If there's anything to be learned from a game like Wreckfest, it's that thrashing around old bangers, running opponents into concrete barriers, and threading the needle between a group of crashing cars can, even in 2018, be brilliantly fun. After a four-year stint in Steam's early access, Wreckfest has hit the track with surprising confidence. Showing off its impressive soft-body collision system that lets colliding cars twist and crush with brutal realism and some fierce AI, every event is brimming with satisfaction. Wreckfest succeeds where it matters, becoming one of the most surprising and gratifying racing games of the year.
Wreckfest's career mode is made up of five different championships, each consisting of various events--from multi-race championships to one-off demolition derbys--that each gradually unlock as you gain XP and increase your driver level. In addition to XP, rewards are doled out regularly in the form of performance parts along with credits to buy new cars and parts with, so even a poor finish, which will happen, never feels like wasted time.
Most career events are a simple race to the finish where you'll have a handful of laps to hunt down the opposition and score as good a position as possible, giving you a chance to serve up mayhem while slicing through the field. Race starts are a gorgeous, chaotic mess that can feel like running a gauntlet as cars jostle and barge for position. They're also where the game's marquee destruction engine shows off its capabilities as cars fly off the course through wooden fences and tire barriers, sending debris scattering into the air and across the road. It can be spectacular to watch from a distance when tailing a pack of cars or during a replay, but equally brutal when you're the one involved in it.
Other event types include demolition derbys, where you try to turn your opponents' cars into cubes of twisted steel by smashing into them as hard as you can, and elimination-style heat races that normally take place on a closed figure eight track or an oval. There's also the occasional lawnmower derby, which shows off the game's slightly twisted sense of humor. Each mode not only offers some variety in destruction but is also visually spectacular in its own right. Landing a perfectly timed swipe that puts an opponent into the path of an oncoming car and watching the resulting destruction behind you looks just as great as slamming a school bus into a pack of Minis.
Damage in Wreckfest has two settings: normal and realistic. On normal, you and your opponents can survive more than your fair share of hard hits, making heavy impacts much more forgiving. But with realistic conditions, things get a lot tougher and a bit more spectacular too. Longer races become tests of survival, as all it takes is one bad collision to put a car out of contention (or at least change how it handles). A bad landing off a jump could destroy your suspension and send you into a wall of concrete that shatters spectacularly upon impact, and that's your race done. There's no rewinding time to fix your mistakes, either; you'll need to restart the race if it all goes south. But while this kind of repetition would normally be grating, the act of racing is so good that it takes the edge off.
When you do manage to escape the chaos and settle into a good driving rhythm, Wreckfest shows off some wonderful driving physics. The transition between different road surfaces is sublime, and regardless of whether you're driving with a top-of-the-line racing wheel or a gamepad, the sensation of sliding around a corner, catching the rear end, and gassing it all the way out feels superb. Tires slip and slide through the dirt but scream for grip on the tarmac, and you can almost feel them flexing as the car rolls through the corners.
Each type of car, from the hulking school bus all the way down to the miniature two-door Killerbee, feels different to drive. Some are heavier and more sluggish, while others are lighter and can corner better but suffer more in collisions. Upgrades to vehicles can substantially alter the handling, whether it's through better performance or a stronger chassis that's better at taking damage. Although having no way of saving upgrade sets can result in some minor headaches when optimising for each event type, overall it's a meaningful upgrade system with tangible effects on the already diverse feel of racing.
AI drivers race unapologetically no matter the scenario or difficulty level, unafraid to punt you off the road if they decide they want to get past or smashing into to you head first in an effort to take you out. If competing against AI isn't your bag, you can take it online and race against others on dedicated servers or set up your own custom race server with your own rules, and it all works smoothly.
It's rare when a racing game manages to modernize and reinvigorate an old formula with spectacular confidence, but Wreckfest does just that.
Compared to the dynamic gameplay, Wreckfest's user experience is a bit frustrating. The UI is surprisingly bland for such a technically impressive game, with static menus and a heavy rock soundtrack that's obnoxious enough to warrant immediately turning the music off. With that out of the way, you can more fully appreciate the game's excellent sound effects. Throaty engines belch and roar loudly--except for the lawnmower, which sounds like thousands of angry mosquitos--and crash sounds are impactful and bone-crunching. Equally as good are the game's visuals. The cars themselves, while all old, banged-up muscle cars, look suitably mean and ready for thrashing. Debris stays on the track over the course of a race, as do the littered remains of cars that don't make the distance. Heat races show off the course at different times of day, with the later heats often taking place as the sun starts to set and rays of sunlight pour through the gaps in the grandstands and trees. Replays give you the chance to relive your best moments, although the lack of a rewind function makes it a pain to focus in on specifics, forcing you to restart the replay from the beginning.
It's rare when a racing game manages to modernize and reinvigorate an old formula with spectacular confidence, but Wreckfest does just that. Minor issues with menus and its soundtrack aside, it wows with a gorgeous look and wonderful driving feel, along with a damage system that satisfies in the most brutal of fashions. With its array of different cars, tracks, and event types, Wreckfest is a brilliantly fun and frenetic racing game that can be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone, not just racing game fans.