.

Seriously, why are the cops in the game at all? They only get in the way.

Seriously, why are the cops in the game at all? They only get in the way.

Carma’s at its worst in any map that significantly restricts you. The construction, canyon, and mine zones all feature areas where the course bottlenecks in a pit or similar comparatively cramped zone. With no long stretches to escape or gain speed, these turn into chaotic free-for-alls. Opponents will smash into you and drag your car around, hits are much weaker due to no chances to get up to speed, and the confounding introduction of invincible police cars further muck up your plans. Maybe it’s because I’m always trying to demolish the other cars, but these maps consistently had moments where I sat, head propped on hand, waiting for my car to stop pinballing around.

Ironically, Carma’s also pretty terrible at being a racing game. Part of this seems to stem from cars that accelerate at impossible rates – literally 0-60 MPH in a little over a second. You’ll be posting over 200 before you even realize it, and at those speeds, I can’t really fault what the physics system does to you. However, you’re also reaching speeds where your brakes can’t possibly work, leaving you to rocket past turns, clip a pylon and fly a hundred feet in the air, or fishtail and spin out with more than the slightest steering adjustment. Those bastard cops also dog you at every chance, and the freeform chaos becomes far less enjoyable when you’re just trying to reach the next checkpoint.

Further complicating is the totally uncooperative third person camera. It works well for driving forward, but kick into reverse and the camera will immediately start slowly spinning around. You can’t stop it until it completes its revolution, even if you start moving forward again. Since this is a car combat game, reversing to get enough distance to slam into a stuck opponent again features prominently (at least in my playstyle). The overeager camera makes this extremely difficult to aim. Likewise, there’s no way to see behind you when driving forward, except in the cockpit view with mirrors turned on. I found myself having to frequently switch between third person (for driving) and first person (for car jousting), which is manageable but awkward compared to other racers with smarter cameras.

Carma's instant replay system is always available, and always amusing.

Carma’s instant replay system is always available, and always amusing.

The massive levels also offer the freedom to leave the track simply because there’s six maps total, and each of the 33 races just sections off a new part for its track. This means any maps you might hate are guaranteed to show up again, and often. You are allowed to skip ahead to a limited extent, but I was still stuck with a few of the hated construction, mine, and canyon races. Collision errors are frequent in all maps as well. Part of the reason I hate the mine level so much is that it’s exceedingly easy to get your car stuck on the train tracks. Many cliffs can lock your car up even though your wheels are spinning, and smashing into any course barriers frequently leaves you on the wrong side or falling off the track altogether. The restore key will drop you instantly back for a small fee, but again, these moments are maddening when you’re focused on accomplishing one of the race’s goals.

Some other minor complaints: AI cars will freely warp around to try and get closer to you (you can watch this happen on the map). It’s meant to be helpful, but often results in you trying to chase the last car while it keeps changing to new locations. It’s also annoyingly difficult to earn new wheels. In my journey to the top, I only earned four (you’ll unlock them all by beating the game, but unless you’re prepared to play again, it’s too late). There are also way too many pedestrians (300-500+) to reasonably try and mow them all down, and the cars’ overall handling issues made finishing all the laps a proposition I only took up when I wanted the level to hurry up and end.

carmageddon_5

Smashing opponents keeps the timer going.

It’s certainly a pretty game, even today. You can play with software rendering at DOS resolutions, DOS with 3Dfx support (you’ll need some Glide drivers), or in Windows mode at 640×480. Any of the options were quite playable, with 3Dfx offering the sharpest textures, but Windows giving the smoothest gameplay. Both the polygon worlds and the cars themselves deliver a decent amount of detail with only slightly obtrusive tearing and draw-in. Cars spit polygon shards in crashes and take predefined damage along crumple zones, which can be viewed in a post-race gallery – it’s also endlessly fun to hit the “repair” key and watch your own car inflate back out.  For sound, Carma can best be described as loud. Every race is a cacaphony of drums, squealing tires, screaming pedestrians and grinding metal. Unfortunately, there’s only a handful of everything recorded, so the novelty gets lost pretty quickly.

