Let’s… Sorta… Talk About Combat Cars

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It’s very rare that I feel like a game is treading water in a way that Combat Cars does. Essentially, the title does indeed say everything about this game. In fact, there aren’t many times in which a game flat out tells you what it’s about within the first few seconds of even picking it up. You will not be surprised to hear that Combat Cars is indeed a game featuring combat using cars. I dare say they could have chosen a more interesting name for the game but let’s be fair on the game: it isn’t detrimental to its ability to actually… y’know… function as a game.

I suppose there are a few titles that would have done the job just as well. I mean, you could have called it Super Street Race Engine Brawler Championship Editi-

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OH GOOD FREAKIN’ LORD, ZANGIEF, WILL YOU STOP FLIPPING THE FUCKING TABLE? I JUST CLEANED UP AFTER LAST TIME.

Look, obvious-name-is-obvious aside, Combat Cars is a racing game which I can only describe a mixture of Micro Machines and Street Racer. It’s a game that could be and should be the sum of all of its parts and yet isn’t. It’s another example of a game that SHOULD be really good based off what it’s attempting to do. And yet it just… isn’t… mainly because of the curious design and development choices that they game developers made.

But let’s get a few things straight here: this game isn’t BAD per se. It’s actually quite a bit of fun…

It is just wholly lacking in quite a few areas.

I could easily make a ‘story of my life’ joke there but a) you wouldn’t understand what I was talking about, and b) I’d be lying if I said that was true. I’m wonderful. Fuck you.

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So let’s break down what makes this game the game that it is: the story!

There isn’t one.

I know! I’m as shocked as you are! It’s as if the game developers thought: “ooooh… story in a racing game… let’s leave that till the end until we develop the game…” and then ran out of time anyway.

It is no worse or better off for not having a story but a little bit of exposition would have been good really. I mean… having a point to playing the game would have realistically made more sense than basically plonking you into the game without any reason and just saying “off you go” like you would a toddler in a children’s playground.

OK, I say this and actually feel bad for not calling out Micro Machines for that sort of thing… but here’s where I feel justified in this. A game like Combat Cars that pits humans, aliens, cyborgs and the like against each other and asking them to fight it out in cars without any real explanation feels wrong. It’s a game that is crying out for a bit of back story and reasoning behind it all. There’s a little bit of information about each of the characters going about but there’s still no actual motivation for you, the player. THEY might have some sort of motivation maybe… perhaps to win races? I dunno. I just doesn’t seem… right. It feels very blank and empty. Why am I racing against these goons? What’s the point?

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And which goons, might you ask? Well these select bunch of really uninspired looking nobodies. And if the lack of centering is pissing you off too, don’t worry, I feel your pain.

Let’s be honest, they’re not exactly the most exciting of ‘heroes’ to choose from. They’re not exciting to look at and I don’t really get any sense of warmth from any of them. I don’t WANT to race as any of them in particular, seeing as they all look either miserable, evil or plain bored.

Of COURSE there’s a beast character. Of COURSE the alien is GREEN and looks more human-like than anything (ears aside because them’s a bit high, know what I’m saying?) Of COURSE there’s a fat guy in there. Of COURSE there’s a good-looking lady character whose back story mentions how she’s tougher than she looks because SEXISM.

It’s so generic in style, I’m not surprised this didn’t get any real praise or accolades (pun not intended, developers… Accolade. Ha ha ha. Oh dear).

Choice of character is actually relatively important as they all have a different weapon that they can use as a way of combating their rivals. Jackyl uses oil, Sadie uses glue, Metro uses a shotgun, Growl uses thick smoke, Mama and Ray use turbos, Mekmac uses mines and Andrew homing missiles.

WAIT.

HOLD THE FUCK UP.

So you have EIGHT distinct (mmmmmmm… ok not really) characters and ONE OF THEM is so severely overpowered in the weaponry department that the choice of characters is ONLY IMPORTANT in that you should choose Andrew?

WHY WOULD YOU CHOOSE ANYONE ELSE? HE’S CLEARLY GOT THE ONLY DECENT WEAPON AMONGST THE WHOLE GROUP. His missiles home in on cars around you and knock them off course! It seems like a total waste of time to go for anyone else!

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OK, so character whinges out of the way, let’s get into the actual nitty-gritty of this game: the racing. Essentially, the idea is to fend off five of your rivals to make it at least into the top three. As you race around the track, you pick up money for where you rank after each lap and then pick up extra money at the end of the race depending on the overall result. You get money for place, number of unused special weapons and time remaining.

At the end of the races, you’re taken to a shop where you can buy upgrades for your car to boost your stats in acceleration, handling, top speed and weapon power. The money you earn goes on these abilities which means that using the money wisely is key. Each driver starts off with different base stats (which… actually aren’t as fairly spread out as they SHOULD be) and each upgrade costs more depending on how good your base stat is. You want to upgrade your already brilliant acceleration? That’ll cost you over $100,000. Want to improve your lacklustre handling? That’ll only be $26,000. Using the money wisely is key and actually is a nice little distraction to add a bit more strategy to your game.

