I've been a fan of demolition derbies since I was a small child. Let's face it: Watching cars crash into each other is just plain fun, and it really seems like a natural topic for a video game. While several games have claimed to be destruction-derby games, they're really just racing games with a different scoring model and visible car damage.
Games like Destruction Derby and Destruction Derby 2 placed far too much emphasis on causing the opposing cars to spin. It was the only real way to score any points, and it pretty much sucked the fun out of the game. Head-on collisions just damaged your car way too much and had little or no payoff. So you aimed for the fenders of the other cars. Demolition Racer uses a slightly more realistic scoring system. So you'll earn points for most collisions, as well as specialty scores for setting a car on fire, knocking a car out of the race, and landing on other cars. However, the scoring detection is a bit off. You really need to make hits with the front (or back, if you're going in reverse) of your car. Controlled fishtails that smack your opponents with the rear fender of your car are worthless. Also, the game seems to miss a lot of hits, especially in multicar pileups, robbing you of potential points. Your car's damage is rendered on a simple meter that goes from 100 down to zero. While certain hits may do more damage to your vehicle, area-specific damage doesn't really occur.
Much like its brethren, Demolition Racer is broken up into two main types of events. You'll find the meat of the game on actual racetracks, where you'll battle it out for three laps against fifteen other cars. Winning these races requires a delicate balance of speed and brutality. You must damage other cars to score, but you must also finish near the top of the pack, because the earlier you finish, the greater your score is multiplied. The other races are arena battles, which are won solely on how much damage you can cause to the rest of the cars. There are a few variants on these two basic race types - such as chicken mode, the chase, and suicide.The control in Demolition Racer is smoother and cleaner than that of previous derby games. The Dual Shock controller works extremely well here - with the left stick used for steering and the right for accelerating and braking. Since the car only has two real options (forward and reverse), this is one of the few instances where using the right stick for both gas and brake works really well.
Graphically, Demolition Racer does a lot of things right. It's got a very smooth frame rate, and the car models look nice, take damage well, and have lots of nice fire and smoke effects. But all this graphical sheen comes at a cost. Because of clipping problems on a couple levels, you'll see cars and sections of track through walls. A wider camera option would have been nice in the arena levels, since when you take shots from the side, you're frequently just bouncing around without seeing what is actually hitting you. Bands like Fear Factory and Cirrus populate the soundtrack, and the game does a decent job of providing collision and engine noises.
If you've played Destruction Derby, you've played Demolition Racer. While DR is a better game, it would have been nice to see a more realistic scoring system that took things like radiator shots and driver's side-door hits (a big no-no in real derbies) into account. It's a solid, fun game, but it lacks any real originality.