The year was 1997, and at a time where there were far more important things happening around the globe, the focus of the media was instead, for a time, stolen by nothing more than a violent(ish) video game. Released in June and immediately caught up within a sea of controversy, the original ‘Carmageddon’ title soaked up all the media attention from outlets that slammed the game for its use of gratuitous violence and excessive gore. While the game was well received by the gaming community and lauded by critics, the game was, as you might have expected, a total nightmare for parents and classification boards who cited the game as disgusting and alarming. Blood and guts, severed limbs, death, and destruction – Carmageddon aimed to shock, and it undoubtedly succeeded.
Hoping to reclaim the former glory and re-introduce the franchise for the modern generation, ‘Carmageddon: Max Damage’ has arrived for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and promises to provide the most extreme series entry to date. Taking the chaos and mayhem to new heights, and with the advantage of current-gen hardware, could this be the best Carmageddon title to date? Unfortunately, no. While it certainly still carries the shock value of the original, the horrors of this 2016 reboot lie elsewhere entirely, and it’s a real shame.
Adding further to the current presence of reboot culture, Carmageddon: Max Damage takes a lot of inspiration from the first title in particular, and, rather than make a significant effort to reinvent the gameplay with a healthy shot of modernisation, very closely follows its core design to create an experience that is undeniably nostalgic for series fans. Classic levels have been brought back and expanded upon, classic characters/vehicles make an appearance once again, and the same can be said for the series’ classic game modes. Violence – as if it were in any doubt – continues to be a core focus of the series, and the ‘Destruction Derby meets Death Race’ gameplay style has only gotten more intense in this latest rein-CAR-nation. Pedestrians, as they always have, populate each level and, of course, players are encouraged to kill as many as possible during each and every level and paint the town red – literally. It’s rather bonkers, and it’s very much Carmageddon as the world remembers it.
By banking on the nostalgia factor, Stainless Games have created an experience that is recognisable and sure to be enjoyable to die-hard fans of the franchise, though ultimately this appreciation may not be long-lasting at all, or completely non-existent to the newcomers. It’s certainly a game that’s faithful to the original title and the series’ roots, but all this does is highlight just how much we’ve come over the years, and exposes areas where the Carmageddon brand should learn from, and vastly improve upon.
Unfortunately, Carmageddon: Max Damage just isn’t that fun to play. Is it possible to be too nostalgic? I’d say so, and I’d argue that the game falls victim to simply feeling dated. It doesn’t dare to be anything too radically different from what came before it, and this old-school styling is unfortunately the games undoing. Sure, it can be fun to provide an experience that harkens back to older, simpler times, but there comes a point when things start to feel archaic, and without a strong set of core gameplay mechanics at the heart of it all, the experience begins to crumble very quickly.
Taking the element of nostalgia a little too literally, the graphics in particular are extremely outdated. They certainly don’t look like they’ve been pulled straight from the original game, but they aren’t anywhere near the standard you’d expect from 2016. Looking closer to an up-scaled PlayStation 2 game, the textures are low resolution, surface detail is lacking, and there’s a serious amount of pop-in and rendering issues that appear in the distance. Even despite the incredibly over-the-top and often obnoxious ‘radical’ 1990’s tone of the game, the game world also lacks in character, lending its hand in harming the presentation further. The game makes an effort to appear as vicious and offensive as possible, but even with the use of swearing, immature jokes, the heavy metal/electronic soundtrack, and the ability to controversially kill animals and an assortment of pedestrians, Carmageddon: Max Damage fails to gain much of a reaction and manages to feel nothing short of ‘meh’.
Where the game does offend and evokes a player reaction, however, is within the unwieldy car handling, of which totally tarnishes the entire experience. For a game that is incredibly arcade-like – encouraging crazy, high-speed driving and exploration of its open and detailed environments – it’s baffling why the handling feels so out of control. While the different vehicles that you unlock have different stats that effect the way that they drive, nothing ever feels comfortable to use. At best the cars are too lightweight and slip-and-slide as though they’re on ice, and at their worst they are stiff, feeling more akin to driving a barge than a souped-up sports car.
