I WAS IN THE WAR! A look at Carmageddon: Reincarnation (2015)

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Well, it took four years from the original announcement and three from the Kickstarter campaign, but Stainless Games has finally released their modernized reimagining of the classic Carmageddon PC games. It has been a bit of a rough ride and not everybody is entirely happy with the finished product, but we’ll get into that in due time.

The important thing here is that Max is finally back after a 15-year absence, and everything is just like the good old days. Well, except for some problems under the hood of the blood-red Eagle. (UPDATE: Most of which have now been sorted out, see the end of the article for details)

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Carmageddon

For those of you who have lived under a rock for the last 18 years, Carmageddon is an open world demolition derby game where you score points for smashing other cars and running over pedestrians. The original 1997 release was quite controversial at the time and was banned in a few countries, while others got censored versions with green-blooded zombies (or robots, if you were in Germany) replacing the pedestrians. Carmageddon never took itself seriously, but the gory subject matter was too much for some ratings boards. The mobile version for iOS and Android was apparently released uncut worldwide, with a 12+ rating, so things have changed a bit since then.

Beyond the gore, Carmageddon was extremely fun if somewhat shallow and repetitive, and had some of the best crash physics and damage modeling of its day. The handling was a bit fishtail-happy and the cars never cornered particularly well, but that didn’t matter since the game didn’t exactly require precision driving in the first place.

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Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now

The sequel, Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now, was released in 1998 and added new cars, new levels and new silly powerups. Despite obviously being rushed to the shelves (the game included many, many bugs and even a nonexistent car made it into the release version) and featuring some really bad timed missions which DO require a ton of precision driving these games were most definitely NOT made for (especially with the default keyboard controls), Carmageddon II is another classic and people are still playing and modding it to this day. It was also the first Carmageddon I owned, and quite frankly I have put an unhealthy number of hours into this game over the years. I’ve even completed all of the missions without cheating!

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Carmageddon TDR 2000

Another sequel, Carmageddon TDR 2000, was released a couple of years later, but this was made without the involvement of Stainless. The team wanted to take a break from Carma and work on other projects, so publisher SCi hired Australian developers Torus Games to make the game. TDR2000 was abysmal and more or less killed the Carmageddon brand, and the IP eventually ended up with Square Enix. In 2011, Stainless managed to buy it back and immediately announced Carmageddon: Reincarnation.

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I am, in fact, driving on the ceiling thanks to the Wall Climber powerup. Back in the day it only let you climb walls as the name suggested, but it’s been given a boost here and that is pretty fantastic. What’s even better is the fact that if someone picks up the Gravity from Jupiter powerup, you fall right off.

Reincarnation is more or less the best parts of Carmageddon 1 and 2 combined into an all-new package that feels like a proper Carmageddon game with modernized graphics. The visuals aren’t exactly state of the art, and frankly Reincarnation looks like a PC game from 2006. It also could run much, much better considering the level of the visuals. There are some nice details in the graphics (such as the headlight shadows and the inner workings of each car), but overall the game does look a bit more bland than it should. Carmageddon has never been a graphical showcase or anything, though, because the main focus since the very beginning has been the physics and damage modeling.

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…okay, and now some idiot went and picked up a Lunar Gravity powerup just as I was driving off a ramp.

While some systems can run the game at a decent frame rate (my rig does 40-60 fps with some drops to the 30s, which is good enough for me), others are having major performance problems and suffering from overly lengthy loading times. Or the game just won’t start at all. It’s a bit of a mess.

I’m having a good time playing Reincarnation, but that does not mean there are no huge issues with this release. It will be patched up for a long time, hopefully Stainless has the resources to do the necessary work and don’t get too dispirited by the negative feedback.

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But hey, let’s talk about the actual game for a bit. The driving model itself is a perfect mix of arcade and simulation, and actually learning to control the cars properly will let you pull off some cool stuff. The damage modeling might no longer be the very best in the business (it took a decade for other games to match Carmageddon II’s, I’m not even exaggerating), but it’s still extremely satisfying to smash up the opponents and watch their cars fall into pieces. Unfortunately, as of this writing the cars do not split in half like they did in Carmageddon II, but lead physics and damage programmer and Carma co-creator Patrick Buckland is supposedly working on it and the feature should be coming in a free update at some point.

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When your car is too smashed up, you can repair it at any time (or if you’re wasted and don’t want to pay a fortune to get going again, you can also wait a few seconds and respawn at the cost of 5,000 credits and losing all your powerups) and watch how the detached bits fly right back onto the car and the chassis unfucks itself. If you happened to lose your driver in a head-on collision at some point, they will also fly back into the cockpit!

When you end up upside down, you can hold the X button on the Xbox controller and a direction to flip back over, and for the times you fall off the road completely you can press the button once to get back to where you were. The latter will cost you 2,000 credits, but that’s not too much in the grand scheme of things and there are “free recovery vouchers” you can find.