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The actual racing itself does vary from racer to racer – bizarrely making this a different experience each time you play – the slower cars often have better handling or acceleration and vice versa so you have to consider how you want to play the game and what suits you. AND the actual abilities are VERY noticeable. A lot of racing games throw those stats into their games and they don’t always make ENOUGH of a difference. Here they definitely do.

The handling of the cars is the most suspect thing in this game. I found it incredibly difficult to make my car go straight up the track regardless of who I was playing as. In the end, I wondered whether I was going to be pulled over by the police for what would have looked like drunk driving. I kept veering left and right in an attempt to put the car back on line and EVERY TIME, it skidded like it was on ice and NEVER straightened up. And it’s accompanied by the obligatory skid-skid-skid sound effect. It got a little bit silly after a while so I ignored the straight line racing and attempted to improve over the corners.

Yeah. That didn’t work that well either.

The cars are ridiculously slippery on every track, particularly the ice and harbour tracks for some reason. Although the cars move responsively, it still lessens the experience as it makes the game much more difficult than it should be.

However, once you get used to it (which I eventually did… after about an hour), then the game… sorta… becomes… very easy.

Once you’re in the lead, if you’re there… you’ll find it’s very easy to stay there. Even if you’re not playing as CLEARLY-OVERPOWERED Andrew, his missiles won’t come for you from a distance behind you so you’ll end up miles ahead without anyone getting in your way. If anything, the only problems you’ll come across after that is when you start lapping the other racers. And even then, they aren’t a massive problem. They sort of forget you’re even there.

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However… there’s one other major quibble that dampens the experience somewhat. If you time out or come worse than third in any race, that’s it. You’re done. It’s game over.

Seriously. If you lose any race, regardless of where you are and which number race you’re racing in, you’re right back to the start again. So you might have upgraded your car to its fullest capabilities and be well on your way through 20 out of 24 races and then suddenly, you have a nightmare of a race, come fourth… and BAM. You’re right back to the start again.

Seriously. I would LOVE to know who thought that would be a good idea. That is quite possibly the single worst idea to have ever been plonked into any game. Why are there no continues? Why is this option not even considered? Why is it considered good game design to allow this type of thing into games of any kind? This is an example of how to make a game that is initially quite difficult harder than it needs to be and yet also one that makes a game that COULD be really good really frustrating instead. Having a continue screen would have been perfect. I mean, by all means serve the player a penalty for their bad driving. They shouldn’t have come fourth in the first place, how dare they. That’s atrocious. Bad gamer. BAD. But to punish them without even giving them a chance to redeem themselves is just cruel. It’s either intentionally lazy and poor game design (in which SHAME ON YOU) or unintentional because they really didn’t think that far ahead (in which case SHAME ON YOU).

Seriously. That’s inexcusable either way. BAH. SHAME ON YOU.

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The problem that plagues Combat Cars is that there’s so much that it COULD have gotten right and so much that they DID get right that it feels unfair to call it a bad game. It’s NOT a bad game. It’s fun to play. The 2-player mode is very welcome, in particular, and the game zips along at a really good pace throughout. You do get a really good feeling of speed all of the way through and there’s enough here to make it potentially very good.

And that’s the problem: POTENTIALLY very good. As such, it isn’t. The presentation is lacklustre throughout, there’s not ENOUGH difference between the cars to really make them stand out from each other (AND THREE OF THEM ARE FUCKING YELLOW. GIVE OVER, GUYS). The track designs are odd. They actually aren’t even tracks. They don’t loop around and are basically four ‘laps’ of the same layout… I can’t describe it very well… well I can. Imagine a rally game where the cars go round a mountain track. Now imagine doing the EXACT SAME RIDE four times… like you’re teleported right back to the start of that track as you cross the line. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

Basically, what we’re looking at here is an almost good game. It needed some reasoning behind it, a bit more fire in its presentation, a levelling of the playing field between the characters (FUCKING ANDREW, WILL YOU STOP FIRING MISSILES BEFORE I SET ZANGIEF ON YOU), and a bit more OOMPH in general. If these are supposed to be aliens and cyborgs, could we not have gone to town on the designs a bit more?

“HOW DO WE DO ALIEN CHARACTERS?”
“MAKE HIM GREEN.”
“THAT IS A GOOD IDEA.”
“AND MOVE HIS EARS UP A BIT MORE.”
“THIS IS ALSO A GOOD IDEA.”
“AND GIVE HIM THE HAIR OF A 90s ICT STUDENT.”
“YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR.”

Poor Andrew.

Ah fuck it. Poor my ass, he’s got fucking missiles. What do you have? GLUE? Ooh. You’re going to win THIS race then.

Pffft.

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