It's initially a little difficult to tell exactly what Bugbear is aiming for with its Next Car Game project.
On the one hand, the long-term plan is clearly for an in-depth simulation of banger racing, both on and off the track, with an as-yet unimplemented metagame allowing you to purchase, repair and customize cars, research new technology and build your racing team into an unstoppable force. Meanwhile, on the track, a detailed physics model and upcoming support for professional-level steering wheel, handbrake and pedal controllers suggests that the team is very much hoping for an extremely realistic experience.
On the other hand, today I played a destruction derby event in which for at least half of the time I was still able to drive around, I only had half a car. I mean that literally; the front half of my car had just snapped off, and from the in-cockpit first-person view, I couldn't see my dashboard or steering wheel any more, and the framework of the car, previously out of the way at the side of the screen, had been deformed so much that it was now blocking my view right up the middle. It was hilarious.
These two aspects would seem to be, to put it mildly, somewhat at odds with one another. The inherently comedic nature of clapped-out old cars smashing into one another and deforming each other into barely recognizable shapes appears fundamentally incompatible with the concept of a detailed, realistic racing sim. But these two seemingly disparate components combined together in the same game actually represents a very clever move by Bugbear: it gives the game a rather broader appeal than if it had planted its flag firmly in either the "silly arcade racer" or "po-faced racing sim" camps. Instead, it sits on the fence, providing appeal elements to those who like both types of game, and, surprisingly, comes out rather well.
Last time we saw Next Car Game, it was in a very early state. The main attraction was the "Sneak Peek", in which you could drive one a car around an untextured physics playground, knocking things over and dropping it into various pieces of heavy machinery just to see what would happen to it. There was also a basic race and destruction derby event available to play, but these were far from optimized and chugged pretty severely even on a reasonably beefy gaming PC.
Since that time, the Early Access version currently available on Steam has expanded somewhat. While, as previously mentioned, the team management metagame is still not implemented -- though there's a tantalizing glimpse of what you'll be able to do through some grayed-out menu options -- there's now a greater selection of events in which to participate, including a figure-of-eight racetrack (with a predictably chaotic crossover section), a sandpit track inspired by Bugbear's earlier games, a mud pit destruction derby and a small-arena destruction derby.
The new tracks are a lot of fun to race around, though on their default settings races are over a bit too quickly. The figure-of-eight track in particular is thrilling to race around, largely because of the aforementioned crossover section, but also because it's quite a tight fit for the large number of cars involved in each race, and this leads to lots of bumpin' and grindin' against the other vehicles as you attempt to come out in front. There are strong shades of the old Reflections/Psygnosis PS1-era Destruction Derby games on this track in particular, and that's no bad thing at all.
There's still work to do on the game, though, primarily with regard to the game's damage model. Although visually spectacular, the game still doesn't feel like there's a lot of impact on your car's handling whenever it gets mangled by repeated bumps and crunches. This is something that Bugbear is keen to work in with the help of feedback from the community. The eventual aim is to have the gameplay and aesthetic damage models work together in harmony -- as various components get "shifted" out of the places they're supposed to be on the basic model, they'll be considered more and more damaged until they're eventually destroyed once they cross a certain threshold. At present, this is implemented with the engines of the cars -- knock an engine far enough out of position and you'll wreck the car.
Once the metagame is implemented, you'll have to contend with persistent damage, wear and tear to your car, too. The team at Bugbear is considering how best to proceed with this side of things, and is currently pondering several angles: components having a "lifetime durability" that declines over time, meaning that once you've repaired something a few times you'll need to replace it completely; having your car's bodywork act as "armor" for the components within, with unprotected components being at great risk of destruction; and having a garage team that you'll be able to level up for upgrades and repairs. The team is keen to get that important balance between realism and accessibility just right -- and how complex the metagame between races is will be a key part of that in the experience as a whole.
Performance-wise, the latest version still chugs a bit more than I'd like on a reasonably powerful computer, but the team is reportedly working on a brand-new engine for a future update that may help address some of the more glaring performance issues. To be fair, though, the game is quite a looker -- aside from the spectacular damage model, which we already know about, there's plenty of destructible scenery, deformable environments and physics-based objects scattered around which you can wreck and bump around to your hearts content. Bits that fall off your cars persist on the race track or derby arena rather than magically disappearing like a corpse in a first-person shooter, and this means that the environments in which you're driving become increasingly dangerous the longer events go on for.
At present, then, Next Car Game is still looking very promising. As for whether or not the Early Access version is worth a purchase at present, it depends entirely on whether you're happy to tinker around with various disconnected elements that don't really add up to a full "game" just yet. For sure, the races and destruction derbies are great fun -- not to mention the "Sneak Peek" playground, which you can still access separately -- but there's not a lot in the way of meat on the bones just yet. For those who have trouble making their own fun with more freeform games, it may be best to wait until the overall game structure is implemented into the experience as a whole.
For those who simply enjoy the inherent comedic value of smashing cars together and seeing which bits fall off, though, this is an easy recommendation, and an exciting glimpse of what looks set to be a great addition to the PC's growing library of excellent driving games.