A Blast from the Past review

FBT's review of Carmageddon, the best racer of the 90s so he says. But he said that about Monster Truck Madness and Road Rage too so who knows.

The Past

I’d always disliked racer games. But Carma was different; originally envisioned by devs Stainless as a demolition derby, it shifted to sandbox when they pursued the Mad Max licence. People-mushing was added after they tried to licence Deathrace instead. Finally, they came up with their own world, ripped from 70s/80s dystopia movies; Rollerball meets Nascar, cars race through slums winning by crossing the finish or stopping anyone else from doing so; running over the ‘peds’ gained you more time to race. It was great. But what made it even greater was the free-roam element. My mates and I would chalk up a healthy amount of ped-death time then go looking for trouble. We would analyse the layout, work out if we could reach building tops, find hidden areas ... We’d spend hours on a single level. Of course, you could attempt to win without running anyone over and that had its own challenges. The biggest of which was not giving in and handbrake-turning into a crowd of people.

The Daily Mail trembled with horror on it's release and demanded Carma be banned, going so far as to claim the character Die Anna was a ‘sick’ reference to the people’s princess. That’s ... okay I wouldn’t put it past Carma, except Princess Di died after its release, but don’t let that stop a headline. Building on the controversy, publishers SCi, decided to submit it to the BBFC … which hugely backfired. The BBFC weren’t exactly open-minded in the nineties and they banned it, supposedly because they enjoyed it so much that suggested people would emulate - what? Stainless released it with zombies instead, who spewed green blood. But what we knew, and the morally-panicked didn’t, was that new internet. From there, Stainless’ own mod quickly made its way to floppies and magazine disks, providing a way to turn the zombies human again. We were back in business. When not one child mowed anyone down in their Dad’s car, the protesters moved on to being dismayed at GTA instead.

In today's moral-choice driven and heartfelt emotional gaming, there’s nothing out there that celebrates your pure homicidal side. Time to Die Anna again.

Still a Blast?

As I race along ‘Maim Street’, the first of thirty-odd races, memories come back and I take off, aiming for the stadium where I mow down NFL teams, then shoot down the road knocking peds for six, blood and body parts spinning. I mistime a corner and obliterate my car, then get rear-ended which causes me to shunt a mailbox that skids off and takes out a passing OAP and earns me a ‘good shot, sir’ bonus. Holy crap this is good. And not in that ‘I want to try this in the real-world’ way. Chasing after the peds is fun, they squeal and take off, yell and swear at you, while hitting the cows in the countryside levels, listening to their Moo turn into a Goo is always a giggle. Although there’s only four or five locations - inner city, coastal, a mine, countryside and industrial areas, each race opens up different or expanded areas, so the races always feel bigger rather than just longer or repetitive. Plus, it gives you another chance to get somewhere you couldn’t earlier. Completing a course gives you points, alongside the points you gain in-game to buy upgrades and unlock your position, which in turn unlocks the races. And more dangerous opponents…

As I crash around, I realise just how much genuine fun I’m having, how exhilarating, exciting and intense it all is. Yes, it’s blocky and dated but that soon disappears because you’re so into it. I miss this, most modern games don’t have this reckless abandon and most of it is my own doing rather than the game manipulating me into a scripted experience. As soon as I finish one level, I’m revving to get onto the next. Carma is just so exciting – that’s not the controversy talking; it’s a really good game. The physics and engine are amazing and the levels are laid out in a way that maximises freedom so you can really take control of the way you play; you quickly learn how much you can push it, anticipate its reactions and gauge when to turn, slide or break. I'd forgotten about Die Anna's face in the corner, reacting to the mayhem as we went, the on-screen congrats as we made good kills, the noises the peds make, the way the levels are filled with things to trip you up or give you the chance to let loose. As the game progresses you get the opportunity to steal opponent’s cars once you’ve wasted them, and they each have their own feel and ability. There’s a caddy with a cattle-catcher, driven by ‘Otis P Jivefunk’ that makes short work of any head-on attacks but is like driving a bouncy castle, Vlad with his hotrod car which will impale yours and there’s OK Stimpson (renamed Juicy Jones in rereleases) who drives what looks a lot like a white-topped Ford Bronco … The opponents and their cars are all very different although their tactics are largely the same – ram you.

There’s not much in the way of in-car fighting and early on it’s a war of attrition as you just batter each other, but later you’re cutting through them like bloody butter; except for the big boys (and girls) like The Plow and Heinz Faust’s tank-car. They’re nightmares, but not as bad as the cops.

