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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Racing
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Developer: Bugbear
Release Date: Aug. 27, 2019

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PS4 Review - 'Wreckfest'

by Andreas Salmen on Sept. 17, 2019 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Wreckfest is a demolition derby-themed racing game with special attention paid to soft-body damage modeling, sophisticated driving dynamics and in-depth vehicle upgrading, featuring both demolition derbies and more traditional track races.

Buy Wreckfest

Every gamer has their "prime" gaming days that they look back fondly on. For me, it's the PS2, so there are a multitude of titles that hold a dear place in my heart, such as one of my most played racing games on the system, FlatOut 2. Developed by Bugbear Entertainment, FlatOut 2 wasn't the best-looking racing title, but it featured frantic car racing with what felt like an incredibly detailed damage system at the time.

Unfortunately, the series went downhill after that, but Bugbear didn't cease to exist. Six years later, it started working on a next-gen racing title, Next Car Game, that picked up where FlatOut left off. It took another five years for the game to be completed. The project has since been renamed to Wreckfest, and it was fully released on the PC, PS4 and Xbox One as of Aug. 27, 2019. The crucial question is whether Wreckfest can live up to its FlatOut heritage and expectations.

The brief answer would be yes — kind of. The long answer is that if you're longing for a title that is serious about physics and damage models, Wreckfest is your game. If you're looking for an engaging racing title that checks every box, you might not get past Wreckfest's basic presentation. If you're looking for a sleek simulation of professional racing or anything of the like, this derby racing spectacle will probably frustrate you.

At its core, Wreckfest is simply a racing title, so we choose a car, we go around a track, and we try to be the first to cross the finish line. If we look at the actual gameplay, every offline race involves a whopping 24 cars that pour down the race track at the same time. That is a lot of cars in a limited amount of space, so races aren't just about who is the fastest but also who's the toughest. Wreckfest has an incredibly detailed and a mostly realistic damage model, so every scratch and impact is somewhat realistically represented in the game. You'll see your car slowly deteriorate over the course of a single race due to heavy-duty contact with walls and other participants.

It's a gorgeous engine that can be both realistic and unrealistic. You'll see plenty of crashes and deformations where cars are damaged in weird ways, so it seems less authentic. Those are minor gripes, since the damage system is satisfyingly implemented and works great 90% of the time. While the game goes easy on us by default — including a health bar to showcase how far we are from wreckage — there is an option to activate "realistic damage" at any time. The health bar is still present as an indicator, but if you're seeking some realism, heavy crashes could end up sidelining vehicles.

That basically means every race is a fight for your life, and that'll probably be the hardest lesson that Wreckfest teaches you. In a pack of 24 racers, every inch of track is a fierce fight for space and damage. At its heart, Wreckfest is a destruction derby game. Cars that already look like they've seen better days go toe to toe until someone wins or another one is reduced to rubble and a bunch of wheels. That brings its own sets of challenges and frustrations, as any race can turn into a lethal destruction derby. It's similar to being hit by an item in front of the finish line in a kart racer, except that a crash here can cripple your chances for the entire race. You'll eventually come to grips with that or upgrade your car to better deal with these circumstances, but the beginning can be frustrating.

If you catch a break ahead of the pack, driving is still very fun, but much of the gameplay involves driving your car into other vehicles rather than pulling ahead. Cars have a heavy, weighty feel to them, so they can easily swerve uncontrollably. It's very similar to the car handling that I remember from the first two FlatOut titles, and that's excellent. Once you're used to it, the driving feels smooth, hitting the sweet spot between simulation and arcade gameplay.

Depending on your skill, you may want to change the difficulty of the car handling, which is divided into three settings that give you complete, partial or no assists, such as ABS. You may also change more granular settings depending on the road or if you favor short and fast acceleration over a higher top speed. AI drivers also have three difficulty settings, with the middle one (Amateur) packing quite a punch. Your opponents are aggressive, and if they can't win, they'll do their best in making sure you can't, either. It can get out of hand in some races, where AI drivers continuously make poor decisions for their own sake, such as driving into oncoming traffic unprovoked or going for full contact instead of pulling ahead.

