Back in 2004, a little-known Finnish developer produced a game that came out of nowhere to delight players with chaotic multiplayer races and offering a return to the kind of vehicular carnage no seen since Psygnosis’ Destruction Derby games on PlayStation.
That developer was Bugbear, and their game was FlatOut – a racer which mixed more traditional offroad racing with Destruction Derby-esque levels of car destruction and arena battles.
FlatOut was an enjoyable, if flawed game, but Bugbear vastly improved things for the sequel – increasing the amount of modes, tracks and vehicles, and upping the amount of physics objects and destructible scenery on each course to a degree which arguably remains unrivalled. FlatOut 2 was a fantastic racer: developed on a modest budget, but with enough personality and in-game hilarity to provide huge amounts of fun to those who had the patience to adjust to a handling model which at first felt unresponsive and overly weighty.
The FlatOut series’ success relied primarily on its sophisticated physics engine, allowing a level of vehicle destruction unprecedented at the time. Taking full advantage of this feature, one of the highlights of Bugbear’s previous games was the Destruction Derby mode, which saw players smashing the crap out of each other in small arenas, alongside standard racing. The sheer fun of the game in both single and multiplayer means that many gamers still play FlatOut 2 today, some 9 years after it was first released. Fast forward to the present day and their new project Wreckfest, and while Bugbear may have left FlatOut behind – the execrable FlatOut 3 was made by a completely different studio with no input from the original developer – it’s clear that Bugbear thinks it can continue to improve on its unique brand of gameplay.
When it was first made available on Early Access back in January 2014, Wreckfest didn’t even have a title – it was simply known as Next Car Game. That alone is a sign of how early in development the game actually was back then. To say it was pre-alpha at that stage is being generous; it was nothing more than a playable tech demo – an unfinished track, a couple of cars, and plenty of placeholder assets. Fifteen months on, there have been some major updates – there are more courses now, additional modes, multiplayer has been added and graphics and physics have been refined somewhat – but progress is still painfully slow. Wreckfest still plays very much like the same tech demo released well over a year ago, raising questions over the value of its continued $30 entry fee.
Let’s start off with the good. There’s a decent range of graphic options so you can scale the experience to suit your PC. I cranked everything up to max and turned on the v-sync and it never moved from 30FPS. With these settings the game does look impressive, especially as it’s still in pre-alpha. The damage modelling and physics engine don’t disappoint either – with 23 cars flipping, smashing and burning on track with no slowdown, Wreckfest is quite often a sight to make you reach for your screenshot button. There are several tracks to choose from, as well as destruction derby modes and now that online multiplayer is present, it isn’t hard to get your fix of a bit of automotive carnage after a stressful day. Add to this some meaty sound effects, a choice of cars, paintjobs, photo mode, and car customization, and on the surface there appears to be more than enough content to get your teeth into.
Unfortunately for Wreckfest, once you start playing and scratching beneath the surface things start to fall apart rather quickly. Menus are sticky and unresponsive via controller, and one of the tracks simply contains unfinished vectors for a lot of the scenery. The handling model is also something of a disaster at the moment: cars feel awkward to control and seem to float and skid above the tarmac, rather than feeling connected to it. The more you play, the more issues you uncover.
Balance is also something which will need much more work before the game manages to convince. Some rather excessive rubber-banding ensures that if you crash or lose a few positions it’s nigh on impossible to make a comeback, sucking any kind of fun out of the experience. And make no mistake, you will crash. With over 20 cars in a race and shonky controls, the moment you touch another car it feels like you stick to it, becoming unable to escape. This often results in sliding off the track or coming to a complete halt, which in turn means instant game over – and these same rules apply when hitting any of the many environmental objects.
The game’s Destruction Derby mode also suffers from balancing issues. In order to win you have to wreck other drivers, but this in turn damages your car – so towards the end you often end up not being able to smash into cars, because doing so would mean destroying your own car and resulting in game over. Multiplayer does appear to work, but for some reason the car controls would often start to veer left or right on their own regardless of damage – meaning loss of position, and again, you guessed it, a loss. The one thing that should be in abundance in a game about wrecking cars and wreaking havoc on the racetrack is fun. This vital element is missing currently – at no point whilst playing Wreckfest did I feel I was having any kind of fun, due to having to wrestle with the abundant issues.
Ultimately though, what really concerns me whilst playing Wreckfest is that it’s now fifteen months into development and everything still feels as broken as it did on day one – so much so that it worries me that this game may never see a proper release. It still feels years away from resembling any kind of decent racer. Even if it does eventually see the light of day, technology and racers will have moved further on, making Wreckfest even more obsolete than it is right now.
Wreckfest is a perfect example of why Early Access is often a gamble and will always contain an element of risk for those who back them. Even after doing exhaustive research and having what would appear to be a credible and experienced developer at the helm, things can and often will go wrong. It’s uncertain what is the exact cause for such slow progress, but the game’s forums are alight with angry backers rightly demanding updates that not only appear to be scarce, but seem to add very little when they do finally materialize. At this point in time and priced at an eye-watering $30 for something in such a terrible state, I would strongly suggest avoiding it at all costs.
Wreckfest is currently, as the title suggests, a complete write-off. There’s still hope that Bugbear will be able to turn it around, but 15 months on no substantial progress has been made and there are questions about whether the developer has bitten off more than they can chew.
With significant updates and a hell of a lot more work on the handling, AI and damage model, Wreckfest may one day turn out to be a great game; but if development continues at such a slow pace, it’s doubtful that it’ll ever be roadworthy.