I don’t know with how much authority I can say it, but I don’t remember Carmageddon being that popular in the U.S. Certainly not to the level of nostalgic adoration it seems to enjoy in Europe (Twisted Metal 2 was the new hotness in my circles). So I write this having no history with the car combat game that’s begging to be notorious right from the menu screen – featuring a severed hand tossing blood droplets around as you move the mouse. After far too much time spent racing past cows spraying diarrhea, through helpless lumberjacks and police officers, and directly into the metal flanks of my foes, I come back with some thoughts on the original in this mayhem simulator series.
Carmageddon started as a licensed recreation of cult classic Death Race 2000 – there are still cars in the game influenced by Stallone and Carradine’s racers in the film. Carma shifted toward the generic when that deal fell through, but the basic concept remains identical. You’re participating in a series of bloody cross-country races. “Races” here is intentionally used loosely. There are checkpoints, laps, and a finish line, but these only represent one way to win. You’re simultaneously encouraged to crash into opposing racers or barrel over pedestrians milling about the course. Dealing enough damage to your opponents will knock them out of the race and leave you with an automatic win, while squishing every last bystander under your tires is yet another victory condition.
An extremely generous time limit gives you some focus, though colliding with opponents, killing pedestrians, or passing checkpoints all keep the timer so well-fed that you can pretty much stay in a race indefinitely. Your opponents will never complete the race themselves, so you’re free to sandbox around and spend time pursuing whichever goal you choose. In fact, the game prides itself on this freeform nature, and even the manual itself encourages you do jump in a race and do whatever strikes you. You’re also the only car that can repair itself (with the Backspace key) or reset your position (with Insert), giving you an insurmountable advantage when smashing up your AI opponents. And should you actually want to play it as a racer, there’s incentive there too – with any time remaining traded in for upgrade cash.
Your ultimate goal is to rise from 99th rank to numero uno, which you do by winning races and accumulating cash. Money allows you to upgrade the armor, speed, and damage of your vehicles, and moving up the ladder unlocks new races to tackle. You can never purchase a new car, but you can earn opponents’ wheels by destroying them. As your rank rises, you have an increased chance of reclaiming certain cars after you knock them out of a race. Your upgrades carry over, and each car displays some slightly different handling characteristics. Some are light and better suited for racing, some are beefier and better suited for smashing, and some, like Vlad’s rocket sled, are complete pieces of shit.
Interestingly, Carma doesn’t control like an arcade racer. Weight is considered in collisions and jumps, grip appears to be modeled, and some speed is required to cause any damage the game deems worthy of cash rewards. However, it’s not fully realistic or intuitive either. Physics are gleefully exaggerated to create cartoonish jumps or flips. Small bumps in the terrain can send your car flying, cars can roll and spin for blocks, and basically, once you’re going over 60 MPH, all bets are off. The physics system also seems to emphasize momentum over all else. It’s extremely easy to oversteer or fishtail, and once you start skidding off the track, it takes forever to stop. It gets even worse when ice, water, grass, or oil slicks gets introduced.
Because of this, you NEED to play Carmageddon with a joystick. While you can control your vehicle reasonably well with the keyboard numpad, the binary nature of the inputs make steering an absurd challenge with this physics system. When I first played (using the keyboard) I had an absolutely miserable time. I was spinning off the roads, crashing past turns, getting spun around by enemies and generally having no fun whatsoever. A gamepad gave me the control I desperately needed. (On a modern note, you may need a joystick mapping utility like Joy2Key or Xpadder to get the analog effects you’re after. Though joysticks are supported natively, the game doesn’t appear to handle USB correctly.)
Carmageddon is at its best when you’ve got an open map (like the city or countryside), with plenty of wide stretches to floor the accelerator and smash into opponents. Since earning new cars requires you to destroy other racers, the game seems biased toward this victory condition. It’s also the easiest, the fastest, and the most fun. The exaggerated physics make every high-speed hit enjoyable, and point bonuses for head-on collisions or impossible air flips further encourage a raucous demolition derby. The ability to push opponents into walls or off cliffs (to their demise!) is extra icing on the cake.
