It's a sunny afternoon in 1997, and instead of catching the bus home from school I've gone over to my friend Andrew's house.
After the customary glass of Coke, small talk with his mother and brief, teenage hormone-fuelled flash of wondering whether or not I think his sister is attractive, I'm led by Andrew up to his room -- a pokey little affair barely bigger than a cupboard, but one that is rammed to the gills with entertainment technology of various descriptions. One wall is dominated by a television and its attached games consoles; the wall by the window, meanwhile, houses a small desk with his gaming PC -- a beefy Pentium with a mighty 16MB of RAM. It's here that our attention is turned today, due to the arrival of the latest issue of UK PC gaming magazine PC Zone, and the Carmageddon demo that is on the cover-mounted CD.
We're immediately blown away by the freedom offered in the demo, though we quickly discover that we need to cause a bit of chaos to earn enough time to mess around as much as we want to. Before long, we make a discovery: there's a single building in the map that is more than just a solid wall to crash into. It has a tunnel running up inside it, and said tunnel leads to the rooftops. Once we're on the roof, we decide to see what will happen if we fling our car off. It's a long way down, after all.
We're not disappointed. It turns out that repeatedly flinging the car off the roof has a highly amusing effect on its 3D model, which incorporates a somewhat rudimentary (though impressive for 1997) damage model. The more we abuse it, the less it resembles a car, until eventually we end up with what is little more than a jagged lump of metal with wheels poking out at peculiar angles; a mutilated mechanical corpse barely capable of moving, let alone defying gravity and making it back up to that rooftop for one final jump.
Seventeen years later, I'm sitting in front of my television playing Bugbear's Next Car Game tech demo. And suddenly, for the first time in quite a few years, I find myself thinking of Andrew, whom I haven't seen for a very long time now. The reason? This happened:
Bugbear's games have always been about abusing motor vehicles and their drivers, whether it's the down-and-dirty destruction derbies of the FlatOut series, or the lens flare-infused explosive street racing of the criminally underrated Ridge Racer Unbounded. Next Car Game -- the project still lacks an official title, but this is plenty distinctive for now -- is intended to be somewhat closer in execution to FlatOut when it's eventually finished, but for the moment the most interesting part of the package is the freeform "playground" offered alongside the pre-alpha gameplay demo for those who purchase the Early Access version.
Bugbear clearly knows gamers. It knows that in a game with a phenomenally detailed damage model -- one of the key selling points of Next Car Game -- the first thing players will want to do (and the thing they'll probably show off to their friends) is smash the crap out of a car just to see how far that damage model goes. As such, the "playground" in question provides you with a variety of means of inflicting varying degrees of pain on your ride, ranging from a giant mechanical spider stomping around one part of the arena, to a gigantic cannon that will blast your car through the air as if it were no heavier than an air-fired BB pellet.
The playground is exactly that -- a place to play and have fun, with no rules. You can optionally choose to have other AI-controlled cars racing around with you, but the most fun comes in exploring the various obstacles and items of heavy machinery for yourself. "Oh, what does this do?" you'll think, noticing a second too late that the ramp you're driving up leads into a rapidly-spinning spiked drum that would like nothing more than to crush your car into a metallic pâté. "Hmm, that looks a bit dangerous," you'll note as you drive onto a precarious ledge only slightly wider than your vehicle's axle track, beneath which sits a field of spinning hammers just waiting to create a brand new piece of jagged, edgy modern art. "This should be fun," you'll say to yourself with a grin as you give up all pretense of driving properly, and carefully park beneath the giant mallet marking its territory by pounding the ice-white, textureless ground.
At some point in this process, you'll discover that Bugbear's new destruction engine isn't just about seeing how much of your car you can snap off in one go. It's also about seeing what effect flinging several tons of metal at seemingly immobile objects will have on the scenery, and in this respect the playground doesn't disappoint either, offering stacks of cargo containers to topple as well as a dominoes-style arrangement that if you hit just right will tip over one at a time in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
All this destruction is here for a reason; while Next Car Game's main game features somewhat more down-to-earth hazards than giant cannons, metal grinders and robotic spiders, the attention to detail when it comes to destruction is still intact: not only can you smash up your car beyond recognition over the course of a race, but you can also make your own mark on the tracks you're racing around, whether it's by demolishing a wall of tires or knocking over a sign supported by flimsy wooden legs. Canny use of the destructible environment can, of course, be used to your advantage -- just be careful not to run into your own traps on a subsequent lap.
Such is the appeal of smashing things up that there are dedicated Destruction Derby events in Next Car Game, in which there is but a single aim: be the last car standing. "Standing" doesn't necessarily mean "intact" though, and indeed my first victory in this type of event saw scenes somewhat reminiscent of that bit in The Love Bug where Herbie's back half finishes the race before its front half.
There's still work to do on Next Car Game for sure, most notably with the efficiency of the engine and the physical damage model having more of an impact on how the car drives. In the game's current form, the engine is still fully functional in the unrecognizable lump you see above, for example, though the fact that the wheels aren't touching the floor at least means that you won't get anywhere however hard you rev. Likewise, snapping the entire front end off your car should probably have at least some impact on its ability to continue racing -- particularly if it's a vehicle with an engine in the front -- whereas at present it leads to a number of unintentionally comic scenes that almost make me hope there's an "aesthetic damage only" option in the final game. Where's the fun in utterly mangling a car if you can't then go on to win a race with it?
It's very early to tell whether or not the ambitious metagame Bugbear has planned for Next Car Game will live up to its potential -- the aim is to allow you to take ownership of your various old bangers, building and rebuilding them from a hodgepodge of parts until you create something you're truly proud to call your own -- but at present, there's a solid base framework in place that promises to provide a highly enjoyable, raw racing experience that is a far cry from the smooth, somewhat sanitized racing of the Gran Turismos and Forza Motorsports of the world. For me, personally, it's something that appeals a whole lot, and it makes me excited to see what Bugbear has planned for the game in the long term.