When most people hear the term indie games, they usually think of thoughtful, barely pretentious art house fare like Braid or Limbo, or at least something delightfully retro like Splosion Man or Super Meat Boy. In any case, indie games conjure up thoughts of artsy, 2D graphics and titles with simpler gameplay that is designed to get a message across or hark back to a time when games were more straightforward.
Rarely are indie games associated with goofy car combat, but Gamepires does indeed fit the definition of an independent studio, and their first game, Gas Guzzlers: Combat Carnage, therefore falls under the label of indie game. The studio has managed a surprisingly deep and cohesive action racer for their debut title; that is, if you can get past what they jokingly call a tutorial.
Let’s get one thing straight right now: Gas Guzzlers is a difficult game, especially (and confusingly) at the beginning. Nothing, and I mean nothing is unlocked from the start. You are given one car that can be charitably called “crappy” and no weapons, upgrades or other improvements to tackle the first and only race unlocked from the start. Gamepires apparently decided to teach new players as a merciless drill instructor or martial arts sensei would: through brutal, repetitious practice.
There is no formal tutorial, just this one maddening race you’ll probably end up playing over and over again until you place first and finally unlock some upgrades and other courses. What’s more, there is no explanation for the default key mapping, which is somewhat unorthodox in that it assigns throttle and steering to the keyboard’s number keys, and items and weapons to good old WASD. You’ll have to examine the control assignments in the options menu before you even cross the starting line.
From there you just grind that first race until you grab first place; a frustrating task half-based on luck given your AI opponents’ tendency to "rubberband" ahead out of nowhere and your slow, clunky crossover’s measly acceleration, low top speed and intermittent nitro. It’s strange that Gamepires drops such a huge roadblock in front of the rest of the game, because once you get some upgrades and guns, Gas Guzzlers becomes a fairly enjoyable mix of car combat and old-school, no frills racing.
The courses, while lacking many shortcuts that actually get you ahead in a race, are tense and well designed, with decent physics depending on what surface you’re driving on. They also span a good variety of locales and have a high quantity of objects to smash into, from explosive barrels and trees to even chickens. Because the competition is so close pretty much all the time, there’s plenty of incentive to just blow the other racers into fiery bits of shrapnel rather than trying to outrace them.
The weapons are a fairly standard assortment of machine guns and rocket launchers, but the game’s sense of humor is what sets the racing and destruction apart from other shooters. There are plenty of in-jokes, references and sophomoric asides to make you chuckle (one of the vehicles has a blow-up doll visible through the not-tinted-enough back glass), and it’s always sadistically humorous to hit an animal, hear it squawk and realize you’ve been given a “roadkill” bonus for pancaking the hapless creature. You can even select the voice of your driver from a list of parody sound-alikes; my guy was a clueless Schwarzenegger imitator, and hearing him swear and groan in his heavy faux-accent almost made ramming my car into position-killing obstacles bearable.
Gas Guzzlers has three game modes to plow through on your way to the final tournament. Classic mode has powerups and obstacles like landmines, but disallows the use of weapons. After grunting your way through that first race so many times you might be hesitant to go back to the same gameplay with no guns, and I don’t blame you. Battle mode includes the guns and as a result is a lot more fun; you can play it straight and simply try to place high on the finish line but with an arsenal attached to your car, why play fair, especially when the opposition doesn’t?
Knockout mode is basically the expert version of Battle mode, if you don’t place first you get nothing, so there’s even more drive to eliminate the competition, particularly with hot lead and explosions. After grinding that one race in Classic mode for so long, once I got the other two I understandably never went back. There’s plenty of fun to be had in Gas Guzzlers, it’s just a shame it takes so long to get to.
For a first title and an indie one at that, Gas Guzzlers also has surprisingly good production values. The shader work is well done, not so obvious as to be obtrusive; Gamepires wisely avoided slathering everything in generic out of the box pixel shaders, something many B-list 360 and PC titles suffer from these days. Of particular note are the atmospheric effects. The camera behind your car will get splattered with dirt, snow and other various environmental debris, creating subtle but eye-catching lens flare sparkles. The explosions and other mayhem are suitably visceral, and while it doesn’t exactly correspond to your car’s health to an accurate degree, the vehicle damage deformation looks better as the damage gets worse and pieces hang off and shred with physics effects.
Aside from the well-done sound effects and funny voices, I wasn’t particularly struck by any of the audio work. The music is certainly there, but I don’t recall many notable pieces; suffice it to say, the music is your typical driving rock riffs and it complemented the action well.
Gas Guzzlers is a frustrating game, in more ways than one. The inexcusably steep learning curve right at the start is a mind-boggling design decision, especially considering how much things open up and how fun the races and combat get once you get past that first damn race. It’s frustrating because I’d love to give this game a better score, but I have to be honest, if I wasn’t reviewing this game, I would’ve given up at that first race a long time ago and missed out on everything else this game as to offer. Hopefully Gamepire releases a patch that lets new players explore a lot more without having to beat that first punitive course—they’ve already started releasing updates, and thankfully one balances the difficulty a bit. For now, Gas Guzzlers is unfortunately a good example of how a promising game can be hindered by one bad design decision.