Carma’s at its worst in any map that significantly restricts you. The construction, canyon, and mine zones all feature areas where the course bottlenecks in a pit or similar comparatively cramped zone. With no long stretches to escape or gain speed, these turn into chaotic free-for-alls. Opponents will smash into you and drag your car around, hits are much weaker due to no chances to get up to speed, and the confounding introduction of invincible police cars further muck up your plans. Maybe it’s because I’m always trying to demolish the other cars, but these maps consistently had moments where I sat, head propped on hand, waiting for my car to stop pinballing around.
Ironically, Carma’s also pretty terrible at being a racing game. Part of this seems to stem from cars that accelerate at impossible rates – literally 0-60 MPH in a little over a second. You’ll be posting over 200 before you even realize it, and at those speeds, I can’t really fault what the physics system does to you. However, you’re also reaching speeds where your brakes can’t possibly work, leaving you to rocket past turns, clip a pylon and fly a hundred feet in the air, or fishtail and spin out with more than the slightest steering adjustment. Those bastard cops also dog you at every chance, and the freeform chaos becomes far less enjoyable when you’re just trying to reach the next checkpoint.
Further complicating is the totally uncooperative third person camera. It works well for driving forward, but kick into reverse and the camera will immediately start slowly spinning around. You can’t stop it until it completes its revolution, even if you start moving forward again. Since this is a car combat game, reversing to get enough distance to slam into a stuck opponent again features prominently (at least in my playstyle). The overeager camera makes this extremely difficult to aim. Likewise, there’s no way to see behind you when driving forward, except in the cockpit view with mirrors turned on. I found myself having to frequently switch between third person (for driving) and first person (for car jousting), which is manageable but awkward compared to other racers with smarter cameras.
The massive levels also offer the freedom to leave the track simply because there’s six maps total, and each of the 33 races just sections off a new part for its track. This means any maps you might hate are guaranteed to show up again, and often. You are allowed to skip ahead to a limited extent, but I was still stuck with a few of the hated construction, mine, and canyon races. Collision errors are frequent in all maps as well. Part of the reason I hate the mine level so much is that it’s exceedingly easy to get your car stuck on the train tracks. Many cliffs can lock your car up even though your wheels are spinning, and smashing into any course barriers frequently leaves you on the wrong side or falling off the track altogether. The restore key will drop you instantly back for a small fee, but again, these moments are maddening when you’re focused on accomplishing one of the race’s goals.
Some other minor complaints: AI cars will freely warp around to try and get closer to you (you can watch this happen on the map). It’s meant to be helpful, but often results in you trying to chase the last car while it keeps changing to new locations. It’s also annoyingly difficult to earn new wheels. In my journey to the top, I only earned four (you’ll unlock them all by beating the game, but unless you’re prepared to play again, it’s too late). There are also way too many pedestrians (300-500+) to reasonably try and mow them all down, and the cars’ overall handling issues made finishing all the laps a proposition I only took up when I wanted the level to hurry up and end.
It’s certainly a pretty game, even today. You can play with software rendering at DOS resolutions, DOS with 3Dfx support (you’ll need some Glide drivers), or in Windows mode at 640×480. Any of the options were quite playable, with 3Dfx offering the sharpest textures, but Windows giving the smoothest gameplay. Both the polygon worlds and the cars themselves deliver a decent amount of detail with only slightly obtrusive tearing and draw-in. Cars spit polygon shards in crashes and take predefined damage along crumple zones, which can be viewed in a post-race gallery – it’s also endlessly fun to hit the “repair” key and watch your own car inflate back out. For sound, Carma can best be described as loud. Every race is a cacaphony of drums, squealing tires, screaming pedestrians and grinding metal. Unfortunately, there’s only a handful of everything recorded, so the novelty gets lost pretty quickly.
I’m going to sound unavoidably grumpy here, but honestly, I feel like I’d enjoy Carmageddon a lot more if I was 11 years old and had no idea how a car handled. I respect that there’s more to it than its crass exterior, and the idea of a freeform racing game was certainly novel. It still can be fun to play today, so long as you’re not expecting to do any actual racing. When you’re focused on trying to win the game is when the frustrations start to pile on. Fun and laid back, but a better driving system would have helped it be legendary instead of merely infamous.
The ability to totally ignore (or actively disrupt) the “race” is always dumb fun. Car designs are inventive and interesting. Instant replay camera is always a winner.
There are multiple ways to win the race, but only one (smashing) that’s really practical. Steering and physics make cars handle like boats – or as one GOG forum user aptly put, “like a tank on ice without grip.” Large maps, but only a handful repeated across the whole game.