My emotions playing through the new PC remake of Remedy Entertainment’s Death Rally, which itself is a port of an iOS remake, have ebbed and flowed as rapidly as each race in the game zooms by. When I first jumped behind the wheel, I was dazed and confused by the impossible-to-win Prologue chapter that gives you no indication that you can’t beat it, in addition to the general lack of explanation for what you’re supposed to do to get the story mode to advance or gain any sort of progression through the game.
Lack of explanation coupled with a very harsh starting difficulty — even in beginner races your initial ride just isn’t kitted for winning right off the line – left my confidence, both in the quality of the game and my skill as a gamer, on shaky ground. When you begin your ride through this Death Rally reboot, expect to lose. A lot.
After grinding through a bunch of losses and barely eking out some top-three finishes, I slowly began to upgrade my first car, and slowly the wins started to come, and slowly the addiction took hold. Races come fast and furious in Death Rally, each one taking no more than a minute or two to finish. Even when you’re losing, you’re on and off the track so quickly that there’s never enough time to get too discouraged. There is always another race just seconds away, and the ability to burn through 10-15 races within about as many real-time minutes while still earning unlock/upgrade progress without always needing to place keeps you rewarded enough to endure the growing pains until you can start banking winner’s checks on a regular basis.
Then, after three or four hours of compulsive driving and unlocking, still trying to grasp the seemingly random nature of the game’s progression, the realization hit that this is a racing game for hardcore grinders only. There aren’t a whole lot of new things to see or do after a couple hours, and whether or not you’ll have enough determination to stick it out will depend entirely on how much you enjoy grinding through race after race on the same handful of tracks, just to rise in fame and unlock shiny but deadly new cars, upgrades and weapons and occasionally stumble upon a special mission that advances the paper-thin plot.
Once you’ve created a career profile and suffered the Prologue chapter, you’re tossed into a menu that shows your career status along with your collection of cars and unlocks, with a horizontal list of race events splayed out across the bottom of the screen. While seemingly easy to understand, the complete lack of direct explanation will likely have you puzzled as to how to proceed during the initial hour or so. That’s only because there actually is no method or order to how you’re supposed to progress through the game; just pick any race from the list, finish it, collect your cash reward to pump into upgrades, and then jump into any other race of your choosing. From the first race to the hundredth, this is the process you repeat.
Thankfully, the game plays great and the steady flow of unlocks and achievements satisfies the soul with that tingling sensation of instant gratification. Like the original, Death Rally’s races are presented from a stationary, top-down perspective (a chase cam is also available but its constant rotation just made me nauseous) and destroying rival drivers is as much a goal as crossing the finish line in first place (and in one piece).
Individual buttons/keys (both keyboard and gampad schemes are supported) for acceleration and braking have been removed in favor of a streamlined driving mechanic that has you pushing the gas pedal to the floor and steering with the arrow keys or a single analog stick. This scheme may feel awkward at first, but it doesn’t take long to settle into a comfort-zone groove. However, I will say that a gamepad is the better option of the two. Steering with an analog stick is tight and smooth, compared to keyboard controls which are a touch too sensitive and take more time and patience to master.
While cruising around city streets, deserts, forested mountain roads and snowy fields, your car automatically pops off machinegun bullets at the nearest driver ahead of you. This doesn’t do much damage, but over time can wear down a rival racer to give you a shot for a last-minute kill. By destroying cars, upgrade parts will drop and by collecting a set number of parts you’ll eventually unlock new rides and weapons, such as a shotgun, sniper rifle, flamethrower or missile launcher, along with other accessories like bladed bumpers, mines, and a laser sight for easier targeting. These weapons are fired manually, but have limited ammo supply that can only be refilled by driving over ammo crates.
Other power-ups in the game include nitro tanks, repair wrenches, and instant cash bonuses, but the nature in which they are acquired is mind-bogglingly annoying. These pick-ups are contained within boxes scattered around each track, and to crack them open to reveal their contents they first need to be shot. Thing is, the number of bullets it takes to break a power-up box is completely unpredictable – sometimes they’ll break in a single shot, sometimes you’ll drill a crate multiple times every lap and it’ll just bounce around as if made of some indestructible rubber from the future until eventually it gets pushed too far off the side of the track to reach.
