Revisit those thrilling days of yesteryear in Remedy Entertainment's Death Rally, a remake of the company's fondly remembered top-down arcade racer from 1996. Unfortunately, it takes less time than you can think "Wow, that's from way back when we still played PC games in DOS!" before you realize that this reboot--which first arrived on iOS and Android platforms last year--is a reject. Simplistic controls, grinding gameplay, and a dull career mode make for a sleepy racer that isn't worth even the $10 price tag.
Basic gameplay is in the same ballpark as the original Death Rally. You drive a car through murderous races set in various vaguely postapocalyptic wastelands, shooting boxes that contain various power-ups like nitro speed boosts, extra ammo, and cash, all while blasting away at enemies. The goal is to either beat the baddies to the finish line in races, killing them in the process or simply roaring past them, or to blow them all up early and often in deathmatches. Solo play and multiplayer are supported, although there doesn't seem to be a big audience playing online at present. And that's pretty much it. Virtually everything beyond these core elements of the game has only been roughed in, as if you're playing a test concept demo.
Career mode is weak. You start off abruptly in a deathmatch-style race where you're told to escape from the cops, which leads you to believe that you can win this race. But you can't. That's confusing enough, but then Tex--a George Lucas doppelganger--steps out of the lead cop car and immediately orders you to compete in an underground Death Rally circuit. There you must beat and kill bad guys in races and face off against some Speed Racer-looking dude called the Adversary when he shows up.
It's all baffling. Why exactly the evil cops are going after this guy is a complete mystery, and there is no set progression through the campaign from race to race. There is a whole roster of bad guys, too, although none are given any personality beyond goofy names like Randy Wreck and less-than-inventive catchphrases such as "You drive like a maniac!" and the always entertaining "Shut up!" (Depressingly, these lines are the most memorable sound effects in the entire game, and that's solely because they are so aggravating.)
At first, this Southern-sheriff punishment sounds better than breaking rocks in the hot sun down Georgia way. It soon turns out that you might want to swap places with Cool Hand Luke, though. Vehicle controls are sloppy and uninvolving. The game is just about unplayable with the default keyboard setup; it's tough to handle cars through corners. Even using a gamepad feels mushy and distant. It doesn't help matters that acceleration is handled with the left stick instead of buttons or the triggers. Racing feels removed, more like you're riding shotgun than sitting behind the wheel. Even firing your default main gun is automatic whenever an enemy or a power-up-containing box is lined up in your sights.
Variety is sorely lacking. Races are quick, uninteresting loops around boring urban and rural terrain. You get the odd spicy moment when a mysterious stranger offers to sabotage enemies for half of your winnings, when you get to drive one of the high-powered cars for a single race for some cash, or when one of the villains challenges you to a race. But these little things just lead to running the same old regular race that you normally would. Visuals are fairly good but are lacking in fine detail and are plagued by problems such as the "name" rival in every race always getting his photo onscreen beside his car, which blocks out part of the track.
The camera work isn't great, either. The default view is just high enough to obscure corners in some circuits, while the lower chase camera swivels around so much that you just might be getting a second look at that omelet you had for breakfast before you cross the finish line. The big highlights are dirt and ice, which make your car spin out more than normal on turns. Even with these thrilling additions to the repertoire, there is nothing memorable about any of the tracks featured here. Unlike in better arcade racers, tracks don't have defining features--you never remember a desert loop as "the one with that killer curve" or an arctic one with "that crazy ice cliff." All of the tracks are as forgettable as porridge, aside from maybe the jungle one where you race over crashed aircraft.
Tracks also feel jammed together. Turns are so close that you don't have much chance to get up a good head of steam. As a result, the sense of speed so necessary to a good arcade racer is almost completely MIA. You can get a bit of a rush with smart applications of the nitro boost, but that's it. Carnage is also hard to find. While a game where you mount cannons atop your hood should offer lots of bloody excitement, blowing up opponents can be quite frustrating. Most enemy cars are incredibly resistant to damage from your wimpy default gun, and your special, more powerful weapons come with small amounts of ammunition. You get maybe a half-dozen blasts with your shotgun or Gatling gun, for instance, before coming up with empty clicks whenever you hit the fire button.
Progression through the game when playing either career mode or single races is nothing more than a big grind. You spend a ton of time racing over and over again on the same handful of sleep-inducing tracks, slowly building your fame and taking forever to unlock something new like a track or a car or even a weapon. There is a thin layer of role-playing-lite career progression in that you collect parts during races to unlock new rides and new weapons. They are either scattered randomly or earned through kills. But it takes forever to get anywhere. Cars and weapons have to be built one part at a time, and you generally collect no more than one or two parts per race toward some piece of hardware that needs 15 or 25 or more parts to be fully assembled. You'll be racing a good long while before you're driving the souped-up Wraith or Interceptor, for instance.
Even worse, you have to blow all of your winnings right after each race. You either dump every cent into immediate car repairs and buffs to key components like speed, armor, handling, and weapons, or lose it. No trips to the local ATM for you. The game actually rubs it in with a vacuum-like sound effect that plays when your cash is sucked up for absolutely nothing if you've maxed out the available upgrades and can't spend any more. Cash lost this way winds up boosting your fame score, which apparently helps move the story along in some fashion as you level up and earn ranks. Still, having to wrap every race penniless kills any chance to strategize, since you can't save up to buy the Gatling gun of your dreams or a killer new car.
Arcade racers generally need to have an on-the-edge atmosphere where death can come at any moment via bullet or screwing up a turn. This new take on Death Rally, however, is more like riding with Miss Daisy, a genteel, distant driver as intense as a late-night cup of chamomile tea. There are just too many flaws here, with the flimsy controls, dreary tracks, and eternal grinding, for even the most desperate arcade gearhead to get anything out of this game.