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Written by Dave Gamble on 7/19/2018 for PC  
More On: Wreckfest

I have had race sims forever. I mean that in the literal sense. I remember when Grand Prix Legends was released, way back in 1998. It was by no means my first racing sim, but it was the first one that really knocked my socks off with gorgeous graphics (for the era) and believable driving physics; the venerable old cars and real world tracks just sealed the deal. It may have also been the first to provide at least a somewhat limited view into what it must be like to have raced in those skittish, powerful, and hugely dangerous cars, long before the advent of aero downforce and all of the other mumbo-jumbo that goes into contemporaneous racing. I soaked it up. The inner Walter Mitty in me reveled in it.

From then until the present, I have had just about every above average sim available, and they all had one thing in common: they gave me the opportunity to feel a glimpse of what it would be like to race those exotic, expensive, high-performance cars. Every now and then I would run across a sim/game that would force me to driver “lesser” cars while “earning” the “privilege” of driving model cars that I had already paid for. You know the drill: start in this underpowered beater that isn’t even as fast as your daily drive. Start last in the field for a five lap race. Ready. Set. Go! How long did it take you to get to a real race car?

I resented that. I resented it so much that I ended up viewing those entry-level cars with disdain. Once having progressed beyond them, I never looked back. I was far more interested in the top levels, Formula 1, Indycar, even Nascar - I watched all of them, then drove the same races in whatever sims I had at the time.

Then came iRacing.  As a rookie, I was restricted from racing higher level cars, just like the aforementioned sims. The difference was that I hadn’t paid for those cars - iRacing was an early entrant to the DLC model. The restriction was only on racing, and that made sense to me. If I couldn’t get through a Miata race, how well was I going to do in Formula 1?

“Poorly,” is the answer, and that would not be fair to the other paying customers in the race. I started working my way up the chain, but at some point I realized that I had been having a lot more fun in the entry-level cars. The fields were bigger, the cars slid around a lot more but were controllable (which is incredibly fun if you have a good FF wheel), and the racing was much closer. Oh, and the races were shorter - you could fit one into a half hour.

It also occurred to me that this type of lower ranks racing had another personal appeal: these were cars that I could conceivably drive in real life. I wasn’t driving as a pale impersonation of Michael Schumacher in these cars, I was driving as me!  I could imagine actually owning a car like one of these entry level cars, although I couldn’t imagine how I would ever manage to override the spousal veto, but that’s a problem for a different sim. The problem is that they really aren’t that inexpensive. You may see a Legends car on sale for $10k or so, but that’s just the beginning. The additional costs add up quickly. Worse, there is the risk that you will damage or destroy your car. That’s a show-stopper right there. The car itself may be attainable, but the upkeep? It’s like adopting a dog: whether you buy a pedigree or go to the local shelter, you’re facing a lot of vet bills, etc. There’s no such thing as a cheap dog, and there’s no such thing as cheap racing.

Or so I thought.

Wreckfest changed my mind. If you were to search the planet for the polar opposite of Formula 1, it would be Wreckfest. If you were a racing sim snob, you would look at it as a toy for the simple-minded. You (well, to be fair, I) would be wrong. Not entirely wrong, mind you, but still wrong. Wreckfest is not some mindless game centered around wanton and gratuitous destruction. Wreckfest is actually a pretty good racing simulator. It is, however, not the professional, posh, arrive in your limo, get ten million a year for running in the middle of the pack kind of racing. It’s the racing you can go see at your county fair. It’s the grassroots racing you can see every summer weekend at a ¼ mile dirt track near you. It’s where you can see your friends and neighbors out on the track racing their hearts out for a $100 purse, and a chicken dinner for the winner.

It’s the kind of racing that I could actually do. If I was single.

Now, it is important at this point to explain what I meant when I said that I wasn’t completely wrong about this being simple-minded racing. I am, of course, referring to “gimmick” racing such as demolition derbies and (I am NOT making this up) school bus racing. While I have begun my long recovery from being a race sim snob, I haven’t gotten anywhere near where I can see a demo derby as racing. And with regards to the school bus racing, it seems to me that there could be no passing - all they would have to do is turn on those flashing red Do Not Pass lights.

Yes, of course that’s a joke. That doesn't make it any less silly. Said the recovering snob.

There are number of ways to play Wreckfest. There is Career mode. It is useless, and I would prefer to just let it go at that, but….

So, the biggest problem with Career mode in Wreckfest is that no one that designed/built the game knew what a racing career looks like. Well, that’s probably too harsh, but the thing I strongly disliked about my career in Wreckfest was that I was forced to do a demolition derby (lawn mowers??? You’re kidding!) rather than focus on the track racing I was interested in. Career racers don't generally bounce around between such wildly disparate disciplines. So, nope.

As long as I was in there, I figured I ought to go ahead and enter a couple of track races just to get a feel for it.

My first event was a qualifying heat, which would be followed by a semi-final heat and the main race. My car was a beat up old Mustang, although that moniker was never actually used. I also saw a lot of other marques that I remember from the 70’s, all of which bore different names than I had known them as. There was no practice time offered, so the first qualifying race would also be my first time in the car and on the track.

