Wreckfest is a throwback to classic demolition derby titles like FlatOut, bringing vehicular carnage to the modern era with superb damage modelling and thrilling gameplay
Racing games have a long and storied history on consoles - for as long as there have been videogames, there have been racing games.
Back in the old Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation days, alongside more traditional racers and the advent of the kart racing craze was a classic demolition derby game called Destruction Derby.
Plenty of similar titles released in the years following, with an assortment of games trading in sleek speedsters and zany powerups for old beaters and twisted metal. FlatOut was one such franchise that garnered a large following in the mid-2000's thanks to its classic vehicular carnage. Good ol' fashioned demolition derbies were the main selling point for the revered series, with its unlicensed cars being battered beyond recognition during the course of a race or last man standing event, wheels flying in different directions as you put the competition out of commission.
Over time, racing games evolved - better graphics allowed licensed cars to be featured as virtual simulations of real dream machines, other titles such as Twisted Metal took the basic car-combat formula and added an array of weapons to player's arsenals, and the Burnout series combined vehicle-deforming mayhem with high-speed racing and nitrous-infused supercars.
In recent years, the major racing series have all gravitated toward licensed vehicles, particularly given the incredible graphical capabilities of modern technology. With that, many companies don't allow their car likenesses to be damaged to an extreme extent, and even though cosmetic damage is prevalent in games like the Forza and DiRT franchises, vehicular combat is relegated to low-budget offerings or gimmicky (albeit fun) outings like OnRush or lighthearted kart racers.
While racing and simulation fans have no doubt been spoiled in recent years with the likes of Forza Horizon, Project Cars, the DiRT series and more, a good old-fashioned car beat-em-up hasn't been seen in ages. Most recently FlatOut 4, a low-budget sequel to the classic originals, was released in 2017 but was an ugly, unpolished and dull experience that failed to capture the fun of the previous entries. Players hankering for some vehicular deathmatch were left reminiscing about the good old days as they replayed the classics and wondered why games like that aren't around anymore.
Despite a plethora of development issues and funding problems over the years, Bugbear Entertainment (the creators of FlatOut and FlatOut 2) eventually got their latest project out into the wild and their passion for the genre is immediately apparent.
The graphics are shockingly good for a budget title - while not quite reaching the heights of a powerhouse like Forza, Wreckfest's original cars are exquisitely detailed and the tracks look great, especially in 4K if your console/PC and TV are capable. Though some of the environmental backgrounds are a bit rough when examined closely, it's hardly the focus of a game such as this and the overall graphical quality is on par with most big-budget games. The sound design is excellent too, with realistic engine roars, exhausts sputtering in falling-apart beaters, and the shriek of twisted metal all around you in multi-car pileups all help sell the experience.
The damage modelling however is what steals the show in Wreckfest and sets it completely apart from modern racers.
Using a "soft-body deformation system", Wreckfest takes a realistic approach to vehicle damage, with cars deforming based on where they were hit and with how much speed, how strong the vehicle frame is, etcetera. Wheels fall off, hoods crumple, bumpers scrape the ground as they hang on by a thread, doors cave in from T-bone collisions - at the end of a demolition derby or a banger race, the winner's car will often look like a deformed clump of metal on wheels, with its scrunched up frame barely holding together as it rolls around on wobbly tires. It's truly impressive tech and exceptionally detailed.
Perhaps even more impressive is that when parts fall off of vehicles, they stay on the track for the duration of the race, as do other items in the locale, such as stacked tires, sponsor signs, traffic cones, and other race track staples. By the end of most races you'll be driving past fields of debris and smoldering husks of once-drivable cars, really showcasing just how much damage is done over the course of a race.
Over the course of its lengthy 20-or-so hour campaign, Wreckfest offers a variety of race types, including standard circuit races on gravel and dirt tracks, last-man-standing demolition derbies, car deathmatches, and tournaments where you must place in the top X spots in each race to advance to the next round. The varied tracks include lots of intersecting areas and deadly figure eights to ramp up the intensity and provide plenty of content for players to discover, though later in the campaign you will replay a lot of the same tracks you already played through.
Completing races nets you experience toward leveling up as well as credits to spend. Credits can be spent on new vehicles, upgrades to performance and armour, and cosmetic changes; leveling up your driver meanwhile unlocks new vehicles and vehicle upgrades to purchase. Special events throughout the campaign will let you race a vehicle you don’t own and reward you with it should you win (these often feature some silly vehicles, like the lawn mower, the sofa car, or the school bus).
The upgrade system lets you take any of Wreckfest's original cars and adjust them to fit your needs - add armour for improved durability and wrecking power for a demolition derby, top up your vehicle's acceleration and speed with engine upgrades and swaps and remove said armour to create a speed demon for race events, and strike your desired balance for banger races which combine the two types of competition.