I’m going to sound unavoidably grumpy here, but honestly, I feel like I’d enjoy Carmageddon a lot more if I was 11 years old and had no idea how a car handled. I respect that there’s more to it than its crass exterior, and the idea of a freeform racing game was certainly novel. It still can be fun to play today, so long as you’re not expecting to do any actual racing. When you’re focused on trying to win the game is when the frustrations start to pile on. Fun and laid back, but a better driving system would have helped it be legendary instead of merely infamous.

 

The Good

The ability to totally ignore (or actively disrupt) the “race” is always dumb fun. Car designs are inventive and interesting. Instant replay camera is always a winner.

The Bad

There are multiple ways to win the race, but only one (smashing) that’s really practical. Steering and physics make cars handle like boats – or as one GOG forum user aptly put, “like a tank on ice without grip.” Large maps, but only a handful repeated across the whole game.

 

8 Comments

  1. Rik says:

    Thanks for the review JMan!

    I think you nailed it at the end there – when you’re actually trying to finish the damn thing is when it gets to be a bore and a grind.

    It’s been a while since I played but I can’t remember the handling being quite so bad – although I was testing the boxed version on a Win ’98 machine. If it drove you mad, though, I’d stay away from the sequel!

    • The J Man says:

      Thanks! I spent what I think could safely be referred to as an “obsessive” amount of time looking into these control issues. Different systems, checking YouTube videos to confirm the acceleration rate, etc.

      Using a joystick/gamepad definitely helped. The keyboard steering whips the wheel full left or right, then slowly returns to center. That obviously doesn’t help.

      The rest just seems like the game. What remained were more physics issues than control ones. The spin outs, flips, poor handling at extreme speeds all seem intentionally exaggerated, and again, a real pain when you’re trying to finish a race rather than just knocking around.

  2. Oleg says:

    JMan!

    It’s great to read another one from you!

    I would like to share with you a little thing: I was 14 y.o, when I discovered Carma for the first time, and stuck with the franchise for years, but was oblivious about the existance of Twisted Metal games – until you posted the review! The only thing, I didn’t wright my own review about Carma yet, so you could read it too!

    Recently, I too, picked up the Max Pack bandle from GOG, since my original CD didn’t make it to 2013, and would like to add something from my personal experience.

    Firstly, those who maniacally attempt to eliminate all the pedestrians within a given map are doomed: not only there are too many people, but there are also power-up barrels (yeah, the Barrels of Fun!) that contain the “Respawn” bonus – driving your car into this one, will sweep off instantly all of your pretencious efforts.

    Second, “stealing” opponents’ cars is one of the few restrictions of the game AND the most painful way to obtain a better one. Sure, it is vastly described in the manual how to do it, and I learned well, but I hate it so much! Years on, playing in the “career mode”, I managed to pick up all of the “allowed” models (simply, those that are drivable in the 1st person view, without the graphical glitch), but you have to be both at the right rank (88, 66, etc.) and happen to race against the right car, and then bash it few times: to “mark it”, according to the game’s rules, but one could just, say, pee on it, and solve the problem in that way. Otherwise, you abort one race, then join again, to see if the desired car showes up. If not, cycle through “begin/abort race” repeatedly. Very cool, right?

    Few words about the drunk… I mean, ranking system. It seems somewhat going on its own, obscure rules: sometimes, even if I lasted for a huge amount of time within a given map, doing all sorts of atrocities, afterwards, the game would give me a ‘0’, in the face of all my efforts, or when you have a quick victory and/or mow down less the 100 peds – it does so more frequently on Medium and Hard levels of difficulty… Weird!

    The last thing, my major concerns come toghether with the reuse of the same game’s maps but different starting locations. I understand that the game comes from the different time period, when repetition was the basis, which wasn’t that bad in some cases (did I rhyme?), but man, it’s a long trip from the rank 99 to numero uno! The expansion Max Pack seems to give away something different, but it too, falls into the same trap of reusing the its own material, even if either locations are so twisted and contrasting to each other, they seem to be bits of different games put toghether.

