When you think of Carmageddon, you automatically associate it with controversy. Indeed, the series regularly appears in ‘top 10 most controversial games of all time’ list features for its graphic depictions of 3D pedestrian-pummelling violence that were genuinely shocking at a time when Grand Theft Auto was a tame-looking 2D game.
It’s a shame, because Carmageddon had some genuinely revolutionary features beyond its gratuitous gore and puerile humour which were overlooked (you can read more about Carmageddon's colourful history in our developer interview looking back at the series). The damage modelling was impressively intricate for the time, and the open world tracks were revolutionary in a racing game.
Nearly 20 years later, the series has made a fighting comeback on consoles with Carmageddon: Max Damage developed by original series creators Stainless Games. Carmageddon: Max Damage is essentially a port of Carmageddon Reincarnation originally released on PC in 2014 following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. Fans were eagerly anticipating its release, but Carmageddon Reincarnation was so poorly optimised that hardly anyone could play it – even on powerful PCs that were more than capable of running it.
Just as Independence Day Resurgence was a 20-year-late sequel that nobody asked for, you could argue that Carmageddon is no longer relevant in today’s market. What was shocking and revolutionary in 1997 isn’t necessarily the case in 2016: Grand Theft Auto V has already taken open world action games to new heights, and open world racing games are already starting to become stale this generation.
However, not only is nostalgia in fashion right now, but with so many simulation games flooding the market lately, the racing genre has needed something that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sometimes you want to break the rules and smash into your opponents, yet there aren’t many games that satisfy these destructive cravings anymore. Carmageddon: Max Damage fills the current void of combat racers, but faces the challenge of appealing to fans of the original and meeting the expectations of a modern audience.
Thankfully, Carmageddon: Max Damage isn’t plagued with the severe performance issues that made Reincarnation practically unplayable, but it does still suffer from inexplicably long loading times. The improved performance comes at a cost to the visual fidelity, however: this is a game that looks like it belongs in the past, with low quality textures that make the environments look blasphemously bland, blocky character models and a level of fogging I don’t recall seeing since the PS2 era. It’s possible the developers were trying to replicate the retro style of the original, and the game would probably never have passed certification if it looked too realistic, but such dated graphics are unacceptable on modern hardware, even with the budget asking price.
It looks rusty, but there is some mindless fun to be had in Carmageddon: Max Damage for a while. Enter the game’s staple Classic Carma mode, and you’ll be transported back to the no rules racing that made the original such a smash hit. As before, victory can be achieved in one of three ways: pass through each checkpoint and finish first, wreck every opponent or slaughter every innocent bystander you can find. Causing carnage isn't just encouraged, it's necessary to prevent your time from running out, as seconds are added to the timer for every pedestrian or opponent you smash into.
Stainless Games certainly hasn’t lost their twisted sense of humour which is injected throughout the game. Every action results in a shamelessly crude pun splashing on-screen – ram a car from behind, for example, and you’ll earn a “Take it up the arse!” reward - don’t expect smart satirical humour like in Grand Theft Auto. The constant barrage of jokes does get tiresome after a while, but it’s all firmly tongue in cheek of course and not to be taken seriously. If innuendos make you smirk, this is the game for you.
Each environment, which range from city streets (a throwback to the first level in the original game with a football field for you to invade), a beach front, a shopping mall and a desert to name a few, is populated with literally hundreds of pedestrians for you to splatter. It’s gloriously gory, as pedestrians decapitate in a shower of blood and body parts on impact, but it’s so comically exaggerated that it isn’t shocking anymore.
Suffice to say, Carmageddon: Max Damage isn’t likely to cause the outrage it did before (the original was famously banned in certain countries), but that hasn’t stopped the developers from trying – perhaps too hard. Carmageddon: Max Damage lets you run over new tabloid-baiting pedestrian models including wheelchair users, cyclists and the elderly. It all falls flat however, coming across as crass rather than comical.
Then there’s the plethora of power-ups. Whereas most racing games would provide you with no more than a dozen power-ups if you’re lucky, Carmageddon: Max Damage has over 90. This allows you to dish out damage in more creative ways than simply ramming opponents until they explode, from firing mines from the rear of your car to launching anvils at unsuspecting rivals. Pedestrians aren’t safe either. One power-up electrocutes any nearby civilians, another causes them to explode and another attaches a vacuum to your car and sucks up victims to your bonnet. It’s an entertaining diversion that can make you forget you’re in a race, and by far the most fun way to rack up points.
Other power-ups meanwhile are designed to hinder you, turning your car’s suspension into jelly or affecting the gravity of the environment. However, power-ups are collected completely at random from barrels scattered around the environments – apart from colour codes indicating whether a power-up will affect you or a target, there’s no way of telling what you're about to collect. While this makes the action chaotic and unpredictable, it's impossible to be tactical.
One area where Carmageddon: Max Damage excels is the variety of killer cars, with over 30 vehicles ranging from sports cars and minivans, to monster trucks and dragsters. Old favourites from the original game return including the Eagle R driven by series mascot Max Damage, and car enthusiasts won’t have trouble pinpointing some of the design inspirations – one car is unapologetically based on a TVR Tuscan, but my personal favourite is the DeLorean, or the “DeGoryun” as the game calls it. Each car comes complete with mounted weapons such as spikes ideal for impaling pedestrians, and can be upgraded by collecting upgrade tokens scattered around each map with options to increase armour, speed and aggression.
