Every week we dispatch Brendan to scour the post-apocalyptic wastes of early access and scavenge whatever games he can find. This week, he returns with multiplayer car combat game Crossout [official site].
Crossout is an action game about building a terrifying car made out of swords and skulls and then driving around the wasteland, pumping other drivers full of lead. It has a soundtrack made up of gentle guitar.
That was only the first thing I noticed when I dropped into the workshop menu of this multiplayer scrapper from Targem Games. It was odd. It felt like the folksy strumming didn’t belong in this high-octane rampage. By the time I left the deserts and shipyards of Crossout, I would be impressed but also impossibly frustrated. The music wouldn’t be the only thing I would consider completely out of place.
You start out in the garage. Here is your car, it is a level 1 piece of rusty garbage. Enter a battle and win to collect experience and rewards (eg. car parts). These 8v8 battles take place across wide maps scattered with remnants of the old world – rusty ships, abandoned factories and so on. Sometimes they ask you to capture the enemy HQ (a giant circle outlined on the ground) and sometimes to capture a neutral zone in the middle. You can win this way or by getting the most kills by the time the clock runs out. You only have a few minutes for each battle.
The combat, once you unlock a few new guns (shotguns, powerful cannons, etc) is all sorts of Mad Max silliness. You rev around blasting parts of enemy cars away while trying to make sure your own bits don’t get shot off. It’s possible for all your turrets to get shredded off your hood, leaving you helpless. Sometimes your enemies will blast the wheels right off your vehicle, and while a three-wheeled war-truck still has a decent bit of control to it, a car with two wheels missing on the front is a useless metal corpse, one that can do nothing but fire impotently at passing targets in some vain attempt to keep fighting. The piecemeal destruction of both enemies and yourself can be astounding fun.
Unfortunately, you won’t be meeting too many other players until you reach level 10. Occasionally a human or two will show up in your battles but mostly you will be fighting bots alongside other friendly bots. They are as dumb as you might expect sentient trucks to be. Not only do they drive into walls or off ledges with alarming frequency, they also enjoy getting in your way more than anything in the world. They’re an absolute nightmare.
When another human opponent does show up, you normally end up heading straight for them because they’re the only real threat. And they will often grant you the same courtesy, sniping you with a cannon from 500 metres away, the skilled jerks. When you get the upper hand, however, there’s a ton of satisfaction to be had in dismantling another player’s vehicle piece by piece. Bam, there goes their machine gun. Bam, now their left tire. Bam, their right tire. Bam, there goes the engine. Twice I surgically removed all the parts from players’ cars except for the chassis, then stopped firing and left the area without even killing them. It feels so good to know they are just sitting there, waiting for some idiot bot to come along and kill them. But human players do present their own problems during a battle, bringing a degree of creativity with their vehicles that can throw you off or leave you burning in the dust.
The combat is fun but it not where the real promise lies. That would be the workshop. This is where you make your car, clicking together parts using a sort-of 3D grid system. The practice of plonking parts on and plucking them off is granted with an easy-to-use build mode. You can stick stuff together in a huge variety of ways. Do you want to make your car entirely out of flimsy steel frames with only a single enormous cannon on top? Go ahead. What about a tin-plated, eight-wheeled tank fitted with dual shotguns and spikes on the front for ramming? Knock yourself out. Later upgrades let you add rockets, stealth fields or giant grinders. Some objects - skulls, headlamps, spears, exhaust pipes - are just for style purposes but even these give you a boost to XP earned while in a fight. This is great because if you have some ‘space’ left on your car, it encourages you to dress up your deathmobile in ridiculous ways.
There’s also an exhibition tab which lets you see other players’ creations and many of these are fantastic. As war machines, most of them are functionally useless. But as creations they are hilarious. Sadly, you'll need all the 'pieces' to download and use one of these vehicles in battle. But you can take any of them for a test drive, which only adds to the playfulness of the creation menus. For example, I found one which was a wobbling stack of rockets and suddenly lurches into a vertical position whenever you brake. At this point you can fire the rockets and you will blast off into the sky. A great position from which to launch the missiles housed in the chassis.
Put this editor together with the rampant combat and you’re left with a rough and tumble action game with tons of potential. It’s wonderful. It's creative and brainless. It’s Besiege meets World of Tanks.
It’s also one of the grubbiest grindfests I have ever had to play. And this is where Crossout starts to fall apart.
