Saturday, February 2, 2008

kill car

I don't remember when my childhood brain first conceived of a post- apocalyptic world. I do recall being afraid of mutual nuclear devastation as a 7-8 year old, and my parents' intense negative reaction to Reagan's "Star Wars" defense initiative only heightened this anxiety. Somewhat interestingly, my primary emotion (at least if you go by my pre- pubertal journal entries) was one of disappointment in the human race. I felt that we didn't really deserve to live alongside the peace-loving kitties, fireflies and narwhals.

But at some point I began to see the creative possibilities in the post- apocalyptic landscape. My obsession with fantastic, Tolkein-esque worlds was fundamentally rooted in a desire to move backward in time, away from the cruelty and complexity of the modern age. Nothing was more satisfying to me than imagining myself as Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising or Bastian in The Neverending Story saving the world from some vague evil force, which nearly always represented the negative aspects of modern culture and industrialization. Responsibility to parents/school/civilization evaporated, providing an exhilarating and addictive freedom (which I still enjoy, by the way, every time I read a good otherworldly novel).

Post-apocalypta, it turned out, could also offer me this lease from responsibility - and perhaps more satisfyingly, the probability of these worlds emerging was actually above zero. After all, no matter how badly I wanted it, I could never actually live in Terry Brook's Shannara. But the world of Mad Max was feasible; one day soon, I could be Feral Kid!

Vehicular combat: early history

It all began (for me) with the Commodore 64 classic, Wasteland. Released in 1988, I was 15 years old and ripe for a darker and more cynical imaginary realm. [BTW, this was when games came on actual 8-inch floppy disks and my C64 drive was starting to make noises like a broken blender. Wasteland basically broke my computer and I never even got to finish the game. I'm still bitter about this.] Wasteland was a role-playing-game (RPG) set in a gritty post-apocalyptic world. You built a character, sent them out into the wasteland to battle mutants and biker-gangs, collect new weapons and develop skills, and proceed through the story. It was devastatingly hard. Rarely are modern games designed so that your character will die repeatedly in combat, just to emphasize the danger of the environment. But when you wandered the wasteland, you took no chances. The screenshot here still sets off a host of negative emotions, including fear and frustration; these fucking radioactive rats killed me at least a thousand times.

Wasteland spawned another RPG classic, Fallout (1997), which some of you may recognize (and FYI, Fallout 3 will be released this year by Bethesda). And of course there was Mad Max, and The Stand, and an innumerable number of sci-fi stories that I began to consume with great joy. Ultimately, what appealed to me the most from these alternate realities (and trust me, I liked it all: the radiation, the mutants, the punk hairstyles, the shotguns, everything) was the very real and dangerous possibility of vehicular combat. Strapping on a flame-thrower to your souped-up frankenstein of an Interceptor and riding out into the wasteland to find more gas - so that you could drive around some more, kill mutants, save women from being raped, and find more gas.

Modern cultural manifestations of vehicular combat owe a great deal to this memorable sequence from Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior (1981):

Pure awesome. The original Mad Max (1979) set up a frighteningly realistic post-apocalyptic landscape in which the collapse of civilization (left mostly unexplained) is still in progress. Max is a a police officer, and has a nice house, with beatific wife and angelic child. But by the Road Warrior, Max has become much more nihilistic and self-serving, and basically hires out his significant driving/fighting abilities for resources. And, of course, the plot centers around a tanker full of gas.

Oddly enough, it would take programmers a significant amount of time to successfully translate the visceral experience of vehicular combat into a video/computer game. There are several early instantiations of this concept (see this Wiki entry for a nice list), but the modern history of car combat gaming begins with two titles: Twisted Metal (1995) and Carmageddon (1997). I'll actually start with the latter. Advertised as "the racing game for the chemically imbalanced," Carmageddon broke some of the previously established rules within the car-racing genre: first, running into other cars is bad (remember Pole Position?), second, pedestrians don't exist. Not only did Carmageddon introduce pedestrians, it encouraged you to run over them as they provided a significant point bonus. This concept is hardly shocking to our modern Grand Theft Auto psyche, but it certainly caused problems for Interplay when the game was released - enough so that in some countries, the pedestrians were replaced with zombies or robots (as "killing" the undead or automata is considered to be less morally repugnant - an interesting topic for discussion if there ever was one).

