I’m scared, Fif. It’s that rat circus out there, I’m beginning to enjoy it. Look, any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I’ve got this bronze badge that says that I’m one of the good guys.
– Mad Max
When I started playing this Mad Max-inspired, isometric racing/vehicular combat game, I really liked it. I was hooked on the simplicity of it, on how the cars accelerated and drifted, on the weapons, on how damage taken affects your speed and handling, on the rocking music. After a few hours of grind, I wasn’t as taken with it.
Death Rally isn’t the kind of game you want to go into and spend the rest of your life on upgrading and unlocking cars, it’s minute or two long races which are fun and frantic. I find it a shame you need to grind races in order to unlock absolutely everything. The developers must have been thinking to increase replayability through persistent pickups which you piece together to create a sniper rifle or the big hummer-esque car, but honestly it was never that kind of game to begin with. Besides, the first car you begin with, a light and dexterous little buggy, is better than anything else you’ll get until you’ve unlocked about half the cars.
My first impression of this game was much like how I first responded to R.C. Pro-AM. I had loads of fun banking around the tracks, trying not to get stuck on corners, taking down the named enemies (whom you are charged with defeating in the first few minutes,) and generally blowing everything up. It should be said that this game is a remake of the original 1996 title, also named Death Rally, and that I won’t be comparing the Steam version I reviewed with the 1996 version of itself.
The single-player experience is broken up into two modes,:The regular races are where you will spend most of your time, as this mode type is most ubiquitous. You will utilize your weapons and dexterity to jostle into first place on smallish tracks, it’s great fun. There is also the VS. Deathmatch mode in which your goal is to get the most kills before time runs out. These are basically lots of cars doing doughnuts in a dusty field, kicking up dust and letting go their payloads all over each other. If that doesn’t sound dirty to you, then you’re not paying attention. The deathmatch modes are fairly boring and the AI will not put up any fuss as you circle behind them and just fill their cars full of hot lead. I also noticed some slowdown from all the dust particles flying through the air, though admittedly my PC isn’t a bleeding-edge Kill-Bot.
After completing each race, you will get a payout in cold, hard cash depending on your performance on the track. This must be used on the car and equipment you were using during the race and cannot be transferred. The cash must all be used and it won’t be banked if you’d like to save up for anything. None of that makes any sense to me, and I wonder why the developers chose to limit your upgrades this way. What it means to your experience is that you end up driving worse cars for longer because you won’t be able to place well, and thereby obtain a smaller cash reward for each race, extending the time driving cars you really wouldn’t play with otherwise. Luckily, the upgrades are fairly limited as far as cars go. You will sink much less cash into cars than you will upgrading the weapons which you can equip. It’s a good thing each weapon is fairly unique and fun to play, otherwise this whole cash system for upgrading would be pointless and not fun.
Speaking of the weapons, I’m glad to see that this game has vehicle performance setbacks when your car is really beat up. As your vehicle begins to smoke and your health gauge dips below the critical 50% mark, your handling and speed begin to become noticeably impaired. As you take severe damage, you are bound to have cars passing you left and right, maybe even lapping you. This is where picking up the wench item which is strewn around the tracks becomes fairly important. Each pickup is contained within a box or crate and are littered around the track. These crates can sometimes take quite a beating to destroy, thereby allowing the item inside to pop out for pick up, so the containers generally get punted off to the side of the track until someone needs something. Once a player is damaged, he can skirt the track and pick up any nitros, wrenches, and ammo icons which have been left at the wayside in favour of a faster lap time. This is a pretty good system for lagging cars to try to make up some time, but nothing actually beats driving well to begin with.
One thing I really love about this game is the control scheme. Using an analog stick, the direction you press represents the forward movement of the car, like the way you would control Geometry Wars. This is a departure from the regular control scheme which isometric racer/vehicular shooters have utilized in the past where left and right would steer your car in relation to the direction the car is facing. This has always been a clunky control scheme, though necessary for accurate steering in the long-gone days of 4-way digital d-pads. This brought the whole notion of a new and updated Rock N’ Roll Racing to an exciting place for me.
One glaring flaw in Death Rally is the very frustrating multiplayer. There is a Co-Op Campaign mode, as well as random six-person races. These things sound wonderful, but the matchmaking is awful. There are either no people playing (which there are at least a few on at any particular time) or the matchmaking sucks so badly that it can’t hold two people in the lobby at the same time. I mentioned that there are at least a few people playing, but how do I know this if I can’t connect to anybody else to race them? Well, the matchmaking lobby, if you can call it that, often connects me to someone straight away, and then disconnects us before we have a chance to start the race. There must be something wrong with the netcode here, because this particular problem has arisen too many times for it to be simply people starting the race in single player rather than waiting for the multiplayer countdown to kick in.
There is also a keyword system wherein you can enter a name for your game instances, and then anyone whom you’ve shared that keyword with can also play with you over the internet. This seems like it would be a much more reliable way to enjoy the multiplayer aspects of the game. Unfortunately, I was not able to test this particular feature out.
Another complaint I have is that, while there are competitive and co-op modes, there is no local multiplayer at all. This is a real problem for a game with such apparently terrible netcode. This kind of game was always great on the 8- and 16-bit generation consoles when the screen was split and you were talking trash across a huge bowl of greasy chips. I think there is missed opportunity for replayability here.
With these flaws, coupled with the things Death Rally does right, I think there is potential for greatness. An old school-style isometric racing/vehicular shooter with badass controls and fast-paced, fun gameplay? Hell yes! I just hope that there is a sequel, and that it fixes a lot of the foibles inherent in this game.
You can find Death Rally on Steam for $9.99 USD, though the game is currently on sale for 15% off! You can also find this game on iOS and Android platforms, though the copy reviewed here is the Steam version.