Vehicular combat was popularized in such games as Twisted Metal and Vigilante 8 and has seen some spectacular recent efforts. Racing around an interactive environment, collecting weaponry, and blowing up the opposition blend the worlds of driving and combat in a way that gamers have come to appreciate as a game type all its own. Cel Damage offers fans of motorized mayhem a new alternative: a deathmatch-style game in which cars (and their drivers) can be blown up, disintegrated, or cleaved in two, only to respawn a second later, ready to plow back into the fray. Infinite lives and lots of frags is the name of the game in this attractive, cel-shaded shooter on four wheels, but while Cel Damage does attempt to make strides in an established video game segment with a distinct flavor and a new approach, its core gameplay falls rather flat.
Without a doubt, Cel Damage's visuals are its strongest trait, and they amount to an enticing experience. The characters, their vehicles, and the interactive landscapes are all well drawn and nicely animated--so much so that you might think you're playing a real-time cartoon. The cel-shaded style perhaps fits Cel Damage better than during any previous usage--the characters and their vehicles fit into the world seamlessly, and everything in the world animates fluidly. Comical introductory movies give you the chance to get to know the cast of characters, each of which is most assuredly easy on the eyes. There are six characters to begin with, including an Elvis-impersonating construction worker, a duck frozen in time as a tommy-gun-toting '30s mobster, and the consummate bespectacled nerd, or, rather, boy genius for the politically correct. Completing the game's challenges will unlock the four boss characters, who have their own vehicles and specialized weaponry. It's a shame that you have only four different landscapes--the desert, jungle, Transylvania, and space--to choose from, because it would have been very interesting to see what the artists could have done with any number of other environment types. In fact, one can safely say that after only a handful of hours, you'll have seen and heard everything that Cel Damage has to offer. Across each of the different levels, you can take in the nearly Warner Bros. feel and admire the details, like boulders that can be destroyed and then erupt into clouds of smoke or space fungi that chime as they act as pinballesque bumpers, each sending you careening into another. The sheer number of things going on at once, while always maintaining a speedy frame rate, is indeed impressive. Taking a cue from Unreal Tournament, each character possesses a number of scathing death and kill messages, which are pretty funny at first but, like much of the game, age quickly. Overall, the sound effects and music are simply passable, but they don't draw you in as much as the excellent artistic style and comical animation do.
Each character is outfitted with a mediocre default weapon--similar to the initial gun in many PC first person shooters--which is essentially useless. Firing at two battling CPU opponents with the basic ranged attack will serve only in getting you blown up or sliced in half, so it's best to always race for the power-ups, or, rather, that map's most powerful power-up in particular. Aside from your character's personal weaponry, there are a number of weapons littered across the various maps, although any one map never features more than three or four. In the first map of Babblin' 5, for example, you are limited to a special power-up, the baseball bat, and grenades. Each of the game's 36 weapons has its own uses, but from what we've seen, some are grossly overpowered in comparison with others. The ax and chainsaw in particular are one-hit kill weapons and thus extremely unbalanced in nature. The special weaponry employed by each character is likewise capable of dealing out instant death, although some are inherently easier to use than others. Matches in Cel Damage often become extremely repetitive races to pick up the "good weapon," and the only challenge becomes how many opponents you can slice in half before someone else gets you. Some of the weapons and their uses have considerably more depth to them, particularly those projectiles that immobilize opponents, but in practice against the punishing AI and combined with your inability to hold more than a single weapon at a time, much of the strategy that forms the core of vehicular combat games is eliminated. The driving aspect of Cel Damage is intuitive--you use the right and left triggers to accelerate and brake/reverse. Performing quick 180 degree turns is a cinch, although precise maneuvering is almost impossible at times due to the exaggerated physics.
There are three modes of play--deathmatch, or smack attack, is the only one available at first, but you can pretty quickly unlock the gate relay and flag rally modes. Smack attack is a race to a set number of smacks, which you are rewarded for hitting your opponents with weaponry. Destroying them entirely garners you a much larger number, so it's best to race for the more powerful weapons and cut a swathe through as many toons as possible. Gate relay is a back-and-forth race through two checkpoint markers, similar to the shuttle run required for physical education in elementary school--and almost as grueling. The flag rally mode is similar to capture the flag, except it's every toon for himself or herself, with a central zone that all players will be trying to reach for to score. There is no designated single-player game or story mode--instead, you can play these three game modes against a full cast of bots or three other players and attempt to clear the three games in all 12 stages, earning the chance to play as the four boss characters, as well as the ability to swap personal weapons between characters. The AI is particularly punishing and always provides a nearly frustrating challenge. If so inclined to continue playing Cel Damage, unlocking all the game has to offer can provide the prospective player with quite the lengthy diversion.
When four players get together, it can be fun for a short while, since you are all experiencing the same enticing visuals and can enjoy the comic value that certain aspects of Cel Damage have to offer. The addition of bots to the multiplayer game ensures that the amusing cast is always well represented and that the game's smooth frame rate never bogs down, even in the four-way split-screen mode. Despite this, many players won't be able to tolerate the single-button mash play style, as well as the repetitive nature of the entire game experience. Getting into the single-player mode is quite tedious, however, as the game's combination of a simplistic control scheme with an overly difficult CPU can often lead to frustration. GameCube owners who have gotten their fill of the rest of the current lineup may want to try out Cel Damage to satisfy their needs--some may find it fun even as a brief diversion. Cel Damage is quite an amazing bit of eye candy, but it's a real shame that the game behind the pretty graphics just doesn't hold up.