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I absolutely love the fact Stainless put in an upgrade part called “Burly Chassis”, which is a reference/British dad joke that approximately three people playing this game will get. (It used to be a jokey nickname for 60s singer Shirley Bassey)

The meat of the single player experience is the career mode, where you earn points to progress to harder races, upgrade your car, and steal other drivers’ vehicles. The basic game mode in career is Classic Carma, which is exactly what it says on the tin — a race in the style of classic Carmageddon, which can be won by completing all the laps, killing all pedestrians, or wrecking all opponents. Not much more to say about that, except that it’s great fun.

There are other race types in career as well, and most these are also playable in multiplayer. In Checkpoint Stampede, a checkpoint appears on the map and you need to get to it before the other racers (or wait until they do and then wreck them to steal their points), first to ten wins. Ped Chase is the same thing with a certain pedestrian you need to run over instead of a checkpoint you need to hit. It isn’t included in multiplayer due to the fact multiplayer races lack peds entirely. Death Race is quite self-explanatory, you try to finish all laps before the opponents do or just wreck them and steal their laps. Car Crusher is a basic deathmatch, and Fox & Hounds is sort of a flag tag mode where one driver is the fox and others try to ram them up the ass to become foxy themselves.

I’m not a huge fan of most of these modes in single player, but they at least add some variety to the old Carmageddon gameplay. At the very least, they’re better than the Carma 2 missions. Those were so bad that Neil “nobby” Barnden, the lead designer of the old Carma games and the other creator of the series, apologized on the official website. The events take place on maps that are mainly based on old Carmageddon 1 levels (the first course, “Maim Street” has exactly the same layout it did in the original, and even the electro-bastard ray is right where it was — in the upper left corner of the football field). There could stand to be more maps in the game, but modders are working on extra content as we speak and someone already converted the original Carma 1 levels for Reincarnation.

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Most of the crazy powerups and power-downs from the original games make their return (don’t worry, Pinball Mode is still in), and now the computer cars can use them as well. The opponent repulsificator (a huge-ass spring you shoot at an opponent to launch them into the nearest building or sharp object) is much less hilarious when someone fires it at you. There are also some new powerups, my favorite being the simple but effective anvil launcher that, well, lets you launch giant anvils from the front of your car. Beautiful.

Speaking of powerups, any ones you find in the levels are added to the “Powerup Instant Selector” that allows you to purchase them any time you want. Some of the better PUps (as the developers call them) such as Solid Granite Car or the Repulsificator cost a small fortune, but you can get free recovery vouchers and other useful stuff for quite cheap.

The vehicles are a mix of returning and new ones. Max Damage and Die Anna in the Red Eagle (Eagle-R) and Yellow Hawk (Hawk-R), respectively, are your selectable characters just like they were in the original game, and there’s plenty of familiar faces to meet and wreck. A few of the cars and their drivers were designed by Kickstarter backers, and they fit in just fine. The car selection could be bigger, but hopefully that gets addressed with future updates and DLC. Nobby has stated that DLC is planned and will be free for Kickstarter backers, so hopefully that will happen at some point.

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While the cars in Carmageddon have always been tastefully adorned with all kinds of fun implements of destruction, the spikes and blades were always just cosmetic in the original games and didn’t actually do anything. This is no longer the case, as you can now skewer peds on your spikes or slice them in half, or if you’re driving Val Hella’s car you can take out opponents’ wheels. The ped slicing was initially supposed to be dynamic so the poor sods would get cut from where you hit them, but unfortunately it got switched to a canned animation where they just split at the torso. It’s still better than nothing, but dynamic slicing would definitely have been nice. The gore in general could use a boost, because far too often the peds just ragdoll over your car instead of being smashed into bits.

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The opponent AI is very, very aggressive in Reincarnation and likes to gang up on you at all times. In the classic games, particularly in Carmageddon 2, the opponents seemed to have somewhat different personalities and would often race around the track or explore the level or something (Carma 2 even had a status bar for them, which is sadly missing here), but here they seem to have only one mode: KILL THE PLAYER. This makes for more action-packed races, but I’m not necessarily a fan. The cops are also back, and they will attack you — and only you — with reckless abandon. Prepare to spend a lot of credits repairing and recovering. Since you lose points when you get wrecked in most of the game modes, the choice by the designers to make the cops attack only the player is absolutely infuriating and, frankly, bad game design that makes some of the races downright unfair. This kind of bullshit should have stayed in the 90s.

The damage system could use some rebalancing. Even if your car is upgraded to max armor, you WILL still get murdered by cops and other cars very easily. This is a far cry from the original Carmageddon and Carma 2, where you could keep the default Eagle or Hawk viable for wrecking opponents for the entirety of the game. Hell, in Carma 2 the Eagle was easily the best car overall because it had a good mix of speed, handling and durability, but here it’s outclassed almost immediately and after a while you can’t kill anybody without resorting to powerups and have to waste a ton of credits on repairs.