    But it all is A HELL of fun, and is a postive twist, in comparison to the everyday racing games… even if it falls a lot into a casual gaming experience, for how the mechanics are set on.

    Cheers JMan, and thanks for this gift!

    P.S.: After all, I did wright my own Carmageddon review!

    • The J Man says:

      Hey Oleg! Sorry it took a while, but I am still reviewing!

      Agree that the barrels are usually bad news. Occasionally you get something like “Solid Granite Car,” but usually it’s either useless, or the dreaded “Bouncy Bouncy!” >:[

      Interesting point about the ranking. I beat nearly every race by destroying the competition (I wanted the new cars!), and consistently rose in rank by 4-5 each race. Maybe it’s another reason that smashing cars is the only “true” way to win a race.

      But overall, yeah, I like the idea of taking the racing genre and introducing anarchy. It was fun to run the track in reverse, smash into whoever was coming, and actually get rewarded for that.

      I do still have the Splat Pack to look at, but maybe later 😛

  3. Oleg says:

    “I beat nearly every race by destroying the competition (I wanted the new cars!), and consistently rose in rank by 4-5 each race. Maybe it’s another reason that smashing cars is the only “true” way to win a race.”

    I smashed the opponents, all the times! Truely, it’s the only way you can make it through the game. It’s that, in some cases, the game didn’t like my numbers, for some reason. So, I had to go back and redo the match. I just can’t understand, why this happens at all.

    Anyway, I’m glad that you enjoyed this one! Rik, here, doesn’t seem to like the franchise that much, also according to his reviews on FFG – a matter of tastes, I suppose. 😉 (Sorry for dragging you in, pal! I love FFG, you guys make a great team!).

    Shall we talk about the soundtrack? We didn’t mention that, among the rave beats, there are few tracks of a cyber-metal band, Fear Factory! Those were the rising star of a new genre of extreme metal and, seemingly, they were so exotic, people started to complain about their presence in Carmageddon. They are a nice feature, though.

    Also, Carma 2 included some tracks of Iron Maiden; then, TDR came in, gave it all up and just switched to something meaningless… Who knows, what Carmageddon: Redemption will bring in, this time? I hope, Strapping Young Lad!

    Cheers!

  4. Oleg says:

    One last thing: Happy Ester to everyone!

  5. Rik says:

    Hello! And Happy Easter to all. Oleg, thanks for your kind words.

    Hm…looking at my Carma review, it does seem kind of grumpy! I actually don’t mind this one too much. It’s definitely the best of the three as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps I was a little harsh on it.

    By the time it came to TDR 2000, though, I’d definitely had enough.

  6. Oleg says:

    Hi Rik!

    You know, while playing recently the first one, I had the impression that I gave to the franchise too much of my time. Not that I regret the whole experience – it’s that, after few hours of playing, I started to insert the cheat codes, which is a bad sign for a game, usually, and I hate doing this for the sake of making it to the end. But that’s what it almost requires you to do.

    To me, Carma 2 is the best that they could give to us: more cars (even trucks!), better controls, you are able to buy new models, you can find Armour-Power-Offensive within the maps… You can also trade cars from various Carmas with the models built by fans, etc. All cool things.

    TDR came up with a number of vastly explorable and better levels, but the timer is about 4 minutes maximum, so you can’t do that much. Also, missions are much more unforgiving than those in Carma 2, and APO power-ups are hidden in the most inaccessible areas. So, here comes cheating again!

    All three are too long and too repetitive – that’s the fulcrum of the question, I think. There are very few things to do, and you will be able to learn them very fast, so the element of surprise fades away pretty quickly – all things that you wrote, too.

    At best, we can look at them as a sort of vent valve: excellent to play occasionally, but become pretty dull forward in time.

    Have a good rest!

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