Each vehicle is represented by a psychotic driver who look they belong in a comic book, but the in-car driver avatar is always the same. I also miss the ‘Crash Cam’ from the original game which gave you a live feed of your driver reacting to crashes. The dashboard camera from the original does return however, albeit with extremely blurry detailing.
The damage modelling is excellent and one of the standout features in Carmageddon: Max Damage. While it’s not as advanced as the spectacular soft body damage in Wreckfest, it’s quite possibly the best you’ll find on console right now. The weighty nature of the vehicles also makes the impacts whince-worthy when you slam into opponents.
Cars dynamically deform, explode and disintegrate like Crash Dummies toys (you can tell I’m a child of the ‘90s who spent too much time staging crashes with toy cars). Severe impacts will cause wheels to detach or even split in half like in Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now. Should this happen, you can use points earned to repair your car, which treats you to a satisfying animation of your car being rebuilt piece by piece in real-time like a scene out of Christine.
Carmageddon: Max Damage adopts a novel way of unlocking vehicles, too: wreck a marked opponent in Classic Carma mode, and you’ll also steal their car and add it to your collection.
However, the combat would be more enjoyable if the cars weren’t so clunky to drive. This has always been a core issue in Carmageddon, and Max Damage is no different. While the vehicle variety is commendable, there is little to distinguish each car because they all handle and sound the same. I also encountered a glitch where the engine sound would cut out completely for the duration of the event several times.
Carmageddon: Max Damage would have benefited from a tighter handling model. Every car handles horribly, constantly fishtailing whenever you steer which forces you to slow down sharply or apply the handbrake for most corners, while slight contact can send you spinning out of control. It's not a matter of driving skill, either: it feels like you’re constantly driving on ice so you never feel like you have complete control of the car, and that’s not fun.
Perhaps the developers were trying to simulate driving unroadworthy cars built for banger racing, but responsive car handling is crucial for combat racers that require precision driving. The loose handling in Carmageddon: Max Damage, on the other hand, makes it frustratingly difficult to aim at targets. Combat racers should be fast, furious and fun - Carmageddon: Max Damage is slow, sluggish and dull. Even the soundtrack fails to intensify the action, with its repetitive electro tracks and plodding metal guitar riffs.
Crash and burn
With over 60 events divided into 16 chapters, the career mode in Carmageddon: Max Damage is extensive and well-paced, with each chapter introducing you to new locations and game modes to reduce the monotony.
Checkpoint Stampede and Ped Chase modes have you chasing down checkpoints and marked pedestrians which are suitably chaotic. You eventually unlock additional Car Crusher and Fox ‘n’ Hounds game modes: the former is your standard last man standing event where the goal is to simply wreck all opponents in the arena whilst trying not to get crushed by the central crusher, the latter Carmageddon’s unique take on capture the flag. These modes are all entertaining enough, but can’t match the constant carnage of Classic Carma.
There’s a lot of grinding required to progress in the career, however, as later chapters can only be unlocked by earning enough points in the preceding chapter which normally only contain a handful of events. This means you’ll find yourself repeating the same events to earn enough points, which wouldn’t be so laborious if they didn’t take an eternity to complete. Combat racers work best in short bursts – events in Carmageddon: Max Damage, however, can last from 10 to over 30 minutes which is far too long. Boredom usually starts to creep in after five minutes.
Having such enormous environments in a racing game may have been revolutionary in the original Carmageddon, and while it’s fun discovering alternative routes which can take you up rooftops, up random loop-the-loops or through shop windows, the map designs are detrimental to the experience. Checkpoint Stampede events, for example, are unfairly weighted to whoever happens to be closest to the checkpoint. Likewise, hunting the hundreds of pedestrians located in Classic Carma events becomes such a tedious chore that it’s hard to imagine anyone bothering. The tracks in Carmageddon: Max Damage are empty, lifeless and poorly detailed, giving you little incentive to explore.
The rudimentary AI doesn’t help either. There was an opportunity here to give each opponent a unique personality that affects their driving style, but the tactics deployed by the brainless opponents in Carmageddon: Max Damage go as far as hooking you to their car like a magnet, pushing you helplessly and ramming you into the nearest wall. They only seem to target you, and never use power-ups against you or each other, making for some dull races.
In theory, competing with human opponents online should eradicate these issues, but the online multiplayer is a ghost town. The matchmaking struggles to find any games - when it eventually did, the largest match it could find was with two other players. Online multiplayer is also limited to a handful of modes for up to six players and devoid of pedestrians to massacre. These cutbacks were no doubt necessary to improve the optimisation, but the core appeal of Carmageddon is missing online, leaving you with a subpar banger racing experience that makes you wish for a Destruction Derby remake.
Carmageddon: Max Damage retains the series’ crude humour and wanton destruction, but its scrappy presentation and clumsy car handling make this a series that’s still stuck in the past and struggling to stay relevant. If you treat it as a cheap guilty pleasure, it’s possible to overlook its flaws and enjoy the over the top mayhem Carmageddon: Max Damage offers in spades. Otherwise, hardcore fans of the series need only apply.