Carmageddon was based upon a cult movie classic, Death Race 2000 (1975), which Aili and I recently watched . We both strongly recommend it. Starring David Carradine (fresh off his Kung Fu success), Sylvester Stallone (who sadly demonstrates a broader acting range than in most of his later movies), and Mary Woronov (of Andy Warhol's Factory), the plot centers around a transcontinental race that takes place within a vaguely dystopian absurdly-futuristic America. The five racers compete to get from New York to Los Angeles, and score points for running over people along the way. Here's the breakdown:
  • Male adult: 20
  • Male teenager: 40
  • Male infant/toddler: 70
  • Female (any age): 10 more than men in any age bracket
  • Senior citizen (regardless of gender): 100
As I said, strongly recommended.

Twisted Metal

But the fact of the matter was that Carmageddon, the game itself, mostly sucked. I played it when it came out for maybe 10 minutes and quickly got bored. In contrast, Twisted Metal had some real potential. The success of the original Playstation title spawned a series of sequels, and many gaming connoisseurs consider Twisted Metal 2: World Tour (1996) to be the height of the series and a true Playstation classic.

The gist of the game is relatively straightforward: a mad genius known as Calypso is hosting a vehicular combat tournament, promising to grant the winner a single wish. The contestants include a very large black man mysteriously imprisoned in a massive 2-wheel contraption (Axel), a female cop (Outlaw 2), and a Ghostrider rip-off (Mr. Grimm). However, the series' posterchild quickly became Sweet Tooth, a psychotic clown with flaming head who drove an ice cream truck.

Twisted Metal established some of the fundamental principles of the genre:

1. There should be multiple vehicles, each with different tactical attributes. Nearly always, vehicles are defined by 3 characteristics: a) speed, b) armor, and c) firepower. The relative weight of these characteristics defines a particular vehicle. Axel's 2-wheel contraption (shown in the left screenshot above), for example, had terribly low armor - you really couldn't afford to get hit very much. To make up for this, his speed and maneuverability were high and his weapons were quite devastating.

2. The environment(s) should both provide a limited combat arena (you can't drive off in one direction forever), and interesting interactive possibilities. Without the latter, you simply have a demolition derby.

3. There should be powerups. Health/repair icons, minimally. Energy shields. Maybe even something to temporarily boost speed. But most importantly, special weapons. For instance, Axel could pick up a Shockwave weapon which when detonated damaged opposing vehicles to differing degrees depending on their proximity. Its potential as both offensive and defensive weapon, as well as the visceral satisfaction of its use, made it a crowd favorite.

I played TM2 for the first time at RAW's apartment, and even though the PC version was crappier and some of the maps were too large or poorly designed, I was completely drawn into the action of the game. For the first time, I was getting to act out, in real time, my desire to strap on missiles to a vehicle and blow the shit out of other cars.

Vigilante 8

The next stage in the evolution of the genre came with the introduction of Vigilante 8 (V8) in 1998. In my mind, this is still the pinnacle of vehicular combat games. It took the basic design of Twisted Metal and improved nearly every aspect. The graphics were significantly better. The maps possessed a more complex and intelligent design. Certain aspects of the environment were destructible, sometimes for strategic benefit. But most importantly, the vehicles were impressively balanced and the combat absolutely thrilling.

I can't tell you how much we played this game in graduate school. It's disgusting. I'd have probably been able to publish another paper or two if this (and Half-Life) hadn't been around. But it was worth it. The creativity was astounding: one of the characters (left screenshot above) was Molo, a retarded school-bus driver who's special weapon was a devastating black smoke that poured out of the exhaust. If you could get your enemies to chase you and unleash that attack, they'd first stall and then explode within a few seconds. I saw BD win maps with 12 opponents in under 5 minutes with this guy. Fucking crazy. Another character, Beezwax, would release a torrent of killer bees to bounce your car to death. And John Torque, in sublime blaxploitation style, would remind you to "Always bet on black" after clearing out a map.

