Back in the 2000s, there were a tremendous variety of racing games. Arcade racing fans had games like Burnout and PGR, sim folks had Gran Turismo and Forza, the NFS games capably bounced between street racing, cop chase, and even sim-ish entries, and there were multiple niche games like rally racers, demolition derby games, car combat games, etc. These days, it's mostly been whittled down to Forza Horizon for the arcade fans, and some hardcore sims like iRacing/F1/Assetto Corsa for that crowd. The Forza Horizon games are tremendous, and have mostly combined the best aspects of the better games of the '00s. And nothing against the ultra-sims, but enjoyment of those games is almost predicated on seriously following motorsports and/or having a setup with a racing wheel (or more). I find myself missing the casual-ish racing games that tried to do one thing and do it well.
Enter Wreckfest. It's a game that had a relatively long development, starting as basically a destruction/physics tech demo which spent most of its development titled simply Next Car Game. Even early on, it was impressive for what it was, but it wasn't really a game. It was basically a collection of ramps and destructible objects to play around with, but the foundation seemed solid and promising enough back in 2013. However, even for the people like myself who were fairly interested in it, it fell off the radar a bit well before it finally came out in June 2018. On PC and only on PC, that is. I saw enough of it to get excited again, but as I'm not a PC gamer, I had to wait even longer. A little over a year later, it would finally become available. Having waited this long, I had sadly settled into "meh, I'll pick it up later on sale" territory by then.
Being stuck at home due to COVID-19 with nothing but time and an Xbox Spring Sale, I decided to see if Wreckfest was on there. It was, so I finally pulled the trigger. I'm really glad I did. The first thing the game presents you with is a Lawnmower Demolition Derby. This was the right kind of stupid, so I immediately found myself having fun. However, it wasn't easy. Having been to a real-life Demolition Derby before (which is a good-ass time), I had to get used to driving backwards and tactically targeting the most damaged lawnmowers. It took a few tries, but I was finally able to fully wreck another lawnmower in the time limit. While enjoyable enough, this felt a bit like a side game, so I was ready to try some of the actual racing to see what kind of substance, if any, there was to be found there.
The physics engine and handling model are really solid. The cars feel appropriately weighty, and staying on the gas through dirt/mud is a recipe for spinning tires and bleeding precious speed. As someone who has spent a great deal of time in the forgiving playgrounds of Forza Horizon 4 where you can largely get away with wall-riding and plow through small trees and stone walls with relative impunity, it was a little jarring to have your vehicle snag a corner of a concrete barrier and have it realistically stop the vehicle in its tracks and deal significant damage. It's worth noting that games like Forza that use licensed vehicles are often actually restricted on the damage they can model (which I've never understood; are we supposed to believe that these manufacturers' cars don't wreck?), but it's refreshing to see my totally-not-a-'68-Mustang actually crash and actually get fucked up.
The racing itself is somewhat reminiscent of Burnout, in that you are generally encouraged to wreck other racers. Wreckfest is at its best when spectacular crashes happen and car parts and tires go flying everywhere, and some of the tracks are designed for specifically this and feature loads of potential for high-speed collisions, with either loops that intersect with each other to create the potential for head-on collisions and/or intersections that lead to inevitable t-bones. I found myself physically tensing up like "ohhhh shiiiiiit" every time I had to go through those parts. From a racing standpoint, it's obviously less than ideal to have your first place position jeopardized by some scrub dragging ass and t-boning you, but every time it happened, it was typically an amusing enough spectacle to not actually bother me much to have my race ruined.
The career progression leaves a bit to be desired, as you're essentially just getting marginally better upgrades for your vehicle. These were necessary to remain competitive, which is fine, but annoyingly never seemed to give you an advantage. I tried pitting a late-game overleveled car against supposedly far lesser competition by both car class and the number rating, and I wasn't leaving them in the dust like I should have been thanks to invisible rubber-banding (ugh). In fairness, the AI is also more prone to blowing a turn and crashing out on their own than in most games, but it was very rare for me to build up huge leads, and very common for a lead AI racer to quickly run away with a 10+ second lead. I get why they chose to include rubber-banding to keep races tight for maximum carnage, but it's arguably the worst thing about the game.
A close second is your starting position on races. Most of the races have 24 cars on not-wide tracks, and you always start near the middle or back of the pack thanks to some nonexistent qualification round in which you apparently did terribly, which is bullshit. It's a complete shitshow at the start of every race, and it's truly difficult to come out unscathed and be even in contention once the cars finally start to separate. Far too often you'll get stuck in some group incessantly bashing into each other while the first few racers speed away freely. I found myself restarting several times at the start of the race way more frequently than I should to ensure that I didn't have an insurmountable leaderboard to climb in a matter of just a few laps. Wreckfest offers multiple view options, which is nice, but the nature of the racing basically forces you to use the far-behind car view. I actually race best in cockpit view, but there isn't a rearview mirror to be able to tell when some assclown might be about to slam into you from behind, so chase cam was the way to go.