The cars also feel surprisingly slow — if you upgraded their speed in the original games they could reach speeds of 400 miles per hour, but here you’ll barely be hitting 100 most of the time. Hopefully, the official mod tools show up soon and we can tinker with all this stuff again. There is a launch option for “CarMODgeddon” which was supposed to be this great mod platform that sounded too good to be true, but the option does nothing at the moment since the actual CarMODgeddon stuff isn’t done yet.

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Since this is Carmageddon, the music needs to be mentioned at some point. The original game featured instrumental versions of Fear Factory songs and the sequel introduced me to Iron Maiden, so what about this one? Well, Stainless decided that since most players will probably just listen to their own music while playing since that is what you do with Carmageddon, they didn’t want to spend too much cash on licensing big-name artists. Fear Factory is back with “Zero Signal” since that is more or less the official Carmageddon theme song, with other industrial tracks performed by Maximum Sexy Pigeon and electronic stuff by Morgue.

Morgue’s music has come under some criticism from a few Carmageddon fans, because OH MY GOD DUBSTEP IN MY CARMAGEDDON NOW IT’S RUINED FOREVER. I don’t mind Morgue’s tracks or any other music in the game, it fits in quite nicely. I’m still listening to my “I WAS IN THE WAR” Spotify playlist (featuring the music from the classic games and other fitting stuff, mainly metal and electronic) when I play the game, but that’s not a knock on the in-game soundtrack.

If you’re really triggered by wubs, you can always remove the Morgue tracks from the music folder and replace them with Avenged Sevenfold or Mindless Self Indulgence or whatever terrible butt metal people keep suggesting for the game. Everyone wins!

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Hot cop-on-cop action right here at the Labs.

Carmageddon: Reincarnation is a worthy followup to the original classics, but in all fairness there’s a big asterisk you have to put next to that statement. Is the game rough around the edges? Yes. Is the performance shitty? Yes. Is the game still tremendously fun? Fuck yes, double fuck yes if you’re a longtime Carmafan. Is it worth 30 dollars or your local equivalent? Errrm… maybe? Depends on how big a Carmageddon fan and willing to overlook technical jank you are.

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While the graphics aren’t great, the action replay mode does let you create some very nice photos or video clips. Unfortunately, you can’t export the videos like you could in Carmageddon II (in glorious Quicktime 3.0!) or upload them directly to Youtube like in the mobile Carma port, but maybe that is coming later.

I backed the Kickstarter with 25 bucks and don’t feel ripped off, but I’m also notoriously bad with money. To be brutally honest, you probably should wait for a sale. It’s a shame the technical issues are so numerous and crippling for some players.

Thus far, the professional reviews I have seen haven’t exactly been glowing (last I checked, Reincarnation had a metascore of 58%), and the most positive ones have been saying exactly the same things I am saying here: fun gameplay, but the tech side is a bit of a mess and you can’t really unconditionally recommend this to anyone at this point. Very unfortunate, really. Carmageddon deserves better.

UPDATE NOV 2015: And better it got! The two post-launch updates, especially Update #2 from late October have dramatically improved the performance of Reincarnation and also made improvements to the visuals. The cars are now nice and shiny, and pedestrians explode into a fine red mist when you plow into them.

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The performance is still not perfect by any means, but reaching 60 fps on the default settings at 1080p no longer requires a space robot computer from the year 2084, and even the highest setting is entirely playable on my rig that doesn’t exactly represent top of the line hardware at this point. My gripes regarding the actual gameplay still apply, but Carmageddon: Reincarnation is now absolutely worth buying if you are at all interested in the concept.

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UPDATE JAN 2016: Two new cars have been added in last month’s update. First, we have the Shredlight:

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This nice little roadster, driven by Madam Scarlett, is an amalgamation of several Ferrari racing cars from the 50s and 60s. It used to be called “Feararri” just like Scarlett’s car in the original Carmageddon (Feararri F666) but apparently Ferrari is just a tiny bit stricter about copyright infringement these days and the name was changed to avoid any possible issues. In any event, the Shredlight is a wonderful car. It drives nothing like any of the other Carmageddon vehicles, in that it is extremely responsive to control inputs and you basically have to try to get it to fishtail. It’s also surprisingly tough despite its light weight and able to take a surprising amount of battering.

The other car we got in the December update was the Blitzkrieger:

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Carma veterans will recognize this thing as the King Merc, driven by Teutonic terror Heinz Faust in Carmageddon 1. We’ve seen concept art of the Reincarnation version (still identified as King Merc in the artwork, so I assume the name was changed for copyright reasons later), but it took a while to get the tank treads to work in the game engine so we didn’t get the vehicle until now. It’s not the most nimble of vehicles because it handles like, well, a tank, but it’s extremely strong and absolutely annihilates most things that get in its way.

Carmageddon: Reincarnation keeps getting better and better after the rough start. The developers have kept their heads down and worked on improving the game, and if they keep this up C:R has the potential to be something very special indeed.

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