Lots of games today fall under the category of “jack of all trades, master of none.” Bloated open-worlds can often feel enjoyable for many hours, but at some point the experience tends to tick over into more of a duty than a hobby as map icons become little more than dust bunnies for the vacuuming player. Sometimes this line is imperceptible and you wonder when it stopped being fun, and how maybe less could’ve been much, much more.

Other times, there are games like Wreckfest, which zooms in on one very specific detail to the point of beautifully chaotic perfection. As a racing game, it would be pretty good. But as a racing game with one of the coolest and most detailed damage models I’ve ever seen, Wreckfest is transformed from destruction derby fodder to king of the hill. It’s got to be the best racing game of 2019.

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Wreckfest’s career mode carries a familiar setup: progress upwardly through different divisions with the hopes of on top of the racing world. That’s about the last thing that’s conventional for Wreckfest. Its intense focus on destruction and some pretty difficult tracks make it play like no other racer I’ve ever seen, but more than unique, it’s awesome.

Destruction takes center stage and it never gets old. Every turn can result in the vicious scraping of metal like a sentient, hellbent cheese grater has burst onto the track. Whether racing on tarmac, dirt, some combination of surfaces, or colliding over and again in the game’s many destruction derby arenas, the damage seen in-game is at once hyperrealistic and smartly forgiving. In the real world, the chassis-crunching crashes in Wreckfest would cripple your car much sooner than they actually do, but this concession gives players all the aesthetic pleasure of dozens of cars seriously messed up without ending a bout or race prematurely.

Damage reports will tell you where your car is falling apart, but it’s really the health meter you’ll need to watch closely, especially in those derby arenas. Starting at 100, you and all competitors online or against a field of AI will have to widdle down each other’s vehicles until there’s just one driver remaining.

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Tires wobble off, hoods of cars are removed or somehow displaced to the trunk sections, doors fly off like frisbees from hell. It’s never anything less than a spectacle to see the damage model come to life every single time you play a round. It’s also in these moments where I’m reminded demolition derbies were really our first battle royales, and Wreckfest’s mastery of the game mode feels well-timed as a result.

Playing these derbies makes for some of the game’s best moments because the tension can feel so high when you’re the last of just a few cars still functioning. Bent up like an accordion by then, the pedal-to-the-metal carnage of earlier in the round turns to more strategic dashing and crashing. You can fake out opponents to get them to hit the wall, or drift into their front ends, protecting your own. There’s a surprising level of tactics in Wreckfest, and it’s owed to the amazing damage model the game displays at all times.

Racing is a lot of fun too, and the game tends to play to its strengths by demanding tough turns or absurd intersections where later laps usually make for corridors of carnage after the pack has spread out a bit. Sometimes the tracks aren’t intricate enough and you may escape with nearly no damage or many encounters with other racers, but thankfully these moments are the exception to Wreckfest’s rule — and that’s why Wreckfest rules.

For the actual racing to be almost as fun as destruction derby mode is critical since most of the game’s several career paths are full of actual races rather than derbies. If you really prefer the latter, you can create custom events as often as you want and you won’t miss much. Progression comes in the form of a leveling system that unlocks new cars, upgrades, and cosmetic options that can take your vehicles from vulnerable jalopies to fuming beasts that would instill fear in Mad Max.

Balancing armor and maneuverability is a delicate tightrope, and you’ll eventually have several builds of cars for different kinds of races or specific tracks. Though very few of the performance upgrades feel compelling on their own, over time you’ll notice great improvements to your cars and you’ll feel like you’ve amassed a motorcade militia. Some of these menus, as well as the game in general, tend to load a bit slowly.

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It should also be noted that Wreckfest’s difficulty settings, though wide-ranging, never feel very accessible. There are many tuning options, more than you’d expect perhaps, but given how heavy and sim-like the cars drive, they fit. True gearheads will be able to customize the feel of each car to get them where they like them. For anyone not interested in that, you can choose the difficulty for you, but it’s still often pretty tough even on the easiest option.

That makes for the unfortunate case of a game kids would love but probably can’t often play well. At least more experienced players young and old will get to grips with these deliberately unwieldy metal monsters, and the crashes that transpire in most races are spectator-worthy too.

Final Score: 9

Wreckfest foregoes a complex career mode you might expect in a modern racing game and instead highlights the best damage model I’ve ever seen in video games. Crashing has never looked so good or played so well, and this makes the game feel worthwhile long after you’ve dominated the simple stash of modes and upgrades. It’s a game that looks wonderful even when it’s meant to look ugly, always chaotic and messy but never less than stunning.

 

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