Car-crashing catharsis cruises onto consoles
It doesn't take a car aficionado to enjoy a good automotive wreck. There seems to be some unexplainable force that inexplicably attracts us to magnificent displays of metallic mutilation. Crash test videos can be incredibly enthralling thanks in no small part to their ability to provide a glimpse at thousands of dollars in damages without putting any humans in harm's way. Wreckfest cleverly capitalizes on that same idea – it fulfills many car crashing fantasies with its ridiculous roster of vehicles to smash into each other. The actual racing leaves a lot to be desired, but Wreckfest succeeds in delivering a ridiculously dynamic damage system that's a joy to toy around with.
Wreckfest knows exactly what it is and cuts the fluff to get straight to the carnage. There's no introductory voiceover or flashy cutscene – only a start screen and main menu stand between you and the many wonderful displays of delightful destruction. That main menu is simple, slick, and it effectively exposes the three main modes on offer: career, custom event, and multiplayer. While all three modes reward you with the same in-game currency used to purchase cars and identical experience points that unlock better car parts, each one has its excuse to exist.
A full single player campaign is a pleasant inclusion in any racer, but the one Wreckfest features is immensely inconsistent. The career here is composed of a healthy helping of events that unlock as you play through the ones you already have access to. There are only two types of contests – races and derbies – so the career events toy with the track selection and vehicle requirements to try and keep things fresh.
The problem with the career mode is that it excels when it's providing bite-sized bits of goofy fun, but it does so far too infrequently. There are a few events that demonstrate Wreckfest's ability to setup silly set pieces like racing against 23 school busses in a three-wheeled mini car, for example, or participating in a demolition derby full of clumsily oversized RV's. Events like these are an absolute blast, but for each fun-filled farce there exist eight bog-standard races that rarely shine.
Wreckfest's single player races are severely undercut by the rubber banded AI. You can spend all your credits on the best car and pump your money into equipping it with the best parts possible, but there will almost always be at least one computer-controlled racer on your tail – even when they're set to the easiest difficulty. While such systems serve to keep a race interesting up through its last lap, doing so here renders the progression almost meaningless. As long as you have a vehicle in the same speed class, there's no use in upgrading it for the career events since a few cars are going to keep up with you regardless.
The races towards the end of the career mode stand out as particularly troublesome as they drag things out for far too long. We're talking 12 laps around a track in races that can take upwards of 10 minutes to finish. While longer races do require you to shift your focus from getting ahead to just keeping your car running as it gets more and more beat up, they still feel like they're five laps too long. So many of your AI opponents get themselves wrecked in the early goings that the last few laps have a paltry handful of the 24 cars that started still circling the track. It's not all that much fun anymore when you do a double-take at the lap counter to find that you're only halfway through the track's double-digit lap count with only a couple cars left in the contest.
That's not to say every race against AI is a negative experience – some can be quite the amusement thanks to some excellent track design. While simple in structure and layout, many of Wreckfest's courses feature figure 8's or overlapping portions that frequently put cars on collision courses that facilitate picturesque catastrophes. It's endlessly amusing to watch two cars collide while careening at full speed, and the track design takes clever advantage of this. As races progress, courses become increasingly littered with shards of shrapnel and mangled husks of wrecked cars until it feels like you're racing through a junkyard, and it's a joy to witness.
Whenever you grow tired of stumbling through the single player career, Wreckfest's custom event mode lets you run wild with its feature set. You get to set up an event on whatever track you want with the number of computer opponents you deem fit that have to drive whichever vehicle you desire. Such a mode usually plays second fiddle to a racing game's other offerings, but that's not at all the case in a game that's about watching cars crash. It's a real hoot to set 24 school busses loose on a tiny figure 8, and demo derbies are a ton more fun when you're in a truck built like a tank while everyone else is stuck riding on dinky lawnmowers. The potential for stupid, dumb fun is nearly endless.
All that carnage and destruction comes courtesy of an incredibly nuanced soft body damage system that works metal-bending wonders. Nearly everything on a vehicle can be scraped, dented, bent, or ripped clean off in response to any and every collision. It's strangely satisfying to watch a car contort after impact in such a strikingly plausible way – even down to the crinkled-up hood and shattered windshields. Whenever a wreck is taking place, it can be hard not to temporarily ignore an ongoing race to stop and watch the crash happen in its totality.
The car crashes are clearly the star of the show here, and the driving itself tends to take a back seat as a result. While the wide variety of vehicles from actual drivable living room couches to oversized tractor-trailers all handle differently, they universally feel a bit too floaty. Most tracks take place over dirt which would help to explain that, but the lack of control persists on pavement. You can tweak some things to your liking with sliders for stuff like suspension stiffness and brake balance, but there's no shaking the fact that these cars should control better.
Stability is a primary concern with Wreckfest's console port since all this carnage is coming from the significantly higher performance potential of PC's, and we're pleased to report that it's a steady performer on PS4. The brownish color palette and lower-quality assets on display aren't necessarily attractive, but the beautiful destruction is still a feast for the eyes. That makes it all the more impressive that the PS4 holds steady at 30 frames – even while 24 dynamically deforming hunks of junk take to the track and begin bashing into each other with nary a hitch in sight. Just be prepared to put up with longer than average load times.
Wreckfest does also feature online multiplayer, and it does its job. Queuing up in quick play will match you into the event type of your choice almost instantly, and there's even a server browser for manual surfing – a rarity for competitive multiplayer on console. After waiting out the time limit before each event, you can partake in the same races and derbies you do elsewhere but with a slightly ratcheted back player count of 16. Ping and performance were never an issue when we started hitting up the online lobbies, and that lower player count might be why.
However, once you start taking your skills online, Wreckfest's flaws become far more apparent. The loose driving mechanics aren't very conducive to competitive play, and the upgrades you can procure make races against other human players anything but a level playing field. You can still squeeze some fun out of the multiplayer though – demolition derbies are still dumb and messy fun, and it's really amusing to take a piece of farm equipment out onto the race track to see how many human players you can wreck before a race is through.
Wreckfest is a racer whose strengths don't lie in its actual racing. The handling is floaty, the difficulty options are limited, the balancing is broken, and the single player career was largely squandered. But it does fulfill a niche that currently has no equal on consoles: dynamic and detailed vehicle deformation on an impressive scale. While the racing in Wreckfest doesn't hold a candle to any number of other racers that focus on getting the moment-to-moment competition right, it still provides players with a toy box teeming with tools that facilitate the obliteration of its wide variety of vehicles. Watching a bunch of cars smash together may not be smart or sophisticated, but it sure is thoroughly entertaining.