News: Friday Not-So-Indie Game Review Roundup: Combat Racing

Friday Not-So-Indie Game Review Roundup: Combat Racing

Deep in their heart of hearts, most Americans dream of having their car festooned with missile launchers and machine guns. Anyone who cuts them off or looks at them funny in traffic could be dispensed with quick and extreme justice, leaving a real-life James Bond and his passengers free to pursue their American dreams faster than everyone else. Racing games and shooting games are among the two most popular types of video games. So why aren't there more games where one can race cars and shoot things at the same time?

Grand Theft Auto and the other sandbox adventures games have combat, driving, and racing elements. But the driving part of such games usually has bad controls and worse physics. It is a facet of a game, not fully developed. Games like Twisted Metal (which I love very much) focus on combat and driving. They are close, but really just shooting games with cars since there is no race involved. A suprisingly small number of games are true combat racing games, where the goal is to win a race against other players and destroy them along the way with laser-guided rockets.

Mario Kart is by far the most well known example of the breed, RC Pro-Am probably the first. Both are excellent and well covered elsewhere. Here are three lesser known combat racing games spanning 16 years, six platforms, three anthropomorphized alien mice, and one member of Devo.

Biker Mice From Mars (SNES) 1994

Biker Mice From Mars is based on the popular animated show of the same name, a childhood favorite along with SWAT Kats. (What is it about animals with crazy vehicles?) The game is a lot like Rock n' Roll Racing and RC Pro-Am, with the same isometric perspective and very similar controls for steering and shooting. Where it sets itself apart is incorporating the Battle Mode made popular by Mario Kart, in which players ditch the racing pretext and shoot each other in an arena. Mario Kart was starting to show its age by '94, and this quickly became my go-to Battle Mode game. While that is not really combat racing, its inclusion in addition to competent combat racing was enough to differentiate it from the strong competition it faced at the time, and makes it a worthwhile second-hand game store pickup today.

Crash Team Racing (PS1) 1999

Crash Team Racing was the last Crash Bandicoot game made by Naughty Dog. With their departure from the series it ceased to be relevant. Sony would never again come as close to having a mascot to compete with Mario. Oddly enough, ND decided to make a combat racing game for their fourth Crash, and it is a tremendous one. Like Biker Mice from Mars before it, CTR had the advantage of coming out years after the Mario Kart it was to compete with and for a different (I would say superior) console.

It was derivative enough to earn the pejorative nickname "Cash BandiKart", but also a much more refined game that holds up much better when played today. It has sharp graphics, oodles of charm, tight controls, interesting and varied level designs (all Naughty Dog staples) and a Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO penned soundtrack. There might not be a better Kart racing game.

Blur (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) 2010

The last great combat racing game. A sad story.

Blur promised to be something the world had never seen before: a combat racing game with real cars, realistic driving, and solid online mulitplayer for up to 20 cars at once. It had cool TV commercials (above) and an open multiplayer beta with constantly packed servers. Bizzare Creations, the then 16-year-old UK developer behind Project Gotham Racing, was at the helm. The game came out in May to generally good reviews and an 83 on Metacritic. It was as good as promised, with great driving and shooting. The only thing wrong with it was some boring level design, which could be addressed with DLC.

But, for some reason, the game never sold. Within months the online servers contained only a a couple of hundred players at a time. Today, there are seldom more than a hundred. Less than a drop in the bucket for a AAA console multiplayer game.

Bizzare announced their intention to make a sequel a month after release—a solid idea, given the critical reception the first game had received. Unfortunately, Bizarre was owned by the notoriously cold-blooded Activision. In late 2010, they announced their intention to either sell the company or pull the plug because of poor Blur sales. They did the latter.

I can't recommend Blur to anyone who hasn't already bought it. Its single-player modes are boring. This game was made to be played in giant Xbox Live servers with thousands of people trash talking and competing. And it will never have that again. Not only has this fantastic game all but died, it took the prestigious developer who made it down, too.

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