The track was shaped like a barbell. It had two sweeping turns, attached to each other by a shared straight. The only separation from oncoming traffic in the straight was a series of small orange plastic cones. Being a raw rookie, I was placed at the back of the field for the start. I was timid at first and hung back a bit to see what was going to happen and to get a feel for the car. What happened was a big pile-up in the first turn, and me swinging wide in the turn as I overestimated the grip I would get from the dirt track. That was fortuitous, as it turns out - the melee was down low on the track and I was able to pass four or five of them just by staying safe on the high side of the track. That was my first discovery of what would ultimately be one of my best racing tactics.

I eventually got taken out by a car behind me. He got the nose of his car even with my left rear quarter panel and deftly pushing me into a spin.

“Ah,” I thought, “that’s how the game is played.”

Well, yes and no. There is no penalty for hitting, spinning, or wrecking other cars. That, however, doesn’t mean that you should. To cut a long story short (too late?), as I gained experience, I gained a better idea as to how to race, when to hit another car, when to let yourself be hit by another car, how to hit another car, how to take a hit from another car, etc. The point here is that this is not a shallow wreck ‘em up game, unless you want it to be. If, on the other hand, you want to treat it as a more-or-less serious racing sim, you can satisfyingly do that too.

By treating it as an activity that had to be learned, I found that there is a lot of depth to be had in this type of racing. Early on, when I was happy to finish a race at all and ecstatic over not finishing dead last, I learned that an amalgam of dirty, cautious, clean, and even reckless driving styles could get me to the middle of the pack, where I would invariably get caught up in someone else’s imbroglio. It would take more than getting into the middle pack if I ever wanted to win. I did learn from it - one important thing that I learned from being caught in the middle of a big mess that eventually knocked me out of 5th place was reminiscent of a quote from an old movie called War Games: “The only winning move is not to play.” I found it best to let the other, more irascible drivers entertain themselves while I progressed on up the standings.

I also learned a lot about the strategy of taking a hit. While a lot of hits from other drivers resulted in me being knocked out of the race or sent to the back of the pack, there were many that I was able to turn to my own advantage. I got very good at using other cars as guard rails when I came cooking into a turn way too fast to make it through without sliding into a wall - I would just bang into them broad side (I had also learned not to lead with my nose by that time) and let them hit the wall as I drove on through. I also had occasions where I had let myself get into an incipient spin, only to see someone coming at me in an attempt to wreck me, unaware that I was halfway towards doing that all by myself. By positioning my car just right, I could sometimes use my opponent’s attempt to spin me to do the exact opposite - I could get him to hit me in a way that stopped the spin.

I could go on and on about this. The wide variety of tracks. The mixed-surface tracks that have you going from paved surfaces to gravel, and back again. The upgradability of the cars. The above average force feedback. Physics that allow me to treat the gas pedal as a steering device as the car drifts around a corner, the various ways the cars show damage - it’s all there.

I didn't like the career all that much, but fortunately there’s an easier way to get to the racing you want to do, not the racing you have to do, and that is Custom Event mode. Custom Event mode is what you would expect it to be from the name: you can build any race you want. You can choose from a wide variety of tracks, ranging from hilly dirt tracks to city streets. You’re still limited to cars that you have purchased though in-game earnings (which I dislike), but at least you’ll get to see the other cars as opponents. You choose the number of opponents, the time of day, the number of laps, etc. You also have the standard driving aids like auto shift, traction control, opponent skill, and that sort of thing to choose from. Custom Event is where I spent most of my time.

With the ability to make longer races, I was able to get a much better feel for racing against the AI. What I found is that the racing at the back of the pack can only be described as, well…. a wreckfest. While that was to be expected, it wasn’t my favorite place to be. Through my hard-gained skills in avoiding wrecks, or at least turning them to my advantage now and then, I occasionally found myself nearer to the leaders. In those cases, I saw a completely different (and preferable) type of racing. There was still contact, of course, but it wasn’t the belligerent battering that I had outpaced; rather, it was far more common to see a light, strategic bump that didn’t necessarily wreck the recipient, but loosened him up enough to slow him down enough for the attacker to make a safe pass.

In other words, good, hard racing.

It was at this point that I fell in love with Wreckfest.

Wreckfest is one of those games that lets you choose how to play it, and supports you no matter what you decide. If you want to drive around bashing lawn mowers together? Do it - you’ll have a great time! You want to race on tracks? You can do that too! If you are the type that likes to fool around with setups on the car? Have at it, although you will find the settings to be quite rudimentary. Before you get too upset at that, remember where you are - it’s a county fair and you’re working on your car in your little rectangle of grass, surrounded by the sounds of the midway and the smell of deep-fried food. Your race car cost $250. Your Yeti cooler cost more.

No matter what you choose, you can play against fairly decent AI, or you can get on multiplayer and race against humans. I did try the multiplayer, but it didn’t seem all that different from the AI, other than the notable disadvantage I suffered from never having upgraded my car. There were only four humans, so I ended up racing against AI anyway. Still, it’s there if you want it.

I had a great time with Wreckfest, although I do have to point out that it wasn’t without its frustrations. I had three occasions of the game crashing to desktop. None of those occurred during a race, which mitigated my ire, but it’s really not something you’re ever happy about. I also highly prefer VR racing, but I am not convinced that it would work with Wreckfest - the 3rd person view helps a lot with seeing opponents coming up behind you with ill intent.

Wreckfest offers the eRacer something not available anywhere else: the ability to race on the computer in cars and at tracks that are accessible to the common man. Don't let the 70's era rust buckets fool you, though - the driving and damage physics are quite good, the damage models are entertaining, and the racing is close and brutal. It's astonishingly fun!

Rating: 8.5 Very Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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