It's not an exaggeration to say that I consider the original Carmageddon to be one of the defining experiences of my gaming career.
Not only was it an extremely addictive, highly playable game that proved the PC more than had what it took to take on consoles in the arcade racing stakes, it was also one of the earliest games I ever wrote about professionally. My Carmageddon tips book originally graced the front cover of UK PC gaming magazine PC Zone and was subsequently bundled in the Virgin Megastores special edition Christmas bundle of Carmageddon and its Splat Pack expansion, and can, much to my delight, still be read today in PDF format thanks to GOG.com's inclusion of it in its recent rerelease.
The series has had its ups and downs since its original installment, with an excellent sequel (and a decent, but not quite as good second sequel) on PC as well as some truly dreadful console spinoffs. Developer Stainless Software went rather low-key for a while, quietly working on some of the excellent Xbox Live Arcade updates of Atari classics and three different versions of Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers, but now it's back doing what it clearly loves: hurling heavyweight cars around vast, open arenas and flattening pedestrians into a bloody pulp in the process.
The Kickstarter-funded Carmageddon: Reincarnation is soon to reveal itself to the public via the Steam Early Access system, but the team released a very early pre-alpha version to crowdfunding backers early in March. I've had the chance to have a bit of a play with it, and I'm very happy to confirm that it most definitely is a new Carmageddon game in the purest sense.
And I mean that quite literally. Carmageddon: Reincarnation in its current form is little more than a prettier version of the past games, none of which tended to deviate too significantly from the formula established by the first game. For the uninitiated, that means each "race" event (each of which takes place on a sprawling, quasi open-world map that is far bigger than just the "course" itself) can be completed in one of three ways: run through all the checkpoints and complete all the laps in order (easy-ish, particularly if you can get an early lead); wreck all of your opponents before they wreck you (moderately difficult); or flatten each and every pedestrian on the map into a fine, bloody paste on the asphalt (nigh-impossible). In practice, you can combine all three of these techniques into an attempt, since making progress in any of them rewards you with both time on the clock and credits to spend on repairing your increasingly banged-up vehicle as it gets into more and more disagreements with sharpened lumps of metal, rock walls and pools of acid.
Reincarnation's close following of the original Carmageddon formula is no bad thing. For starters, the "three ways to win a race" approach was unique when the first Carmageddon came out, and it's still unusual today. Couple that with the fact that it has been a very long time since we had a decent quality smash-and-bash driving game that was even trying to do what Carmageddon did, and what we have here is a welcome return to form for Stainless.
The core mechanics may be the same as they've always been, but the technology driving it is all but unrecognizable from past incarnations. Particular attention has been paid to damage modelling on the vehicles, and this can lead to some immensely satisfying crashes, as you might expect. Where the original Carmageddon simply deformed the vehicle model gradually in predefined ways as you took damage, later installments started to break chunks off it, even allowing you to split the car in half if you hit an unfortunately positioned pillar at just the wrong angle and just the right speed. Reincarnation builds on this damage model with fully destructible, deformable vehicles that can be made almost unrecognizable from their original forms, much like the early version of Bugbear's Next Car Game that is also currently gracing Steam Early Access.
Said damage also has an impact on how the vehicles drive and handle. An apparently effective strategy when attempting a victory through wrecking your opponents is simply to slam repeatedly into their sides until their wheels fall off, leaving them all but helpless as you piledriver them into the nearest concrete wall. It's immensely satisfying, but you also need to remember that your opponents are more than capable of doing the same thing to you. That said, so long as you always have plenty of credits on hand -- which you will do if you drive aggressively -- then you'll normally be able to repair any damage you might suffer over the course of a previous race. This leaves you in an enormously enjoyable position of power -- though in past games, opponents got increasingly tough to take on as you progressed, meaning you'd eventually have to save up some of those credits to beef up your car's capabilities rather than wasting them on repairs.
The early Carmageddons weren't just about driving aggressively, however; they were also about weird and wacky powerups that, in many cases, were just as dangerous to the user as they were to the victim they were taking aim at. Reincarnation is no exception in this regard, with a number of old favorites (like the inordinately frustrating but hilarious Kangaroo Mode, which simply flings your car into the air every few seconds as if it has hiccups) joining new offerings. A particular highlight in the current version is the "Pelvic Thrust" item, which provides you with a limited number of near-immediate jolts of speed forwards: great for slamming into things when you haven't got the space for a good run-up. It's not all ridiculousness, of course; each course also houses plenty of straightforward time and credits powerups as well as the ability to drive underwater where applicable, but some of the most amusing moments tend to come from the less predictable items. You never forget your first Pinball Mode, and neither does your Credits balance.
The long-term plan for Reincarnation is to provide a thoroughly modernized version of the classic Carmageddon experience, and based on this very early, unoptimized, pre-alpha version, it's clear that Stainless is already very much on the right track, no pun intended. As the Early Access version continues to develop, we'll start to see more and more features added, including a suite of multiplayer modes for both online and local play that promise to be a ridiculous amount of fun. The whole game is designed to pay homage to the 1997 original, with environments, obstacles and vehicles reimagined and reconstructed in the new engine in order to appeal to longstanding fans of the series, while the modern graphical effects and impressive damage modelling provides just the thing for those with a powerful rig to show off its capabilities.
The next milestone for Carmageddon: Reincarnation is the official public release of the game onto Steam Early Access, which will also bring with it a content update from the pre-alpha backer-exclusive version we've been discussing here. That's set to arrive on Steam on March 27. Multiplayer isn't yet implemented, but is reportedly one of the highest priorities for the team at Stainless, so expect that to follow in an update shortly after Early Access launch.
Is it worth picking up in this early format? Well, that partly depends on your attitude towards Early Access titles, and whether you want to get a Carmageddon fix right now. The current version, while unoptimized for low-end rigs and lacking in things like basic graphics options customization, is very playable and a fun means of whiling away a few minutes if you feel like smashing some cars up or flattening some pedestrians. There's still obviously a long way to go for the team, particularly with regards to performance, but already the potential is obvious.
In short, Carmageddon: Reincarnation is shaping up to be a worthy successor to its original PC installments -- let's forget those unfortunate console versions ever happened -- and, barring a complete disaster, is likely to make smash-and-bash racing fans very happy in the near future. If you'd like to get in on the action, check out the Early Access version over on Steam.