In 12 years of writing sports video games, I’ve recreated all sorts of great moments and childhood dreams, but until I got my hands on Wreckfest this summer, one was missing. A large.
In the wild west days of ESPN’s first five years, the legendary time of Australian football, billiards and white boys boxing at prime time, the world market leader also broadcast demolition derbies. My big brother and I were fans immediately. There’s something neurological that makes me laugh when I see a big, pointless car wreck on TV. The same goes for my brother. And so we sat on the floor of the cave and giggled and roared and damned!
Car Combat has been its own video game sub-genre for two decades, and although titles like PSOne’s Destruction Derby and FlatOut series have been trying diagonally to conquer the chaos of a fair county demolition derby, none has done it as thoroughly as Wreckfest by Bugbear Entertainment from Helsinki.
This may seem like a contradiction, but the level of restraint in Wreckfest’s design makes it the perfect demo derby racing simulator. There are no drivers driving through the windshield, no exploding vehicles, no power-ups or health refills, features of other games in diversity. Bugbear, from which FlatOut emerged, really tried to create a field of thugs and blasts that resembled real life and behaved the way they wanted to. Yes, everyone knows that nobody can get hurt in this game, but that’s up to the players. The roll cages, the removal of glass on the vehicle and the bumpers are all true to the original.
Wreckfest started on PC last year and made its console debut this year, which is why I’m so late for this party. In it, players have the choice between devastating events – Demolition Derby, Banger Race and Figure-8 Race – with some deviations and innovations (such as school buses and campers) in single-player career mode. Online is everything you would expect from a racing game in which beating is not only tolerated, but is the whole point of the game. It’s very hard to get angry about a race that could have been won, but that got out of hand in the last lap if that’s a legal tactic.
Did we mention the soundtrack? Each of those slaps in the face.
The game becomes a little forgiving with three of its courses: the Bone Breaker (it’s very difficult to describe, but its purpose is to cause head-on collisions) and the Madman Stadium, where a jump-filled circuit circles a large pit of the earth. There is another (Death Loop) with a metal loop-de-loop, which also appears improbable from the outside. But damn it, if someone had the time and the right insurance policies, I could see something built for a stunt show somewhere.
The real fun lies in one of the game’s standard dirt road layouts or even the pure asphalt oval. The wreck festival makes me as exciting as when someone hits the wall in a corner, like a hockey player controlling his man through the plexiglass. There always seems to be a huge stone or tree or other naturally occurring hazard in a critically hard curve in Wreckfest’s layouts, which are marked by a bunch of old tires. Driving through a field with scattered tires is a telltale sign that real shit has appeared in the group before.
Headers, roll bars, bumpers for railway sleepers: the wreckfest is second to none.
The fleet of cars may not be realistic, but the wrestlers are at least analogous to the staple foods of demo derbies. The Nexus RX is your basic Honda CRX, which is hellishly vulnerable, but like a toddler who runs away while bathing, leads the field. El Matador is the El Camino, the automotive equivalent of a mullet and one of the best shitmobile ever. Warwagon is a simple Chevy Impala wagon that led the Mad Hatter to victory in so many of these crazy derbies that my brother and I loved. It has a lot of crumple zones in the back that you’d better use in a demolition derby since the engine compartment doesn’t take much punishment.
And then there is the Dominator, which must be the famous 1964 Chrysler Imperial, an icon of the demolition race. You will still see them at every event. it looks like Kruschev was driven to the UN before he was hit by a meteorite. “Can’t be beat,” said a driver at the 1997 Pole Cat Mud Bog in Onslow County, NC. Fully upgraded, there is no surpassing the Wreckfest either.
There are countless adjustments (including the senseless engine headers that do nothing for performance, but rather make an intimidating noise and cause regurgitation when changing gears). But everything you can do with your car is still possible. The wreck festival moves in a tight field between realism and adjusted, exaggerated violence, but the rigorous physics and vehicle behavior give all T-bones and crash-outs their meaning. It’s the idea that I actually caused it. I have not used any device, weapon or other thumb on the scale.
We have long watched the best games of 2019, all worthy winners to achieve this or that design goal. The wreck festival was just the fun I had with a controller this year. It’s endlessly repeatable, spectacular in the truest sense of the word (I told a friend, her children don’t argue about who is allowed to play because it is just entertaining to see it) and even nostalgic in the right places.
The Wreck Festival may not have been among Polygon’s 50 best games in 2019 – it was number 40 in last year’s list – but there is at least no reason in my book to beat it.