The AI is also rather wild, which is something that I initially enjoyed compared with Forza's somewhat staid Drivatars. However, it feels like karma getting me back for bullying passive Forza AI for so many years. I often found myself on the wrong end of some collision that I was at zero fault for, with occasionally dire consequences. Having some AI car recklessly plow into you because you dared to slow down before a turn to take a proper apex can be infuriating when it happens on lap 11/12 of a race and you have to start the whole thing over. AI cars would often veer so far off of their line at truly unreasonable speeds to seemingly target you instead of taking a turn that I suspect they were programmed to do so. The game feels like you're racing against actual people even when you aren't, with all the random wipeouts and troll-y bullshit that this entails. Enjoyment of this aspect of the game will vary, but let's just say I developed grudges against a few AI characters as if they actually existed, so credit to the devs for that. Or scorn; I don't know.
Most of the events are still enjoyable, if occasionally a bit too difficult. The generally realistic handling, damage, and unpredictable AI could easily be frustrating for some, although I largely found it to be a fun challenge. I will say that the game's Career mode definitely peaks about midway through when the more dynamic tracks start to unlock and your competition isn't yet all racing the game's fastest car (spoiler: it's the Bulldog). The career event structure is open enough to let you proceed somewhat as you wish, which is welcome. I particularly enjoyed when tracks would become a car graveyard as cars would fully wreck and just leave flaming husks scattered all over the track. I had one race where only 2/24 cars actually finished, where it was more about survival than speed. I further made a fun game of my own by figuring out that in head-to-head races (typically to unlock a car), I could just focus on wrecking the opponent into a DNF (did-not-finish) situation, at which point I was home free to simply finish the race for a win. I took probably too much enjoyment in driving the wrong way for head-on collisions to troll the game back.
Unlocking new cars/parts was just enticing enough to keep me going, but would likely prove boring for people who don't care about cars. The livery editor is limited, but the paint schemes are fitting for demolition derby-style racing, and there are some armor bits you can add along with sportier/more rugged-looking body panels. I had more fun with the visual customization than I expected, but the process of actually upgrading the performance was a letdown. I mentioned earlier that it never felt like any upgrades you did actually gave you an advantage thanks to annoying rubber-banding, but it was even dissatisfying from a "make-the-numbers-go-up standpoint." Not only does making the acceleration rating go from a 4.8 to 4.9 look as inconsequential as it feels, the upgrade process often required such incremental upgrades. In other words, the best "race" tier part would almost always be level-locked from purchase until well after you needed it, so you'd end up having to buy the lesser "street" and "sport" versions of the part in the meantime because they were available at your level to where you were somewhat forced to wastefully buy several versions of the same air filter or to try and win races despite a competitive disadvantage. Not great.
Wreckfest largely hits the right note in terms of 'tude. It's thankfully more grown-up than, say, a Twisted Metal (shout out to Internet Dan), but it manages to capture the somewhat blue-collar grit of demolition derbies in the game's style and presentation. The soundtrack is a fitting mix of cheesy hair metal/butt rock, and it works, although it could definitely use a few more songs. The charm fades a bit once you've heard the same extended distortion-heavy whammy-bar guitar note in one of the songs and some of the more repetitive refrains like "Buried Alive", but it's worth noting that if you're putting enough time into the game as I did to get that tired of them, you're probably having enough fun with Wreckfest overall to where it doesn't really matter.
Considering all the chaos that can and does happen during races, the game runs...serviceably. I played the front half of the game on my launch Xbox One and the back half on my One X. I'm honestly impressed it runs at all on my launch 'Bone and looks as good as it does with 24 racers on the track and all kinds of destruction scattered everywhere over the course of the race. Predictably, though, there are some frame drops if too much happens in one area at the same time. I'm not overly sensitive to framerate, but it's noticeably varied at times. Also of note, the load times are rough. Framerate and load times are improved on the One X, as you'd expect, but oddly enough, the game seems to run best at 4K. Dropping it down to 1080p didn't seem to up the framerate, but the One X version was decidedly more stable at either 1080p or 4K than on my launch 'Bone. 4K on the One X was certainly the best experience, and the game looks good enough. It's no Forza Horizon 4 in visuals (few games are), and I wish it had HDR support, but it's far from ugly.
Wreckfest's highs more than make up for its assorted lows. The game seems to know what it is and isn't, and is all the better for it. When some high-speed, multi-car crash happens and cars get twisted and shattered to bits as vehicles flip around and parts of the track explode, it's spectacular in ways few games are. It's reminiscent of seeing a Burnout game for the first time, except dialed up to 11 and for the current-gen. The game is structured to lean on its excellent destruction mechanics, occasionally frustratingly so by continually brute-forcing potential crashes on the player, but I must admit that it often resulted in some fantastic moments that simultaneously ruined my race/were fucking awesome. The game inherently lends itself to action movie-esque wrecks and some amazing video clips, and is a pretty damn good time if you're into that. Ultimately, Wreckfest is a solid B racer in a landscape that has so precious few of them anymore. I love it for that alone, but the game itself is fun and worth the time for anyone who wants to crash into stuff, misses the old car combat games, and/or just wants a change of pace from the current racing games on the market.