Bending, twisting, crumpling, crunching metal. That's what BeamNG.drive [official site] offers in its current incarnation. What started as a physics prototype that rendered cars with soft body physics has gained the .drive suffix to its name and is on its way towards becoming an ambitious, robust driving simulator, with umpteen cars, tracks and an an open world mode.
For now, the joys of BeamNG are what they always were: crashing two or more objects together and watching them split apart in glorious detail. What the additions so far have brought is something unexpected: the fear of crashing two or more objects together.
If you haven't seen BeamNG damage modelling yet, then you likely haven't seen anything quite like it in games. Yes, damage is no new thing in the racing genre, and games have made it a primary feature since at least as long ago as the original Burnout. The difference is that BeamNG does more than just dent a rigid model to increasing degrees. Instead, each part of your vehicle, whether it car, plane or helicopter, is a separate, soft body physics object. That means it can move independently of all the other parts and move in more natural ways.
(With apologies to the cast of the Daft Souls podcast, which I was listening to and unknowingly recording at the time. You can listen to their fine podcast here.)
This is an immediate source of hours of fun and YouTube is full of videos more impressive than the above. Players position ramps, then plop a hovering helicopter at one end of it, then crash pickup trucks into that helicopter in mid-air. Everything reacts accordingly, as rotor blades snap, fenders bend, doors flap open, exhausts swirl loose. It's a wonderful toybox and ramming your toys together seems only natural, just as it is in any open world game with vehicles, but the physics system here makes it utterly fascinating to watch. Dropping the speed down into slow-motion and leaning in to lust over every flapping piece of protruding metal makes me wonder if I'm inches away from becoming a JG Ballard character.
The reason players can position ramps and helicopters is that, aside from the handful of cars and tracks the game comes with, it also has an in-built level editor that can be brought up at any time by pressing F11. When you tire of the simplicity of hurling yourself against walls or off ledges, you can quickly make modifications. I have spent my time this past week opening a level, pressing F11, spawning five or six cars behind me and setting them all to AI controlled, and then setting them to a "Chase the player" behaviour type. The AI in the game is currently rudimentary in that it can only drive in straight lines, flee, or pursue the player, and that's it. Don't ask it to do corners.
Not that you want it to do corners., especially if you position a truck in the distance, pointed towards you, with the same pursuit command.
Naturally, the community has created greater works than I. The first video above features the community-made Leap Of Death, the second the inevitable Matrix Freeway. There are a lot of new cars and other tracks and planes and tools to be found via the game's forums.
Where's the fear in all this? The other experience BeamNG.drive currently has to offer involves simply driving around its surprisingly large environments. Of the official levels, there's one loosely modeled on the east coast of America. It has concrete streets and muddy roads lined with dense forest, a small town, and coastal views. For every moment I've spent deliberately smashing my vehicles together like a miniature Michael Bay, I've spent an equal amount of time driving to an imagined speed limit, taking corners carefully, trying my level best to avoid wrapping myself around a tree.
BeamNG is pretty even when things aren't being destroyed and there's hints at a future as a source of the same satisfaction that makes Euro Truck Simulator fans of even those who don't love lorries. But I think the crash physics also have a strange effect on the game when you're actively trying not to crash; as soon as I decide that I'm going to drive properly, I become tense at the thought of failure.
This doesn't happen in other driving games. I might wish to avoid collisions because it's a break to the game's flow, or a frustration to my progress, but they're little more than a nuisance. BeamNG's impacts by comparison are acts of such messy destruction that they make sliding off at a bend a little more scary than they otherwise would be. Once I've flicked that mental switch, I wince when I know I'm about to lose control and head off road. Just as severing bollocks in Sniper Elite might make me fear my own death more, or a rapid plunge off a high-rise might cause a visceral reaction in Mirror's Edge, so does BeamNG make me sharply inhale and grip my steering wheel harder as soon as there's a tree hurling towards my windscreen.
All of the above gives me a lot of hope for BeamNG's future, though I hesitate to recommend it in its current state. It costs £12 direct from the developers (and comes with a Steam key) and has given me enough enjoyment to justify that price, but it is also a long way from finished and crashes (the less fun, software kind) often. While writing this article, I loaded the game to have a quick experiment with some previously downloaded mods only to find that the UI had been overhauled (for the better) but that the levels I had installed now no longer load or appear. Only you know whether you have the patience for such things.
Here's the official trailer:
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