Every race is quite a spectacle, especially since the tracks are slightly destructible — and not always in a good way. In the beginning, it can be difficult to judge which roadside objects are solid and which ones are weak enough to be broken through by a speeding car. The rule of thumb is to stay on the track, as some fencing may suggest you're safe when you can break right through it when tested. It's beautiful to watch as an army of metal vehicles tears through stacks of wheels or fences, spilling them all over the track. Beyond the usual mayhem, the tracks rarely stand out.

Wreckfest's focus is on the cars and the racing. While track layouts are usually good to great with few exceptions, the visual fidelity of those tracks is noticeably lacking. The tracks aren't ugly, but they're usually empty, with few roadside sights and motionless bystanders that occasionally clap with basic animations. You probably won't notice when you're deep into your race, but it's one of the weakest visual areas of the game, especially when compared to the good-looking skyboxes and beautiful car models.

The tracks feature over 20 different locations, with both one- and multiple-track layouts and variations, including destruction derby bowls, figure eights, and even a looping track that resembles a roller coaster. Some tracks are designed to maximize the mayhem, with bottlenecks or traffic, fully aware of the vehicular carnage that a wrong swerve might cause.

However, Wreckfest feels slightly bare-bones, so although there's enough content, it may not be as engaging as many modern racers. There is a single-player campaign that essentially guides us through five championships. Within those championships are several different events that grant points, and as soon as we reach the threshold, we win the cup and move on to the next. Each event also offers at least one challenge that can be achieved for addition points, such as dealing certain amounts of damage or pulling off specific maneuvers. Generally, there's a wealth of events with some interesting challenges, like a lawn mower derby or racing a school bus while driving a three-wheeled vehicle. The game creates some remarkable racing situations that are elevated by its gameplay systems, and that was enough to carry me from race to race, genuinely excited of what's to come.

If those preset events do not scratch your itch, there is a custom event mode where anything goes. Pick a track and a vehicle, and off you go. Anything in the game can be used (or misused) for racing entertainment, and that can be a lot of fun. Of course, there's also online play for all game modes, which was surprisingly active during our review period. We were able to join a full server (up to 16 human participants per game), and the game usually benefitted from racing actual people instead of the AI. There isn't an offline cooperative mode in the game, which is a bummer given how fun the experience would be in split-screen view.

Progress in Wreckfest is pretty straightforward. We earn experience and money in single-player events, so we can unlock cars and parts to upgrade our cars. Multiplayer games don't yield cash, but experience points are always earned. Vehicles are divided into four categories: A to C and a special vehicle class. Wreckfest features around 30 of them at launch, with a season pass around the corner to add additional cars and customization in eight DLC packs. Cars can be upgraded in performance or strength, and they can feature different paint jobs and cosmetic items, some of which were introduced exclusively on the consoles but have since been added via PC updates.

It's not all great, though. Wreckfest has received several patches since its release, which was plagued by bugs. Skyboxes glitched out, drivers glitched into the environment, and menu crashes cropped up. Add to that the occasional stutter in very heavy crash situations and incredibly long load times for everything, including menus, and it can all test your patience. The music is all over the place, with an odd mix of different genres ranging from metal to techno and pop. We preferred playing the game without music because the rest of Wreckfest usually sounded remarkable.

If all that doesn't faze you (and it shouldn't), Wreckfest more than nails its core gameplay. It's a fun derby racer game that lives up to its FlatOut roots and more. It has a somewhat bare-bones presentation that is rife with bugs and long loading screens, but when it works, it's a remarkable experience from start to finish. If you love this kind of racer, the console version of Wreckfest will hold up its end of the deal and deliver frantic mayhem racing at its best.

Score: 8.6/10

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