Cops do serious damage and constantly ram you, siren screaming, holding you in place while the timer ticks down. The only downer is the cops only go after me. It’s not until at least mid-way through and several armour, power and offensive upgrades that I can even think about taking them on. It’s a hugely gratifying moment when the car is tricked out and you grab the solid granite powerup then spy a copper in the distance. Revenge. Of course, there’s that damn super-cop car sitting on a roof in later levels. When that thing lands, it’s game over. Except it’s not. The great thing about Carma was you can’t die – your car can get disabled, but you just repair and live to maim again, giving you the freedom of just putting your foot down and seeing what happens. They removed this invincibility from the sequels and they suffered because of it; once you get nervous about accelerating in Carma, it’s not Carma anymore. I remember discovering this in Carma 2 and being so disappointed I sacked it off.

The only way to lose in Carma was to run out of time. So long as the timer is ticking, you’re okay. You gain time in three ways - passing checkpoints, battering opponents or running over peds. You can even win by killing all the peds, but even with a power-up that reveals their location it’s incredibly difficult to do. Other powerups include instant handbrake, good for anyone chasing you, damage magnifiers, and the insanely annoying Bouncy Bouncy. The big one is Pinball, which as the name suggests sends you – and everything else you touch – careening around the map. They’re huge maps too, Carma doesn’t scrimp on the experiences; so many areas to explore, so many opportunities to cause mayhem. I’m attempting to drive up the sides of buildings, ramming things to see what happens, taking huge chances and accelerating so hard Die Anna starts screaming. Skimming past opponents, setting up games of chicken (they never falter), grabbing powerups then rushing to use them before they run out, clobbering cop cars then taking off ... Carma is basically like school playtime, when you realise the teacher’s about to herd you all in so you suddenly go mental trying to have all the fun at once before you’re forced back into class.

It’s amazing that Carma didn’t have more influence on race gaming. Series’ like Flatout, Midtown Madness and Road Rage shared the anarchic DNA of Carma but without the murder or black humour - Monster Truck Madness did have open world opportunities but you still had to hit checkpoints rather than the crowds to win. But I realise now Carma isn’t really about running people over, it was the racing without rules, and along with the swearing, cheeky level names, the ‘Pratcam’ and the on-screen congrats for outlandish kills, it all adds up to a game that’s dedicated to you finding your own fun. So few games let you have your own fun anymore, least of all the racing genre.

Even a decade after release the protesters never let it go; That bastion of family values Keith Vaz was still using Carmageddon in 2005 to prove a point about video game violence, stating in a commons debate that Carma's ‘sounds of cracking bones adds to the realistic effect’ - did he ever play it? He also noted “Duke Nukem hones his skills by using pornographic posters of women for target practice and earns bonus points for shooting naked and bound prostitutes and strippers” – Really? There’s been so many re-releases of Duke that I must have missed the ‘moral outrage edition’. He also talked about Postal and even mentioned the ‘Postal Dude’ - A politician using the word Dude in the Houses of Parliament? Games rock. Yet Vaz, The Daily Mail and pressure groups like Mediawatch seem to miss their own point when they panic hysterically about video games; twenty years on and still no one’s ran anyone over because Carma told them too. Carma was rebooted in 2015 and the Daily Mail was there for it, reporting that “ultra-controversial video-game Carmageddon might be unleashed on another generation of teenagers” as if the terror alert should be raised to severe after the original nearly brought society to its knees via rampaging teenagers with learner plates, before screaming about the original being banned (But not ‘unbanned’). Let it go.

Like Doom, the thing about Carma wasn’t the violence, it was the perfect experience – it wasn't real, anyone except Daily Mail readers could tell the difference, but I could anticipate the car's movements, how hard to push it, where it would end up - when I missed a ped I could yell the game was cheating but really, I'm just not that good a driver. There’s nothing ‘real’ about it, but it was a brilliant game and one that you could tell the devs had fun making and that shines through. It wants you to have a good time. It’s blocky and the sprites animate through two or three stills and you can’t really see what’s going on. But once we’re off, the gloves are off too and I’m barrelling down the road, bashing my fellow drivers and pulling handbrake turns into peds like I’m twenty years younger. Pixels don't matter when a game's this good. Carma is a brilliant game on every level – to play and to offend. The sequels weren’t as good and that includes the 2015 reboot which veered into arcade silliness and lost the original’s black humour in favour of smut, but the original still plays great and it’s even available on iOS/Android. There’s no excuse. Play it, just to annoy the Daily Mail.

Die Anna, the gamer’s princess.

Developer Stainless Games | Publisher Sci / Interplay Productions

Platforms; Win | iOS/Android