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Wreckfest’s beautiful disaster was the most fun I had all year

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A fringe sports icon gets its best video game treatment ever

Debris sprays everywhere as one demolition racer t-bones another, turning it on its side, over the hard tarmac in Wreckfest Image: Bugbear Entertainment/THQ Nordic

In 12 years of writing about sports video games, I’ve recreated all kinds of great moments and childhood dreams, but until I got my hands on Wreckfest this summer, there was one missing. A big one.

In the wild-west days of ESPN’s first five years, that fabled time of Australian rules football, billiards, and white guys boxing in prime time, the Worldwide Leader also broadcast demolition derbies. My big brother and I were instant fans. There is something neurological that causes me to laugh whenever I see a big, pointless car wreck on TV. Ditto for my brother. And so we sat on the floor of the den, snickering and roaring and goddamn!-ing and sorry-mom-ing.

Car combat has been its own video game sub-genre for two decades, and even though titles like the PSOne’s Destruction Derby and the FlatOut series have tried, obliquely, to capture the mayhem of a county fair demolition derby, none has done so as thoroughly as Wreckfest, by Helsinki-based Bugbear Entertainment.

This may seem like an oxymoron, but the level of restraint in Wreckfest’s design is what makes it the perfect demo-derby race sim. There are no drivers going through the windshield, no exploding vehicles, no power-ups or health refills, features of other games in the variety. Bugbear, which made FlatOut, really tried to set a field of beaters and bangers that resembled real life and behave as they would in it. Yes, everyone knows no one can get hurt in this game, but that’s on the players. The roll cages, the removal of anything glass on the vehicle, the railroad-tie bumpers are all straight-from-ESPN-circa-1983 authentic.

Wreckfest launched on PC last year and made its console debut this year, which is why I’m so late to this party. In it, players have their choice of mayhem-filled events — the demolition derby, the banger race and the figure-8 race, with some variances and novelties (like school buses and RVs) in the single-player career mode. Online is as anything-goes as you’d expect in a racing game where slamming into each other is not only tolerated, it’s the point of the game. It’s very hard to get mad about a race you could have won but were spun out in the last lap when that’s a legal tactic.

Did we mention the soundtrack? Every one of these slaps.

The game gets a little indulgent with three of its courses: the Bonebreaker (it’s very hard to describe, but its purpose is to set up head-on collisions) and Madman Stadium, in which a jump-filled racing course rings a large dirt pit. There’s another (Death Loop) with a metal loop-de-loop that also seems well to the outside of improbable. But hell, if someone did have the time and the proper insurance policies, sure, I could see something like this built for a stunt show, somewhere.

The real fun is in one of the game’s more standard dirt track layouts, or even the pure asphalt oval. Wreckfest gives me as much of a thrill outrunning the field as it does running someone into the wall in a corner, like a hockey player board-checking his guy through the plexiglass. There always seems to be some giant rock, or tree, or other naturally occurring hazard at a critically tough bend in Wreckfest’s layouts, helpfully marked by a pile of old tires. Driving through a field of scattered tires is a telltale sign that some real shit went down there the lap before.

The fleet of cars may not be real-life, but the ringers are at least analogous to the staples of demo derbies. The Nexus RX is your basic Honda CRX, vulnerable as hell but scampering ahead of the field like a toddler running away at bathtime. El Matador is the El Camino, the automotive equivalent of a mullet and one of the all-time great shitmobiles. Warwagon is a basic Chevy Impala station wagon, the kind that carried the Mad Hatter to victory in so many of those smack-up derbies that delighted my brother and me. It has loads of crumple zone in the back, which you better use in a demolition derby because the engine compartment can’t take much punishment.

And then there’s the Dominator, which has to be the famed 1964 Chrysler Imperial, an icon of demolition racing. You’ll still see these at every event IRL; it’s the thing that looks like it drove Kruschev to the UN before getting hit by a meteorite. “Ain’t no beatin’ it down,” one driver said to me at the 1997 Pole Cat Mud Bog in Onslow County, N.C. Fully upgraded, there ain’t no beatin’ it down in Wreckfest either.

There are customizations galore (including the pointless engine headers, which don’t do anything for performance but make an intimidating noise and belch flames on a gear change). But again, anything you can do to your car still sits within the realm of possibility. Wreckfest walks a fine line between realism and sanitized over-the-top violence, but the rigorous physics and vehicle behavior is what give all the T-bones and crash-outs their meaning. It’s the idea that I actually caused that, I didn’t take advantage of some gadget, weapon, or other thumb on the scale.

We’ve had a long look at the best games of 2019, all worthy laureates for fulfilling this or that design goal. Wreckfest was simply the most fun I’ve had with a controller in my hand this year. It is endlessly replayable, spectacular in the most literal sense (I told a friend her kids won’t fight over who gets to play, because just watching it is entertaining), and even nostalgic in all the right places.

Wreckfest may not be among Polygon’s top 50 games of the year in 2019 — it was number 40 in last year’s list, though — but in my book, at least, there ain’t no beatin’ it down.