Retrospective: Carmageddon

When I discovered a new Carmageddon was being made by the original developers I was as giddy as a schoolboy; probably because I was one when I played the first game (shh, don’t tell anyone!). Clearly, I’ve become better and less pixelly-looking with age, but the original Carmageddon has only its charms on which to rely. Having always kept the game disc easily-accessible, I decided to take it for a spin and see if it still gave me that same giddy feeling.

After some fiddling about with DOSBox and Glide wrappers (to take advantage of my ’3DFX card’!), I managed to get the game installed (all 264MB!) and, before I knew it, I was skidding about, smashing into opponents and splattering zombies. Yes, zombies not people. I probably could have downloaded a version with regular humans but, whether it’s one or the other, it makes no difference to me (ooh, social commentary?). Plus, I always have the Splat Pack and Carmageddon II for that…

You may have noticed that I did not mention racing through checkpoints. In fact, I barely did any racing at all. Even if you weren’t aware of the game’s genesis, it becomes pretty obvious that the developers never felt it was a priority. First of all, the game offers three ways to beat a race: finish all the laps, waste all your opponents, or kill every pedestrian on the map (only masochists need apply). Secondly, the game doesn’t actually track your race ‘position’; you must simply complete the laps in order, regardless of your opponents’ progress. In further contrast to what you might expect from a racing game with a countdown timer, you are not awarded any extra time for reaching checkpoints either; forcing you to either beat on your opponents and squish pedestrians (not that they’re all hiding away) to add some much needed time onto the clock. And, finally, courtesy of the rudimentary but not entirely realistic physics, the default car handles with a weight not found in arcade racers; having a tendency to under steer or spin out on trickier corners as might a real car thrashed about like these. Either way, it’s certainly tailored for colliding with things rather than deftly avoiding them. It may sound odd, but these are all positive elements.

Perhaps the most welcome departure from your run-of-the-mill racing game is how much character comes through in every aspect of the game. From the grungy-looking menus with a severed hand as your cursor, dripping blood and poking its finger onto those satisfyingly bumpy-looking buttons, to the in-game text popping up in various colours, celebrating all manner of feats (Cunning Stunt Bonus!) right through to the in-car ‘prat cams’ of Max Damage and Die Anna; the game never takes itself too seriously. And this even extends to the vehicles.

Apparently you earn extra credits for killing the flagman after completing a lap. I find this impossible to verify!

For the most part, these are big, bulky, powerful cars that tear up the environment, making loud crashing, scraping and skidding sounds along the way. But each has their own individual look; some taking cues from real-life cars. The general feel is inspired by Death Race 2000 and the Mad Max series, but Stainless Games took things one step further and included some quite outlandish ‘racers’, from colossal bulldozers to highly impractical dragsters. Typical of pun-loving Brits, there are incredibly cringeworthy names for the characters (Val Hella, Stig O’Sore), cars (Fearari F666, Hevy Impaler) and races (Erasing Arizona, Off Quay). As a young impressionable boy, I couldn’t help but join in the fun and name my character Gregg Gory, as well as have race names like ‘Beef Curtains’ go right over my innocent little head. Overall, few of your opponents are remotely dull and are easy to pick out during a race. Especially those with any of the game’s many wacky power-ups built in.

Ah, yes, the power-ups. Most games might try and introduce a sense of balance to these. Carmageddon doesn’t even know the meaning of the word. Of course, some of them definitely do not power you up either. Many mess with the pedestrians; making them giant, run faster/slower or unable to move or see the player. Others will give you jelly-like suspension, make your car ‘jump’ every couple of seconds (with accompanying ‘boing!’ noise) or activate ‘Pinball Mode’ whereby every collision can result in cars being thrown across the map. The more beneficial ones temporarily boost your speed and acceleration or mass, but rarely at a fortunate moment. Well, except for the time I managed to nail a cop car with the last second of Acme Damage Magnifier. But then, I purposefully went looking for something to rid myself of that pesky bastard! Besides the power-ups that enable you to drive underwater being found near or underwater, there is almost no logic to their placement. And, considering the random nature of some, that’s exactly how it should be.

Joke’s on you! It was a complete accident, no cunning was involved whatsoev…oh, I get it.

