Carmageddon: A retrospective look
For someone who claims to not care much about driving games, I have already written two things about them, and this will be my third (and possibly last, though no promises). For this one let’s turn the clock back to 1997, when people were still using Windows 95 and DOS, and Windows 98 was the hot new thing on the horizon for PC gamers.
In this year a company called Stainless Games finished a game called Carmageddon, which was then published by SCi (Sales Curve Interactive, now owned by Square Enix Europe) and Interplay. Since a Kickstarter was recently done and Carmageddon: Reincarnation is slated to come out next year I thought this might be a good time to have a look back at the original. (It’s not like I already wanted to do this and only found out about this project at the last minute.)I still remember Carmageddon as the first PC game I bought for my own money after convincing my parents that the 18 sticker on the box was nothing to worry about even though I was only 14 (and hey, I turned out fine, right?). I had tried the demo and loved it, and when I saw it on a shelf one time we went into the city, I just had to get it. I do not remember what I said to convince them, but I do vaguely remember the discussion coming up. Dad did let me watch Terminator 2 when I was 12 though (which was also rated 18 here), so maybe he thought I could handle it.
According to some (though I don’t remember this myself) Carmageddon was billed as “the racing game for the chemically unbalanced”. I would not be surprised if this is true, because the game was utterly mental. It was a sandbox driving game built around the premise of Death Race 2000 (which they tried, and failed, to get the license for) that killing pedestrians scored you points, and doing it in spectacular ways earned you more points.
I am not sure it actually was a racing game though… sure there were other cars going against you, and sure there was a starting a line and even a guy waving a flag to get you going (bonus points if you ran him over, by the way), but I can’t remember there being an actual finish line, nor that I ever lost because someone else got to the finish first.
The only way I ever lost was if I ran out of time. You start with a certain amount of time and money, and you could earn more by running people over, crashing into other cars (big bonus if you smashed them so hard they broke down, and you might even win their car if you were lucky) and jousting versus police cars. You could fall off the map in certain levels, but I seem to recall it simply dropped you back onto the road, and you could get pretty smashed up (the physics of this game were quite impressive), but you’d never break down, though you might have to press Backspace to repair your car (which cost money, but it was all that cost money too) to keep going if your car was so twisted it couldn’t drive straight.
There were two winning conditions if I remember correctly. The first was to take out the other drivers, which was usually the easiest way, though some of them could be bloody tough. No one had any weapons, so you could only ram eachother, and I used to find that endlessly entertaining. There were loads of different cars of various strength and usefulness, my best memory being of the large construction vehicle with the front-mounted shovel that had “GOTCHA!” written inside it in big red letters.
The second way to win was to kill enough pedestrians. I can’t recall if it went for a certain number or a percentage, but it usually took a while either way. I do remember winning levels that way though, so it can’t have been too hard, or I was just very, very patient. They were also very, very fragile and came apart at the slightest touch. Heck, even if you were sitting still and they ran into you, they exploded into a pile of giblets.
So after the start was sounded, everyone would race off (though typically at least one of them would gun for you immediately), and it was up to you to make your own fun with the game. Run people over to gain more time, then spend that time doing stunts, flying off ramps, trying to drive through that loop-de-loop someone turned the road into (I always fell off halfway through), blindsiding other drivers, getting blindsided by other drivers, jousting with other drivers, testing out the various powerups around the levels (solid granite car being my favourite), finding police cars to ram into, then run off and play a cat and mouse game with them. (The police cars were bloody solid, and it was ages before I managed to bag my first one. Usually I just pissed them off for giggles, and because scoring a head-on collision with one was worth a lot of money and time.) And in your top-left corner would be an image of what was supposed to be your driver “reacting” to everything you did with sadistic glee.
Not to mention that when you completed the last level, the game unlocked all the cars for you and let you bring any of them into any level, including the ridiculously overpowered police tank which smashed everything with supreme ease, including police cars.
The game was not without its problems, like the controls could be a bit fiddly, and there were some bugs here and there. Like I vividly remember the one time I got stuck on something, and then fell through the level, falling for like 2 minutes before I was suddenly smashed onto the road again. It took quite a bit to repair that, but it was rather amusing to watch, even if I was a bit stunned at the time.
It was a load of cathartic fun, and understandably certain countries took issue (Germany most prominently) with the ability to hit a cow or pedestrian so hard their bloody corpse went flying into the aether. I think the game was counting on such attention as free publicity, and I have to say it worked. Carmageddon sold millions of copies and was a big enough hit to warrant two sequels.
Carmageddon 2: Carpolypse Now came out in 1998, and was another success for the company. Again the controversy arose, creating more free publicity, and after yet again testing the demo, I was sufficiently convinced to get this one too.
The sequel brought several new things to the table. Better graphics, improved physics, more powerups (the most memorable being the spike ball on a chain that hung behind the car and you could try to smash things with it by doing a handbrake turn. It didn’t really work, but it was fun to try. And you could also detach it with a button press, and with the right run-up send it flying into a crowd of pedestrians for great effect), more cars (or sometimes just updated cars) and special mission levels that often put you up against some ridiculous odds.
I found the regular levels to be an overall improvement, with the exception of no police cars. I was so disappointed they took those out. I still am, to be honest. But there were lots of fun new powerups, new locales and cars to smash up. You could now knock limbs off of pedestrians instead of just killing them with the merest touch, and even with just one leg left they’d try to hop away. Then you could drive up beside them and open the doors to try to take them out that way (it earned you a bonus if you succeeded). So the sadism was ramped up a bit, but all in good fun. And the system for acquiring new cars got an update too, with any cars smashed in that level available for purchase afterwards.
Though there were also downsides. First off, you could now actually be taken out yourself. This didn’t exactly ruin the game, and made for some spectacular crashes like the time I hit an edge and one half of the car flew off into the distance while the other half remained behind, but I didn’t see it as a plus overall. Also the missions… they could be fun, but more often than not turned out to be a frustration. I was never able to finish the game because of a mission in the airport level where I was supposed to jump into an air traffic control tower and kill everyone inside, but the windows were angled such that it was very hard to break them and get in. Most of the time I just slammed against the window and fell back down, or when I finally managed to smash the window, the time would run out before I was able to jump back in.
I still played the levels before that a lot and had great fun with it, so I was understandably excited when they made a third game: Carmageddon: TDR 2000. However, after playing the demo, I felt so disappointed I didn’t even bother getting the game.
Running over pedestrians now warranted such a low reward that it was no longer a viable way to keep going, and enemy drivers no longer seemed willing to joust with you, instead more preoccupied with actually racing. They had reintroduced police cars, so at least that was something, but… not enough to save the game for me. It just felt like they’d chickened out and tried to please their detractors, and kinda forgotten what made Carmageddon good and fun in the first place. I think many agreed with me, because it didn’t sell very well and kinda killed off the series. Maybe other people enjoyed it, but I never played Carmageddon for the racing, so seeing them focus on that and nerfing everything else was a letdown.
So here’s hoping Carmageddon: Reincarnation is more a return to form and less a continuation of what they tried to do with TDR 2000. But please, please, do put in the police cars.
Posted on July 5, 2012, in Games, Having a gander, Retrospective, Thoughts and tagged analysis, Carmageddon, Carmageddon 2 Carpocalypse Now, Carmageddon Reincarnation, Carmageddon TDR 2000, driving, PC, videogames. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.