I’ve been following Wreckfest on and off for what feels like a very long time now.
Originally announced by Finnish developer Bugbear (creators of the vastly underappreciated Ridge Racer Unbounded) as Next Car Game back in 2013, Wreckfest was designed as a spiritual successor to the company’s cult hit FlatOut series, as well as a natural evolution of older titles such as Psygnosis’ Destruction Derby series, popularised in the PS1 era, and the even more venerable home computer title Street Rod from Logical Design Works and California Dreams.
After more than four years of early access on Windows PC and another year of getting the console versions up to snuff, Wreckfest is now available in all its glory for home computers, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. So let’s get our hands dirty!
The core appeal of Wreckfest has always been its damage model. Indeed, back in the earliest stages of Early Access, the sole playable version of the game was a tech demo in which the player could drive a car around an abstract environment filled with all manner of static and dynamic hazards all intended to cause different types of destruction.
With this in mind, it will not surprise you to hear that Wreckfest is a game primarily concerned with the less glamorous end of the motorsports scene. Much of the game is focused on banger racing and destruction derbies, but there are a few twists on the formula and some enjoyable surprises along the way, too.
There are several ways you can enjoy Wreckfest as it exists today. Firstly and most simply, you can take on the career mode. Here, a series of challenges are divided into a set of tiers, with progression to the next dependent on scoring a particular number of points across all the events available to you. Alongside this, you gain experience to increase in level and unlock additional upgrade parts for your vehicles, and earn credits to purchase new cars or upgrade your existing ones. It’s sad that I even have to mention this today, but there are no microtransactions.
Right from the beginning, Wreckfest makes it clear that it’s not just a game about racing. The very first event in the first tier is a destruction derby in which all the participants are driving ride-on lawnmowers, for example; this serves as an excellent introduction to what to expect from the game, since the fragility (and relative agility) of these vehicles allow you to cause maximum chaos in the minimum amount of time.
Other events include destruction and banger racing (which, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I see a difference between), which are full-contact racing events; heat-based races, in which you compete in two heats of three laps in an attempt to reach the final six-lap heat; conventional multi-race tournaments; and “folk racing”, which is not something I’d come across before, but which is apparently a popular Nordic variant on rallycross designed to be inexpensive and accessible to newcomers. Perfect for anyone with a clapped out old banger that has seen better days, then.
Alongside these events there are occasional one-off challenge races that allow you to unlock various unusual cars such as the aforementioned ride-on lawnmower. These usually unfold in some sort of peculiar circumstances; one sees you driving an Only Fools and Horses-style three-wheeled van and attempting to beat 23 school buses to the finish line; another sees you participating in the unusual event of “sofa racing”, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Each career event also brings with it at least one optional challenge for you to take on alongside the main objective. These vary from event to event, but include tasks such as leading the pack for an entire lap, dealing out a total amount of damage to all your opponents, or causing a particular number of a particular type of accident.
Yes, the events you participate in throughout Wreckfest are very much full-contact. Regardless of event type, every racer (including you) has a health bar that can be depleted through crashes with other cars and the environment, and the car’s body is dynamically broken and deformed with every impact. Bits fall off, parts crumple and general performance is affected — though pleasingly from a gameplay perspective, never so much that it becomes impossible to be competitive. By the time you’ve taken that much damage, you’ll probably get wrecked completely, which eliminates you from the event altogether.
The fact that your own vehicle’s damage is calculated in the same way as that of your opponents’ means that you have to be a bit careful; you are by no means invulnerable, even in destruction derby events, and so you often have to strike a careful and strategic balance between dishing out some punishment and keeping yourself safe. Paying attention to the way you crash into opponents is very important, as is attempting to cause accidents by forcing opponents into each other or chunks off scenery. You’re specifically rewarded for causing certain types of accident, so it pays to experiment at times; the direct approach isn’t always the best one!
The environments on offer in the game are designed to cause chaos, too, unfolding on a variety of different surfaces and, in some cases, being arranged seemingly specifically to cause pile-ups. The figure-of-eight track is the most obvious case of this, but there’s also a great track that unfolds on part of an oval speedway course where you make complete 180-degree turns at either end, often putting you against the flow of traffic from racers elsewhere on the course.
The folk racing events are a particular highlight in this regard, unfolding over gloriously bumpy, messy courses that are a real delight to coax your rustbuckets over. Again, there are interesting decisions to make here, too; do you go full Dukes of Hazzard on that tempting-looking ridge (and perhaps hope you land on a particularly obnoxious opponent’s roof), or do you play it a bit safe with the upcoming corner in mind?
Elsewhere in the game, other ways to play include a server-based (and mod-friendly) multiplayer mode and a custom single-player mode in which you can set up pretty much any type of event you’d care to mention — including the sort of asymmetrical matches you see in the career mode’s challenge races.
Wreckfest’s recent major patch for PC that came alongside its console release attracted some controversy from “PC Master Race” types who felt that the game was being “dumbed down” and “killed” to appease the filthy console peasants. Naturally, this culminated in a review-bombing campaign on Steam, and naturally, most of what they’re complaining about is absolute nonsense.
