The first time you start a race in Gas Guzzlers, you'll be in a crappy car, behind AI opponents in much better cars, and you'll lose. Boy oh boy, will you lose. But it's OK, because even when you lose, you still earn money to be able to slowly upgrade your car and take on the big boys, right? Wrong. You don't earn a dime, except by picking up money bonuses scattered at points on the racetracks. But even if you do that, every single upgrade in the garage is locked to you, making it frustratingly difficult to make any progress through the game. You play the same race over, and over, and over--never finishing above fourth or fifth and never getting anywhere near being able to even move on to the next track in the campaign, much less a different game mode.
This is lousy design. Slow progression isn't necessarily a bad thing, particular in a realistic racing simulation like Gran Turismo (though even that series allows you to earn money and buy new cars at the beginning). But for a game that bills itself as a fun, arcade-ish, combat racing title, it's unacceptable. Unlocking the combat portion, which is billed in the title, is infuriatingly difficult. Gas Guzzlers' problems are compounded by the lack of clear explanation as to what does what when you play. There’s a button, for example, to ignite your car’s turbo booster, but no explanation as to what charges the booster (turns out that crashing into things does it). You also have two weapons buttons, although it's never made clear which weapons fire forward and which fire backward, or what the specific effect on the other cars is. Trial and error doesn't help much, because AI opponents can recover almost instantaneously from land mine hits, explosions, and even head-on collisions. You, of course, don't get any such molly coddling.
If you'd like to try to level the playing field a bit by going online, good luck to you. The few servers you'll find are always empty or nearly so, and never have anyone in them who want to start a race. Other game modes, too, offer no respite, as they remain locked to you until you manage to struggle past a gauntlet of necessary unlocks. This unlocking process is grind-y and frustrating, and takes all the fun out of what’s otherwise a fairly good racing mechanic.
See, in spite of all its shortcomings, Gas Guzzlers' races do a good job of balancing a semblance of realism with plenty of over-the-top drifting, spins, gunplay, and general insanity. Although the game doesn't give you much help with anything like a rubberbanding mechanic (players falling behind the pack aren't artificially sped up to stay competitive), you use an assortment of guns and missiles to temporarily knock out people ahead of you and gain ground. While these moments are rare and difficult to achieve, combat and other little things do spice up the gameplay.
That’s the real tragedy here: Gas Guzzlers has plenty of content and personality. It has tons of car customization options, weapon loadouts, and a decent number of vehicles and tracks. But like an acquaintance who suffers from terrible social anxiety, the game does everything in its power to keep you from getting to what's underneath. When things are going right for you, Gas Guzzlers offers edge-of-your-seat excitement, because you don't want to suffer the frustration of starting all over again. Getting knocked into a wall or getting hit by a weapon even once can be unrecoverable in a race, so you are always putting your best foot forward. And, once you've got them mapped right, controls are responsive, tracks feel realistic (you slide around a lot more in dirt than in asphalt, for example), and blowing stuff up is satisfying.
Still, some obvious features of an arcade racer game are clearly missing. Since the tracks are both short and linear, you'd think there'd be multiple pathways, shortcuts or secret areas, but you'd be wronger than ketchup on a hot dog. While Gas Guzzlers' tracks do have some branches, taking them has little effect on your position in a race. Games like Split/Second and Need for Speed: Shift offer tracks that reward you for taking risks or using your imagination. No such luck here.
Indeed, taking turns properly, drifting around corners, or even ramming small obstacles like palmetto trees and barrels have little effect on your position in a race. The primary influencers appear to be luck (you have to hope that the leaders take each other out), and constantly keeping the accelerator depressed to maximum no matter what. This may prove more difficult than you think, however, because Gas Guzzlers has a habit of resetting your controls to the defaults despite your painstaking re-mapping of them. The game doesn't recognize an Xbox 360 controller or a PlayStation 3 controller by default, even if you’ve got the proper drivers installed on your PC. This means you’ve got to map the controller buttons yourself, which leads to some jury rigging to get things working properly.
Gas Guzzlers does some things right, but the whole deal ends up feeling decidedly under par. Graphics are only fair, music is canned and looped, and the voice samples are poor. But beyond its mediocre production values is a wobbly foundation, and that's ultimately Gas Guzzlers' insurmountable flaw. The extreme difficulty in unlocking new content is a fatal failing, because it keeps the game frustrating and fails to reward players for hard work. That ain't how the West was won, partner, no matter how much gas you might be able to drink.