Like I said, the option to enter a human-only free-for-all doesn’t open until you reach level 10. This sounds like a short trip up the XP ladder but turns out to be a thankless trudge through quicksand. There are four computer ‘factions’ each offering their own special pre-built death machines as rewards for leveling up but these too aren’t available until level 10. Likewise, the core game soon becomes mired in half-baked crafting mechanics. Creating new and dangerous machines is heavily limited in the beginning both by what pieces you can earn in battles but also by your level. At level 8 you will be able to put more pieces on your car than at level 5, for example.
At the beginning, you can get a lot of joy from unlocking new components – tin armour, tractor wheels, spiky plough bumpers. Initially the limits placed on you force you to get creative. How can I attach this giant spike to the front of my machine without going over the piece limit? How best should I combine these guns to make the most of the power usage limit? It’s the inviting puzzle of a post-apocalyptic mechanic. But as things go on and new pieces refuse to make themselves known for longer and longer periods of time, the grind for improvement becomes noticeably unpleasant. And look, who’s that coming over the dusty horizon? Why, it’s Unpleasant Grind’s best friend, Microtransactions.
When I said that this game shared some DNA with World of Tanks, I really meant it. All the microtransaction guff visible in Wargaming’s endless WWII deathmatching is also visible here, right down to the large sums of money for bundles containing big ol’ monster vehicles (one bundle charges as much as 60 dollars for a single tank and all its parts). What’s worse, all the game’s systems – the market, the crafting benches, the editor – form a kind of mechanical cartel which reinforces a dull grind, only avoidable by investing a sickening sum of real money for some fake coins. While this might be forgivable in a free-to-play game like World of Tanks, it is repugnant to see in an early access title which already costs £25 in the first place (and this is actually a point of confusion, since their website describes it as "free-to-play").
When I say the systems work as a cartel, that might not fully explain things. Let’s take a gander at the game’s crafting system and see what I mean. In the beginning you can manufacture guns, engines and so on with a handful of scrap which you earn in battles. But to craft newer, more powerful items, you will need copper, another thing to grind for and one which only appears in a different ‘type’ of battle. And after that you need wires, which you earn in another type of battle. And after that, electronics from another type of battle. Here’s what that menu looks like.
"Get wires!" it demands. "Get scrap! Get the chassis!" Rather than having a single currency or rewarding you with all things at once, it posts these battles – all of which are identical – composing a list of samey, grindy “quests”. All I want is to build a silly car and shoot people with it. Please, game. Please.
Not only will you need to collect all these items, plus some other necessary pieces, you’ll also need to “rent” a workbench for in-game credits. 25 credits will let you craft 5 parts (guns, etc) for example. You can get these credits by selling other guns, engine parts, radiators, and stuff you don’t need, on the market. Got all that? Okay, go ahead and press the craft button. Now wait several hours until your piece is completed.
If all that sounds annoying, don’t worry, you can just buy the thing you want on the same player-run market. But you’ll need those in-game credits again. The most expensive cannon in the game currently costs 22000 credits. If you were to buy these credits from the game’s store, rather than slowly (very slowly) accumulating them through selling item after item, it would cost you $294. I haven’t even mentioned ‘fuel’ or ‘coupons’ or ‘fusion’ yet (I won’t).
As you can see, there are a host of irritating prerequisites to fulfill before you can even properly use this obtuse system of crafting. The whole interface is a mess of parts, currencies, copper, coupons, wires, electronics. It’s an over-complicated mish-mash – a huge disappointment when you consider the fun you could be having if the game just simplified all this. How easy it could have been to have two things - car parts and scrap. Or, even simpler: new catalogues of parts tied to each level.
But that would benefit the player, not the microtransaction gods. I cannot emphasise enough how much of a shame this is, because the actual game buried underneath all this nightmarish grind-goop is excellent. Build a weird apocalypse car and go to war in it? Yes, please! If only you could make things like those shown in the exhibition tab without jumping through all these disgusting hoops. Some hoops? Fine. But not these hoops. These hoops are rotten. If the system of progression was designed like any other fully-paid game I would be screaming at people to play Crossout. It’s not. It’s designed to be a drag. As a result it becomes a rip-off, either in time or money.
Many folks will be able to overlook those niggles and the interminable grind. It's also possible the rate of progression will be reworked. But for me it is currently like traipsing through a bog, and the sheer grubbiness of all the menus doesn't give me much hope. A horrible thing to have to say, because the wasted potential here is astounding. It’s like someone took all the joy and creativity of Besiege and made it competitive (again, what a great idea) but then they soaked it in grind, leveling, bad AI, icky microtransaction bait and then - consulting no-one - slapped a full-price tag of 25 quid on it. A big disappointment to see so many unforgivable flaws in such a wonderful game, where they simply don’t belong.
Crossout is on Steam for £24.99/$29.99. These impressions were based on build 1332430