The Carmageddon series is famous for the controversy around its violent premise: the player is rewarded for running over pedestrians. Yes, the ruthless glee in which Carmageddon’s protagonist Max Damage goes about his bloodthirsty work makes Niko Belic look like a kindly charity worker. But behind the headlines and gross sense of humour, Carmageddon has a number of hugely influential features underneath its hood that helped it taint a generation of gamers, myself included.
Technically speaking, Carmageddon games are racing games, but reaching checkpoints the quickest is not the only way to win. ’Wasting’ all your opponents is another, more amusing way to win a race. Each course takes place in a huge, free-to-roam landscape, which at the time seemed remarkably open and life-like. With very little chance of any of your opponents actually completing all the laps, the player is encouraged to explore, crash, and play around with the physics engine and replay editor. With all the silly power-ups and game world modifiers you could possibly want, and generous timer bonuses for hitting pedestrians/animals/zombies or performing ’cunning stunts’, Carmageddon is just as much a sandbox stunt game as it is a racing game. This playful sense of fun and experimentation opened my (and many other people’s) eyes as to what could be possible within a video game world, and the series’ influence is still evident in titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Burnout Paradise.
When I got my copy of Carmageddon II, the expansive, death-race world was populated not with pedestrians, but shuffling, green-blooded zombies. UK censorship laws had deemed it fit for release only if all red blood was replaced with green and not only humans, but also all animals were replaced with their zombie counterparts. Bizarre, but in retrospect, what might seem a slightly superficial change introduced a fantasy setting and made the game quite a lot less sick, but no less funny. Sure, by modern standards these humanoid figures don’t appear very realistic, but jointed limbs and ahead-of its-time ragdoll animations implied realism. Some of their spectacular deaths were shocking; you don’t just hit zombies — they get stuck under you bumper, their detached limbs scatter, and their blood is strewn across the track. I’m glad pedestrians were replaced by zombies, because through this unlikely alteration Carmageddon may have been my first introduction to the ultimate big-screen monster: the zombie. A patch was available for download to turn them back into humans with red blood, but what can I say? I got attached to zombies.
A floaty physics engine, manic computer-controlled opponents and the zombie hordes made racing in the Carmageddon world entertaining enough, but it was the physics-defying power-ups that really added another level to the chaos and provided the most memorable moments for me. The zombie repulsifyer just did not get old. It allowed the catapulting of zombies with a giant spring, and if done right could launch zombies across the map. Pinball mode would spell disaster for almost anything travelling at any substatial speed and occasionally lead to game-breaking incidents of your car spinning wildly into the stratosphere, never to return. Other strange power-ups included drugs (which had an affect much like when Niko hits the boozer in GTA IV) and dancing zombies (er…all the zombies dance). I found this silliness was not only very funny, but it also offered huge possibilities for fun distractions. This is one of the first action games I played that offered a real freedom of choice; if I was bored racing and wasting opponents I would just search for a good spot to unleash some cinematic violence or wacky, power-up induced nonsense.
The sense of humour in the game was unflinchingly juvenile, and lewd innuendos were used at virtually every opportunity. Fortunately I was a juvenile at the time and I deemed it to be both funny and clever. I got the distinct impression that developer SCI didn’t give a shit whether you liked it or not, they were going to make the game they wanted to, take it or leave it. We need more development teams willing to take risks and be a bit ’rock and roll’ in the modern climate, but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.
Carmageddon was one of the earliest games to feature an in-game replay editor, which added huge longevity to the game. I spent hours messing around with the replay editor finding amusing angles for my most outlandish stunts, the most enjoyable of which tended to culminate in unsuspecting zombies being flattened in increasingly unlikely ways. By the looks of YouTube and the still-active Carmageddon fan sites, I wasn’t the only one who had a lot of fun with this.
As zombies walked about on paths determined by their own, limited AI, and computer-controlled opponents raced wildly, serendipity played a role in the most memorable moments of playing Carmegeddon II. Watching freak accidents from the perspective of a computer-controlled entity, being in the wrong place at the wrong time was, for me, a moment of realization for what unique player experiences could be possible in a game world. This is a phenomenon that has been experienced by a new generation at the expense of the poor residents of Liberty City and will surely be expanded upon further as the functioning of in-game worlds and cities become more complex and realistic.
Although graphical capabilities have moved on significantly since Carmageddon II was released, no game, in my opinion, has bettered it for sheer sense of fun. It didn’t just allow you to cause carnage, it allowed you to revel in it, replay it, and laugh out loud. For that reason, I consider it one of the all-time great games that provided hugely re-playable experiences that could never be recreated in a medium other than video games. The Carmageddon developers knew its audience and still, in 2008, modern games audiences should probably know about Carmageddon.
Please never show this document to my Psychiatrist.