In addition to a rarely used machine gun, five main weapons were available to all characters/vehicles: mines, a mortar, a turret cannon, guided (blue) missiles, and interceptor (red) missiles. The red missiles, in particular, could really mess someone up. While driving (for real) in Santa Barbara, BD and I used to regularly have the hallucinatory experience of "feeling" red missiles attached to our car, and wanting to press the B-button to blow the hell out of an offending BMW or Mercedes in front of us. Depending on your socio-cultural opinion of video games, this will either make you laugh or make you really really scared. There was a sequel of course, Vigilante 8: Second Offense, released for both Playstation and Dreamcast. The Dreamcast version touted even smoother graphics, but I found the driving physics to be disappointingly slow and consequently barely played the game.

Demolition Racer: No Exit

These were the days when AF had figured out how to mod the Dreamcast to allow for ripped copies of games. We were regularly renting and copying, occasionally discovering jewels amidst the vast miasma of mediocre titles. One such jewel was Demolition Racer: No Exit.

I won't claim that DR is a classic in the vein of TM or V8, but it certainly achieved its own level of greatness within our household. Unlike its predecessors, DR eschewed weaponized combat to place greater emphasis on racing. At first, I remember, we were extremely disappointed with this. It seemed to defy one of the basic principles of vehicular combat. And yet, DR was (is) an extraordinary game. The speed of play was ramped up. You were still strongly encouraged to attack your competitors by ramming them whenever possible. The more damage you did, the more points you received. You received big scores for...
  1. hitting a car so hard it started an engine fire
  2. destroying them (and receiving a satisfying "Kill Car" message)
  3. hitting them at a 90-degree angle (called a "T-Bone"; see right screenshot above)
  4. landing on top of the offending car, instantly destroying them with a "Death from Above"
Powerups were spread throughout the course, and you needed to become proficient at picking them up without significantly reducing your speed or deviating off course. There was a great deal of unlockable content that kept us playing for many months. And, of course, there was the constant battle over high scores.

When it came to V8, in all honesty, I'd put my skills and BD's at about an equal par. I mean, we both just kicked that game's ass. But when it came to DR, nobody - and I mean, nobody - could beat BD. He could get 3 Death-from-Aboves in the same race. He knew the location of every powerup. He knew the exact speed and angle you needed to get a T-Bone, at any particular turn. This is domain-specific knowledge, my friends, and knowledge with no real appreciable value.

The present

Sadly, we're nearing the end to our story. The genre of vehicular combat, both within film and games, is in limbo. A couple years ago, NCSoft released a massively, multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Auto Assault, which focused almost entirely on vehicular combat. The idea of it sounded absolutely awesome. I avoid MMORPG's like the plague, for both monetary reasons and because I don't find the principle of a level-grind particularly appealing, but this one almost won me over. Imagine a game where you get to design your own car, build it from the ground up, and take it out into a well-developed wasteland where there are 1000's of other players - all forming gangs and guilds. Perfect, right? Well, it was released with lots of bugs, and never generated the necessary player-base to justify continued support and development. As of August of last year, the plug was officially pulled on Auto Assault, a mere one year after its introduction. As far as I know, there's nothing similar in the works and I have yet to see a new, ground-breaking vehicular combat game for the new generation of consoles.


  1. what timing Haz!

    i walked through a tube corridor today that had five or six posters up for "Burnout: Paradise City". of course when i got home i read reviews of it, and Gamespot gives it a 9/10. the cars do not have weapons, but unlike V8 and DR, you are encouraged to take out the "civilians" in Paradise City.

    here's the review:

    it came out in the US two weeks ago. i'm not going to buy a system in the UK right now since i might not be able to use it for long, but this game might be just what i need to turn my life around.

    i don't remember that i was better than you or AF at DR, but i have to take issue with your claim that we were evenly matched at V8. we were both world-class, but i would have red-missiled your ass into oblivion.

  2. Sure enough, "Burnout: Paradise City" is garnering excellent reviews. But after reading about it a bit, it doesn't really qualify as a vehicular combat game: it's racing through and through. It's like Gran Turismo on steroids. The "Road Rage" mode sounds cool, and apparently it models crashes really well, but I don't get the sense that it emphasizes vehicle-vehicle combat. If it doesn't have red missiles, I don't give a fuck about it.

    Too bad we can't set up an online V8 tournament. You can play Chasey and I'll take Dave - UFO city.