Indeed, so much of the game is equally random. It is crucial to master the locomotion of taking turns and to learn the best racing lines for each corner of a track, but winning a race is also determined just as much by your luck in acquiring power-ups and by the starting position the game decides to put you in. Until you upgrade a car, if you aren’t given a front-running position you’re most likely screwed because the cars ahead of you will get first dibs on power-ups and also be able to drop mines in your face, putting you that much further in the hole. And in many instances, if you don’t get at least one or two nitro canisters, you’re going to lose, no matter how well you know every bump and curve of a course or how many upgrades you’ve purchased.
Another baffling design element is the way cash earnings are handled. Instead of being able to save up for future purchases, all money accrued from a race must be applied to repairs and upgrades immediately. If you’re running a fully-outfitted car while waiting to unlock the next set of toys, all your hard-won dollars will automatically be converted into points toward your overall Fame score. Because of this, every time you unlock a new car or weapon you’re basically starting all over from scratch, back to grinding through races while you slowly buy the next round of upgrades.
Multiplayer is an area of concern, too. I don’t know if there just aren’t many Death Rally players out there or if the matchmaking system is busted, but in the game’s first week online I haven’t had much luck finding others to compete against. I’ve been able to go against a single live player in a few races, and a couple other times the game showed that I was connected to two or three other players before the matchmaking system would fall into an endless state of restarting the process without starting the race. What’s great about the online play, though, is how it is integrated with the single-player progression. Earnings from multiplayer races count towards your overall career, and even while in online mode you can choose to skip the matchmaking process to race against the AI without having to jump back and forth between different menus. It’s all very seamless and intuitive, so if the multiplayer kinks ever get worked out it could develop quite a following.
Before wrapping things up, I think it is important to point out that I never played the original PC game during the height of its popularity, so I have no nostalgic tie to the Death Rally name. Since beginning this remake, though, I have gone back to try out the original game for reference (you can download it for free here). This new version is technically superior, obviously, but also lacks a lot of the hardcore spirit and dark humor that gave the old game its distinct edge. There are no civilians to run over or shady mechanics to pay to sabotage other drivers (similar opportunities randomly pop up before a race, but they’re very rare and don’t have the same impact). The only personality this game shows is with its many guest characters, all of which are tied to an achievement for destroying them. Barry from Alan Wake makes an appearance, as do familiar names from the past and a couple video game journalists, for some baffling reason. But hey, if you’ve ever fantasized about road raging on Brian Crecente or Geoff Keighley, this is your chance to do so in make-believe land.
By comparison, Death Rally of 2012 could very well be mistaken for any generic-looking top-down racer with guns. You probably won’t play it and immediately say, “this is the Death Rally I remember from back in the day.” That doesn’t make it a poor game, just one that may not satisfy the target audience of existing franchise fans to the extent that one would expect from a Remedy Entertainment property.
Death Rally starts off confusing and aggravating before eventually blossoming into an addictive, destructive, full-throttle arcade racer–but only if you’re willing to put up with and embrace its grind-it-out mentality. Despite countless questionable design choices, this game sucked me in hard and I was shocked by how compelled I was to try “just one more race” long into the night – I’ve pumped 10 hours into the game so far, so it has to be doing something right. That said, I can also see many gamers playing for an hour and then giving up from the frustration and monotony of the repetitious career progression, never to return. From the exceedingly simplistic game structure, it’s clear from the jump that this newfangled Death Rally started as an iOS app. The quick-race format makes it ideal for snack gaming on a mobile device where you may only have the time and drive to knock out a few races at a time, but that same format on a PC, while still fun, leaves the game feeling like it left the upgrade shop with a few parts missing.
+ Destructive racing mentality is fast and addictive
+ Tight analog stick gamepad controls
+ Lots of cars and weapons to unlock and upgrade
+ Races come and go so quickly, making it feel like you’re making a lot of progress in short spurts
+ Sharp graphics with some eye-catching explosions and dirt/smoke trail effects
- Too much random shit influences the outcome too often
- Online matchmaking doesn’t seem to be working properly
- Keyboard controls are overly sensitive and much harder to master
- Harsh learning curve and lack of explanation get the game off to a slow start
- Can’t pool money for future upgrades
Platform: PC via Steam (previously released on iOS)
Publisher: Remedy Entertainment
Developer: Remedy Entertainment/Mountain Sheep/Cornfox & Brothers
Release Date: 8/3/2012
ESRB Rating: N/A
Players: 1-6 (online)
Source: Review code provided by publisher