Genre: Arcade Driving
Developer: Studio 33
Release Date: April 1, 2004
Buy 'DESTRUCTION DERBY ARENAS': PlayStation 2
There was a time when Destruction Derby stood a distinctive cut above the smash-em-up competition. It was plain to see, at the time when the original game was released, that smashing things, particularly multi-ton metal and steel things, was, indeed, fun. But as the years lurched forward, and as more publishers started cashing in on the destructible-vehicle concept, the Destruction Derby series gradually fell from being king of the hill in the sub-genre of racing that it helped to establish. Add to that the diminishing returns of innovation in each successive Derby title and you’ve got a franchise that is in serious need of an adrenaline shot. Enter Destruction Derby Arenas; the next big thing in the nearly 10-year-old series and the first DD to boast full online play. Unfortunately, slapping a new dress and makeup on a dead horse does not necessarily an attractive dead horse make.
The available modes of play in Destruction Derby Arenas fall perfectly in line with what you would expect from any given game of its kind to be released, erm – ever. Two-player split-screen play? Check. Instant action exhibition races? Check. And, of course, there’s a championship mode (aka “main” mode, career mode, story mode) where you’ll race through a series of competitions, earning points and unlocking new racers and parts as you go. The system the game uses to distribute points seems a little off-balance, and, since the winner for each race is determined by whoever has the most points (coming in first position in the race merely awards you bonus points) at the finish line, the point-award-system inconsistency is a bit of an issue.
The majority of points that you’ll accrue during any given race will be credited to forcing your opponents into a spin by nudging their rear panels. Doing this will ensure a nice phatty score at the end of the race. You are awarded points for other things as well – like jumps, skids, and barrel rolls – but the point/difficulty ratio for these stunts simply makes doing them counterproductive. You’ll also get chump change for smashing up your opponents, which is something I assumed the game would have focused on much more considering the title’s moniker and reputation. I wanted to smash sh*t up, not spin my opponents around like I’m playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The destruction bowl arenas allow you to let off a little steam by crunking up the competitors, but even here spins are favored over straight-on crashes. Plus, (and now I’m feeling kinda bad) the vehicle’s destruction physics aren’t all that satisfying anyway; parts seem to fall off more so than fly or spin out of control in every direction.
But despite Arenas’ chintzy modes of play and less-than-impressive crashing physics, the game is, amazingly, still fun to play. The cars have a noticeable giddy-up-an-go feel to them and are responsive enough to consistently perform tricky maneuvering and hand-brake turns when it really counts. In fact, taken as a racing game, Destruction Derby Arenas is quite the competitive contender. There are plenty of interesting pick-up items strewn about the tracks that give each race a Mario Kart-esque edge of surprise and chaos such as the TNT trigger, which causes a substantial portion of the upcoming track to be blown to bits, thus severely hampering the progress of racers in front of you; there’s the rocket that dramatically increases your “forward momentum” for a brief time; and there’s nitrous, grip, shield, and health pick-ups as well. But, again, since the goal of each race isn’t to place first, your priority will mostly be on forcing rival racers to lose control of their car, and not on rocketing through the competition with reckless (as it were) abandon to those around you.
I guess my main gripe with Destruction Derby Arenas is its ill-conceived gameplay priorities. Luckily, the developers more than made up for the single-player deficiencies with a more traditional and satisfying set of online modes. Playing the game on the Wide World Interweb via a broadband adapter opens up a host of additional modes including a straightforward racing competition called Speedway, a Capture the Trophy mode, the hot-potato style Pass Da Bomb mode, and the smash-centric Last Man Standing mode. But, like any other racing game whose title lacks the words Gran and Turismo, the online play is not perfect. The occasional lag makes the game’s inherent slowdown (when multiple cars are onscreen) even more annoying, and the lack of voice-chat during races is a disappointing omission. Nevertheless, the online modes are the best way to maximize your enjoyment of the game.
In terms of visuals, Destruction Derby Arenas can’t hold a flame to the graphics found in the current crop of popular racing games like Midnight Club II or Need for Speed: Underground. The most offending aesthetics are actually the cars themselves, uninspired and geometrically rudimentary as they are. Initially, I thought the unoriginal vehicle designs would only be applicable to the cars that are available from the onset of the game. Not so. The tracks and their surrounding environments look good, however, and to their credit I never once found myself at a standstill due to invincible or invisible barriers. You can crash right through most all environmental objects on the racing courses, so the action is always fast – if only it were a bit more furious than they might have really had something. The soundtrack is pretty generic, it would have been nice to see (or hear, rather) some licensed music on the roster; the included rock and techno orchestrations did absolutely nothing for me. Sound effects are adequate, I suppose, I don’t really remember. The narration before each race sounds like it might have been voiced by the game’s programmers or just really inexperienced voice talent. Overall, the game’s presentation can best be summed up in one word; forgettable.
Overall, Destruction Derby Arenas feels like a sophomoric attempt to breathe new life into an aging franchise. The game’s modest modes of play, underwhelming presentation, and ill-conceived points system are a far cry from the series’ glory days, but the gameplay is solid and the courses can be a lot of fun under the right circumstances. Give Arenas a rental and enjoy its entertaining online modes, but steer clear of an impulse buy.