This all wouldn’t be such an issue if players weren’t required to be so accurate, but with complex levels to manoeuvre around, danger to avoid, opponents to target and destroy, and points and power-up barrels to collect, it has a direct effect on the gameplay and the entire experience suffers. Making most races an infuriating mess and race objectives far more difficult than they should be, the wonky handling coupled with an even wonkier physics engine makes even the simplest of tasks feel like a chore. Even the AI has a hard time trying to drive a lot of the time, and on the whole is dodgy in general. Flickering at random between the spectrum of “brain-dead” and “incredibly aggressive”, the AI has identity issues and at times never really knows what it should be doing. Levels aren’t challenging when the AI is totally useless, and they aren’t much fun either when the AI brutally targets the player and never lets them go. As a result, what fun could be had with the game modes is almost entirely diminished, a real shame given how inventive some of them and their associated level designs can at times.
Placed (mostly) within sprawling environments set across cities, beaches, industrial facilities, the countryside and more, Carmageddon offers open and detailed environments filled with bonuses, alternative routes, obstacles, dangers, and the odd smattering of ramps and loop-de-loops that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hot Wheels set. With each level focusing on select chunks of the larger environment and races taking up different routes each time, there’s a fair amount of mileage that can be had from what’s on offer, and exploration is encouraged. Some levels are a lot more inventive than others, but they all at least involve plenty of collectibles and dangers, even when they may lack in interesting areas to drive inside, around, or on top of.
The classic “Race, Wreck, or Wreak Havoc” mode – now known as “Classic Carma” – takes up the bulk of the focus (as it did in the original title), and challenges players to win by either finishing a certain amount of laps of the racing course, by racking up enough pedestrian kills, or by wrecking each opponent. It’s as inventive as it always has been, and the mix up of objectives does lead to some unpredictable scenarios and silliness, but it feels rather broken because of just how much easier it feels to simply complete the race. This lack of balance ends up limiting your approach within a mode that should offer a fair choice, and given that it’s the series’ staple game mode, this is a disappointing discovery. Other modes aren’t nearly as interesting, but they at least make some interesting use of the environments and bring with them a ‘Wacky Racers’-style vibe as players engage in ruthless competition, and utilise all manners of interesting weaponry/gameplay buffs.
With 16 race divisions in total, and each one containing multiple levels across a variety of areas and modes, it’s fair to say that Carmageddon offers enough bang for your buck. With point totals acting as barriers for entry to the higher divisions, players will likely find themselves having to repeat some levels in order to earn more score and progress further. On top of this, players can work to ‘steal’ new vehicles (accomplished by wrecking a specific opponent) and collecting upgrade tokens that, as the name implies, allows players to improve the cars in their garage. Plentiful content isn’t always a blessing, however, as Max Damage proves, with the game quickly demonstrating that it isn’t interesting enough to necessitate so much gameplay. Had the core experience felt more solid, this content would have been vastly more enjoyable, but this isn’t at all the case, and what lies ahead is often a repetitive, irritating slog.
Though serious dedication and perseverance is required to advance further enough to unlock them all, new content such as cars and brand-new environments are thankfully drip-fed to the players over time, though it’s unlikely to maintain player interest in the long-run. With a free-play mode that allows players to build custom race events across all unlockable content, and a multiplayer mode to boot that benefits from the exclusion of the AI, there are side-servings of additional content to experience and squeeze value out of.
In short, Carmageddon: Max Damage is an incredibly frustrating experience, not just for its significant gameplay flaws, but also because it should have been much better. If you dig deep enough, there is a glimmer of potential hidden deep down, and in the few times where the experience works, there are fleeting moments that are somewhat enjoyable. Long-time series fans may be more forgiving as they revel in the great sense of nostalgia, but even they will unlikely be blind to the games’ glaring issues. This kind of goofy, arcade throwback still has a place in the modern era, it’s just a shame that Carmageddon couldn’t once again claim that space for its own. Even if the handling and AI were vastly improved, this would have still been a disappointing product. After almost 20 years since the franchise began, this should have been much better.
Dated graphics, dreadful car handling, repetitive gameplay, and dodgy AI – the silly hijinks that could have been had are simply spoiled.