The game could have definitely benefitted from the ability to save your car's tuning and upgrades to different profiles - being able to instantly swap between a racing tune and a derby tune should definitely be a feature, but instead you have to manually swap out your upgrades one by one if you want to alter your vehicle for different events, which can get annoying (especially if you forget to swap your upgrades for an event).
The vehicles themselves are mostly typical demolition derby-style fare, and take clear inspiration from real vehicles that are changed up just enough to avoid drawing the wrath of lawyers. These vary from small coupes and fastbacks to larger muscle-cars and station wagons for most races, but Wreckfest separates itself from the pack with some truly whacky options. Lawn mowers and sofa cars (quite literally a sofa on wheels with an engine built into it) are good fun and hilariously their drivers are often propelled out of their seats when wrecked, while larger and more unwieldy vehicles like the school bus and tractor are heavy duty wrecking machines.
Each vehicle feels unique and the game's handling system is superb, blending a more realistic simulation style with the ease of use of an arcade racer. The usual assist options are available, such as traction control, stability control, and automatic shifting, so more casual racers can still have a blast while hardcore gamers can get a more demanding challenge.
You are duly rewarded for being a homicidal maniac behind the wheel; you gain additional XP during races for aggressive acts such as shunting, slamming, spinning out and crashing opposing vehicles, and of course for wrecking (totalling) another car.
The first car to deliver a damaging blow to your vehicle during a race is declared your rival and given a red marker to identify them. You get bonus XP for damaging or wrecking their car, making rivals fun bonus targets to go after during a race.
Races also have bonus challenges in the campaign which net you extra credits and XP if you meet their criteria, such as doing X damage or spinning out 3 vehicles during the event. While these are rewarding and add extra goals to achieve especially when replaying races, some of the challenges can be a bit frustrating - particularly the ones that require you to lead the race for a certain number of laps, as they reset completely if another car edges past you even for a split second.
Each championship, of which there are 6, has a set amount of points required in order to complete and unlock the next championship, and each event adds points to your championship total depending on your placement in the race(s), so you don't have to complete every event to complete a set and move onto the next tier of content. As a caveat you must have an eligible vehicle to compete in an event (unless it's an afforementioned special event) but many are open right from the start with your starting vehicle and you'll have lots of events to choose from throughout the single player championships.
Although it offers a good amount of tracks and variety, Wreckfest's campaign drags on towards the upper tiers as many events are replaying the same tracks and just add more races you need to win to complete each event, which can get needlessly repetitive.
The AI, always an important aspect in a competitive racer, is suitably aggressive in the campaign or quickplay, though its old-school difficulty may intimidate less-skilled players. While the game offers three difficulty levels to choose from, even easy mode is quite a challenge; if you're having trouble placing highly, I'd recommend upgrading your vehicle as best you can for the specific race type, even if it means placing low in a few events to earn enough credits for upgrades before replaying them in an improved ride.
The in-game presentation is brilliant and runs at a rock-steady 60 frames per second regardless of the console you're playing on, while the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro render the carnage in stunning 4K without skipping a beat. The out-of-game presentation is less stellar; menus for upgrading/buying vehicles are oddly slow in loading items and are a bit clunky to use, and loading the races themselves takes much longer than one would expect, even on a One X with a faster-than-standard external hard drive. Luckily, the in-game action is polished to a tee and is well-worth the wait.
The online play however is where a lot of players will have the most fun.
The host of a session (which migrates to another player should the current host quit) gets to choose their event type, the number of races for the event, the tracks, the car(s) available to pick, and more, and finding a game is quick and easy, though the amount of players online is low so as time goes on that may become a problem.
If you do find a full lobby, online races are as chaotic and players are as insanely aggressive as you'd expect, leading to some intense deathmatches and hair-pullingly intense races. While in other racers online communities often complain about getting run off the road and attacked by other racers, here that's the name of the game and it's all the more fun for it.
The online component could definitely use a few party-game style modes however. Forza Horizon's Cat and Mouse or CTF modes would be a blast to play in Wreckfest, and the lack of any other game modes seems like a massive missed opportunity on the multiplayer front. As it is, a good old game of demolition derby is still a smashing good time whether it's against computer drivers or expletive-spouting humans online.
Though it lacks the massive budget of AAA racers like Forza or Need for Speed, Wreckfest makes the most of it by bringing back the good old days of vehicular combat.
A superb damage modelling system, impressive graphics, impeccable handling, a wide variety of vehicles and upgrades, and great track design make Wreckfest the best vehicular combat game since FlatOut 2.
+Impressive graphics and sound design, especially for a budget title +Spectacular damage modelling system and persistent track degradation
+A wide range of vehicles which sport a lot of options and each feels unique +Handles like a charm and the tracks on offer are a blast to play +A smooth and polished on-track experience even as total carnage unfolds around you
-Overlong loading times and clunky menus
-Campaign gets repetitive and drawn out toward the end
-Lacking multiplayer game modes
The Final Score: 8.5 / 10