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Wreckfest is a splendid antidote to po-faced racing sims

Smashing

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I am not one who subscribes to the school of games criticism where each game is compared to others in its field. Firstly, because you may as well just plot the game on a graph for all the lack of detail and nuance this provides, and secondly because to be meaningful it really depends upon the reader’s having a working knowledge of every other game. But wow, I like Wreckfest so much more than The Crew 2.It’s a ridiculous comparison in many ways. One is an open-world racing game with multiple vehicle types in an multiplayer game that contains no multiplayer, the other a collection of driving events primarily focused on crashing and smashing. And yet, coming off the back of a week spent playing Ubi’s carnival of mediocrity, Wreckfest feels like such a blessed relief to be playing in all the ways the two games are similar: A fun-first arcade racing sim, with daft crashing forgiveness, a fleet of cars upgraded through confusing engine parts, and an XP-based progression to unlock more races.

But let’s be sensible, and talk about the game in question. Wreckfest is a classic-style racing game, meaning that it’s a collection of tracks, challenges and events, without feeling the need to make players pretend to be wearing a collection of in-game hats and having to drive between everything like a commute. Except here the races have a heavy emphasis on damaging both your and your competitors’ cars rather a lot. And indeed in some of the events, just smashing the ever-loving metal shit out of each other until you’re all just burning husks in a field.

And it does this with a bon viveur that ensures its superb design and delivery never belies the silliness at its heart.

I love taking a corner ridiculously fast, skidding out, and correcting this by slamming into the side of another car. And then straightening up from the inevitable mess of oversteer by funnelling myself between two other AI cars, before nudging one of them into a barrier and speeding away. It’s arcadey as you could like, and yet balanced by the intricate damage modelling, and the consequential harm you’re causing to your own vehicle, potentially ruining your brakes or busting your radiator in the process.

And I love how vindictive the AI is. How it can sacrifice its own chances at winning just to ram you into a wall, because you clipped it as you overtook. The AI racers feel, at times, like actual human people controlling cars, capable not only of stupidly spiteful acts of driving, but making good-old-fashioned mistakes!

Goodness me, how I’ve missed the possibility of NPCars making mistakes in our present world of Need For Crew Forzas. Here they’re just as likely as you to enormously misjudge a turn and crash through the barriers, offering the beautiful physics displays of scattered piles of tyres bouncing around the track. You get to catch up in races not because of overtly obvious rubber-banding, but more likely because two of the cars in front decided to start ramming at each other, and both ended up on their roofs in some bales of hay.

Or of course because the race is on a figure-of-eight track with a four-way launch ramp in the crossover. That’s a course that’s really helpful for getting your head around Wreckfest, and how it isn’t every other racing game – it helps to shed that finger twitch to restart a race after one mistake, because here everyone in the lead after you’ve had a crazy collision is just as likely to befall the same fate soon enough. It’s freeing!

It does, however, not do this especially clearly. I think an increasingly familiar artefact of an early access development is games that forget to welcome in the new. I’d never played Wreckfest before this week, despite its having been available in various states of unfinishedness over the last four and a half years, and it’s a game that absolutely forgets to begin. Instead you have a big mess of boxes to choose from, no clear idea what’s what, and why some of it is locked and other parts aren’t. You are then left to your own devices to figure out that there are ways to upgrade cars by clicking on enough of these boxes, rather unhelpfully accessed from the launch menus rather than those you’re already in when jumping between events. This is all fairly simply solved, but it’s not a very friendly approach.

Worse are the more detailed elements that are equally obfuscated. Like, why couldn’t I access three of the events from the original selection of ten? It turned out it was because in dreary text at the bottom it contains a “CAR RESTRICTIONS” section, which contains ignorable terms like, “CLASS C” without explanation, and, it turns out, “TYPE: COMPACT”. Whereas the open ones read “TYPE: ALL TYPES”. It seems you have to go to the ‘market’ (another box elsewhere, in another tab, within another box) with the money you’ve won so far and buy a car of the correct “type”. And even in the garage no focus is made of this detail, muddled into the on-screen information with no fuss or attention.

It all reeks of having been developed for a crowd that followed it along from its origins, forgetting that it was about to be unleashed on a far wider audience. Especially odd as this has a proper grown up publisher.

Ah but you can figure all that stuff out for yourself, and it’s all so worth it to take part in a ridiculous 15-car destruction derby, metal colliding with so much metal, as you try to preserve your car’s integrity while finishing off the last scraps of every other. And again, the AI is just brilliant in these events too, effectively attacking and evading, but without madly focusing only on you. And this is before even touching the multiplayer options.

These work via an old-school list of servers and players, FPS-style, rather than some sort of fancy in-game matchmaking. And admittedly they’re not overpopulated. But there are enough to find a race, and take on actual people. Although, you know what, the AI in this game is so decent that I didn’t feel like I was missing out without it, as was so grimly apparent in The Crew 2’s awful AI races. (Oops, did it again.)

There’s so much fun in this, and it manages to make failure an entertaining element of racing, which is a trick all too rarely pulled off. Wreckfest is a splendid antidote to the po-faced severity of the current crop of Need For Speeds, Crews, and so on. It holds its own in that competition, while delivering something far more specifically its own. My only hesitation is that it also matches the competition for price, costing a very hefty £40. That tag could rather change your perspective of its comparative brevity and limitations when compared to the scope of its rivals.

Of course, one must bear in mind, it’s always, always fun to crash a lawnmower into seven other lawnmowers and watch everyone flying through the air and catching fire.

Wreckfest is out now on Windows for £39/$45/45€, via Steam

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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