The roots of most of the complaints stem from one of three sources: the handling, the damage model and the opponent AI. Let’s look at these one at a time, since I’ve played the game numerous times over the years during its development.
First up, the handling. The biggest complaint from longstanding fans of the game is that the update that accompanied the console release made the game “too arcadey”. In fact, what has happened is that the game’s default settings now err somewhat on the side of “simcade”, similar to Bizarre Creations’ Project Gotham Racing series, only on filthy dirt tracks rather than city streets. What this means in practice is simply that you still have to slow down a bit for corners, but not quite as much as you used to. We’re not talking Ridge Racer-style powersliding around corners here.
This is a good change that fits the tone of the game well. The sim-like handling of the earlier versions was rather incongruous with the chaotic nature of the game; Forza Motorsport this ain’t. A game about crashing into people isn’t much fun if you have to take corners sensibly at 20mph. It’s much more enjoyable — and accessible — now, but if you want a more realistic ride, there are still default “assist” options that you can turn off, as well as support for dedicated driving controls. You can even play with a clutch pedal mechanic implemented if you so desire!
Next up, the damage model. The most common criticism here is that the “normal” damage model now makes the cars “feel like tanks”, while the “realistic” damage model feels like the old “normal”. For context, the old “realistic” mode made for some absolutely hilarious crumpled messes of metal, but it did so by making the cars feel like they were built out of tin foil. Fun in isolation, but not especially conducive to satisfying gameplay, particularly given the full-contact nature of the events in which you participate.
The “realistic” damage model, as it stands now, provides a good balance between allowing you to scrunch up your vehicle into an unrecognisable battered mess and still allowing you to stand a chance at completing a race. The “normal” mode, meanwhile, still allows for damage, but is also a lot friendlier to newcomers by allowing greater margin for error. Again, this is clearly a change made in the name of wider accessibility, and it works well in context.
Finally, the opponent AI is the one criticism I can see a certain amount of value in, although perhaps not to the degree that the review-bombers have been trying to make out. Specifically, the game suffers from that age-old racing game problem where it sometimes feels quite difficult to get out ahead of the rest of the pack; it’s honestly quite hard to tell if there actually is any “rubber-banding” going on, because it is possible to develop a convincing lead if you drive well, but it can be frustrating to reach the final corner of the race and see 10 opponents suddenly sail past you just because you braked a bit too hard.
I should also add that literally as I type this, Bugbear has released a hotfix patch that, I quote, “reverts AI rubberbanding to Summer 2018 settings” (i.e. when the PC community believed it was “good”), “increases the chance of AI raceline mistakes for Novice and Amateur AI difficulty” and “disables rubberbanding for Expert AI difficulty”. So I guess that’s that, then. Stop moaning and go enjoy the game!
The opponents are aggressive, but that most certainly isn’t a bad thing in a game like this. After all, you’re encouraged to shunt, smash and spin out your competitors at every opportunity, so why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to do the same? And it’s worth noting that they do it to each other as well as you; it’s not uncommon to see the track littered with flaming wrecks (and, occasionally, depending on the vehicle, corpses) by the end of a longer event, even if you drove like a perfect gentleman for the duration.
There’s something else important to note, too and that is that the PC version — the source of all these complaints, since the console versions have been very well received at the time of writing — is extremely, extremely mod-friendly. There’s Steam workshop support, allowing for quick and easy subscribing to favourite creators and creations, and there’s already a huge variety of additional content available for free — including both game content such as tracks and tweaks to how the thing actually plays.
There are even “cheats” available as mods that do things like reduce or eliminate the costs of items in the upgrade shop, so if you just want to unlock everything and treat the game as a playground in multiplayer and custom events, that’s an option — though note that if you do make use of mods, you can’t record any best times or scores on the online leaderboards.
Normally I’m not a big fan of modding games, as I’m something of a believer in the philosophy that “if you need to mod a game to make it good, it’s probably not worth playing in the first place”. The difference here is that Wreckfest is already good, and the growing mod scene simply provides the potential for it to expand and evolve over time, regardless of whether or not Bugbear continues to support it.
Speaking of that, the release of the PC patch and the console versions also brought with it the inevitable Season Pass, which promises a total of 8 optional DLC packs containing 20 cars, 20 roof decorations and a set of car visual customisations. Again, I’m not a fan of Season Passes at the best of times, but this seems fairly harmless — particularly given the modding potential of the PC version, which makes paid DLC largely pointless on that platform.
Wreckfest is not really a game you play to “beat”, although the career mode is substantial, varied and satisfying. Rather, it’s a game you play to simply enjoy. It’s a playground filled with rusty old bangers, filthy racetracks, lawnmowers and sofas with engines in them, and it’s the sort of thing you could potentially play forever.
This is a great model for a racing game to have, and I sincerely hope that it does well; after witnessing its progression from the humble beginnings of the Next Car Game Sneak Peek to what we have today, I can most certainly say that Bugbear very much deserves that success.
Now I’m off to smash up some more fools on Rainbow Road…
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