It has been, you sense, a bit of a rough ride for Bugbear Entertainment. Wreckfest, which has finally left Early Access, is only the talented Finnish developer’s second game within the last decade – and the other, sadly, was Ridge Racer Unbounded, a brilliantly muscular racer that might have earned itself a place alongside close contemporaries such as Split/Second and Blur if it wasn’t for the baggage that the Ridge Racer name weighed it down with. All the while the Flatout series that made the studio’s name veered into disrepute (even if Kylotonn did restore a little pride with last year’s outing), and Wreckfest itself has never really had it easy either, birthed from a failed Kickstarter and seeing several false starts across its four years in Early Access.
The end result, after all that time and toil, is a surprisingly modest affair; a simple no-frills game that’s more Destruction Derby than Flatout, evoking a different era for the racing genre with its no-nonsense approach. Unassuming it may be, but it’s also absolutely wonderful, a knockabout racer that sticks to what Bugbear does best; this is all about cars lunching one another in a variety of events that are tuned towards maximum carnage, and as ever there’s a cathartic joy to be found in seeing fields of pre-loved machinery crumble at your fingertips.
And Wreckfest really has a lovely line in tearing cars apart. The damage model here is exceptional, the soft body physics just a few notches down from the standard setting BeamNG.drive but benefitting from the fact they’re placed in a very tangible, winningly traditional game. A few little wrinkles aside, Wreckfest keeps things very simple – you’re either racing or wrecking, placed into a pool of twisted metal in demolition derby events or into a stream of cascading chaos in races that take place across dusty makeshift tracks. And even when you’re in a pure multi-lap race, the truth is you’re always wrecking and racing.
This is a muscular, elbows-out brand of racing, met by a glorious feel. That’s underlined by some deliciously weighty handling – forward-wheel drive cars need some proper coaxing into corners, while the longer, louder rear-wheel drive cars take a more pendulous approach that needs some taming. Wreckfest offers banger racing with real character, and it’s helped by a car-list that’s brilliantly offbeat (and fictional, it should be pointed out, though seeing as cars seem to be modelled directly from their real-world inspiration here’s hoping that the licence-holders don’t take note and rob Wreckfest of one of its strongest suits). And so there’s a Saab 93, all squat and buzzing like a wasp, or a Jaguar XJS that’s positively languorous in its vision of 80s luxury. Or a pre-facelift Toyota Supra A70 complete with 7M-GTE power unit (yes, that is my own particular set of wheels that I have in my drive and yes, I’m delighted that the first time I’ve ever seen my own pride and joy in a video game it’s as a high-end banger).
When pitted against one another, Wreckfest truly comes alive. Car combat in this game is blunt yet nuanced, the scraps and scrapes playing a big part in your eventual success. It’s about knowing where to hit any particular car in order to destabilise it, figuring out its centre of gravity and doing your level best to sent it pirouetting off into oblivion. Or it’s about seeing where a battle-worn car’s weakness lies, capitalising on an exposed radiator or a bent wheel to double down on the damage.
Or, if you don’t want to think about things too deeply, it’s about careering headlong into a field of cars as they round a corner, using them as makeshift anchors and wiping a few out in the process. This is griefing: the game, where exploits that would get you kicked out of any self-respecting modern racer are welcomed with open arms (and, in a curious twist, the small online community that populates Wreckfest’s multiplayer are an exceedingly friendly bunch, with smiles and camaraderie bookending the ultraviolence that takes place behind the wheel).
It somehow manages to conjure kindness out of chaos, which is no small feat. Elsewhere Wreckfest tries to impose structure over chaos, and it’s one of its few shortcomings. The career is generous and varied, taking you from lawnmowers to more potent beasts through a lattice of events, but it’s never particularly good in imparting you with a sense of progress, or even letting you know what’s necessary in order to move to the next tier of events. There’s a sense that the slightly slim heart of Wreckfest is being stretched a little thin, and Bugbear’s made a bit of a mess of doing so.
But still, what a heart it is, pounding to the beat of the type of driving game we haven’t had in far too long. Wreckfest offers primal pleasures, and offers them up with little by way of pretension. It also offers them with a little bit of that Bugbear class that made those older Flatout games so treasured, and what a thrill is to have that back after far too long.