While playing the game, its sandbox-like elements becomes increasingly apparent. Besides the very relaxed approach to racing, the actual courses are set across ten different ‘maps’ with only the checkpoint placement varying across them; a concept that predates Test Drive Unlimited and Burnout: Paradise by a considerable number of years. Because the only way to progress is to increase your rank via credits earned in-race, those looking to earn big are encouraged to explore the locations in order to splatter more pedestrians and collect more bonus credit power-ups. It’s quite funny that the pedestrian-killing, which caused so much outrage upon release, now feels more like an equivalent to a hunt for collectibles or smashing boxes to find shiny coins. Perhaps that’s just my poor desensitized brain. There is, of course, still a certain satisfaction to be found in the bassy thud you get on impact and the squelch as you pass over the corpse but that’s because these are comically hyper-real sounds and nothing like real-life…so I’ve read. Some of the maps even introduce elements of vehicular-platforming, which the sequel took to new heights (figuratively and literally) and Burnout: Paradise adapted into fun online challenges as well as hunts for billboards and jumps.

Because of this sandbox nature it’s best enjoyed in shorter sessions. Overall progression is simply a matter of gaining ranks and upgrades merely help you to keep up with increasingly resilient opponents. And, despite some spacing apart in their ordering, extended gameplay will undoubtedly bring you back round to the same maps if not the same courses. In content terms, unlocking vehicles is the most appealing factor but these are slow to unlock until the endgame gives you access to everything (including alternate paintjobs for your default car). On top of this, the game has no narrative drive and, because there is barely any authored-control after the announcer cries ‘Go!’, almost no ‘scripted’ moments to speak of. Although, the most memorable instance is the first time you and your opponents whizz off from Coastal Carnage’s starting grid, crest a particularly steep hill and then come plummeting down the other side, colliding with each other and a conveniently-placed herd of cows. From there, some opponents may choose to race on and others will turn around to attack you…providing they landed on their wheels, of course. For the most part, it’s left up to the player to create their own entertainment. I found the most pleasure in fighting opponents and trying to lure the cops into floating contact mines (the underwater sprites recycled for land too). Others may want to perfect their racing skills, which I’m sure is perfectly possible, or enjoy splattering zombies and chasing cunning stunts.

No matter which you choose to do, the game has enough to keep you entertained. Your opponents’ AI is generally very competent and can be downright aggressive or devious, especially the cops who can hound you the whole race, but they can’t repair themselves. If left alone, they can ‘recover’ themselves but if you’ve managed to flip them into a vulnerable position they will stay as yours to toy with. The game’s 3D-deformation model is an added bonus, given that you can even cripple other cars with a lucky strike (or ten) and get an interactive gallery of your handiwork after a race. Of course, all this fighting is bound to leave you damaged and possibly upside down too, which can eat up your valuable credits; especially if you’re like me, who obsessively taps Backspace to stay fully repaired (when a quick double-tap should suffice). It manages to balance making the player feel like a powerful bully without the victims being pushovers, and offer a worthy challenge rather than a chore.

You can’t tell me what to do with my life!

For those wishing to mess about mowing down pedestrians or fooling about with their car, the Action Replay function is a lovely addition. This allows you to view the previous three minutes or so, selecting from a variety of camera angles in order to capture some particularly great jumps or splatters. It’s quite funny how I spent hours in this back in 1997 and would then spend a great deal of time fiddling around with Halo 3′s perfection of the concept in 2007, a full ten years later. As anyone can attest, pretty much all games should have this function.

You may notice how I keep mentioning its influence showing in other titles but that’s because it’s hard to emphasise what a seminal game it was. The (self-inflicted) controversy that surrounded its violent and gruesome setting managed to overshadow its tech and ideas. The car and world physics, while not entirely realistic, were streets ahead of other racing games and this was a game that came months before Grand Theft Auto popularised ‘dicking about’, and many years before Burnout combined open-worlds and racing to enable yet more sophisticated dicking about (an oxymoron, surely). Which was even a theme that ran through the development itself; as a team of only nine, Stainless Games found it quite easy to constantly iterate and test new ideas just for the hell of it.

Carmageddon is one of those games that manages to introduce a heap of revolutionary ideas in service of a highly entertaining product and still manages to hold up some fourteen years later. That its sequel improved on it in almost every way does nothing to diminish its quality and only serves to raise hopes that Stainless Games can deliver again next year.

 

Further reading:

History of Carmageddon

Carmageddon Wiki

The Making of Carmageddon – EDGE feature (PDF)

  • Stig O’Sore

    Great article!

  • Ukjadoon

    Carmageddon 2 is a game that I still play to this day, it never gets old. Excellent article!

  • Ukjadoon

    Carmageddon 2 is a game that I still play to this day, it never gets old. Excellent article!