Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem Review

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem, developed by Steel Monkeys and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Quick chaotic races, timed events emphasize destroying opponents over completing laps and finishing first, six balanced vehicles with three unique weapons each, online multiplayer for six players, competent AI, only $10
The Not So Good: Terrible physics while airborne, just three tracks, no partial credit for completed laps entirely negates track position
What say you? A combat racing game where the focus is on destruction instead of track position: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

What are people going to do for fun after the apocalypse? Fight over resources? Fight over resources? Or, possibly, fight over resources? How about gentlemanly auto car racing? That’s clean, non-violent fun for all, unless you put guns on the cars, of course, then it’s extremely violent, as in the case of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem. The future of racing ups the ante with copious amounts of weaponry, as highlighted by the scientifically accurate simulations Death Track and GearGrinder. Let’s all see what kinds of mayhem the post-apocalypse has to offer.

The graphics of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem are decent enough for a budget title. The game’s six cars all have nicely detailed models with dramatic explosions. In addition, the weapon animations, though very obviously canned, are done well, exhibiting hints of real-world physics as they are dropped on the ground and then cascade over the track surface. Not surprisingly, the emphasis is placed on mayhem, and the game mostly delivers. Now, it does look like the developer worked really hard on the six car models and two of the tracks, and kind of “phoned it in” on the last circuit, which features a bland layout. But, overall, I was pleased with the graphics of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem. As for the sound design, there is nothing too exciting to write home about: a collection of repetitive explosions, subtle engine sounds, a tiresome “kill” notification, and a generic rock soundtrack that overshadows everything using the default settings (by the way, you earn an achievement by changing the audio mix). Still, Post Apocalyptic Mayhem provides at least $10 worth of value in terms of graphics and sound.

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem is a combat racing game. While this is a pretty typical premise that’s been around for quite a while, the focus here is clearly on killing other players: during the timed races (the default is five minutes, which cannot be changed for single player events), points are awarded for kills and laps completed. I like how the points system balances destroying opponents and simply logging laps. In games like Death Track, the only goal was to finish first, so destroying other drivers was simply a means to an end instead of a specific goal. However, everyone will almost always complete just one full lap during the time limit (the track layouts are long and take over two and a half minutes to complete), so kills are the only thing that determines the victor. I would like to see Post Apocalyptic Mayhem reward partial points based on how much track you’ve driven, to make position at least a little bit important. You can engage in arcade races (pick a vehicle, a track, and a difficulty) or a three-map challenge that covers all of the tracks Post Apocalyptic Mayhem has to offer. Yes, there are only three layouts; while disappointing, they offer a good assortment of multiple paths, narrow sections, jumps, and obstacles to determine when its best unleash your destruction. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem also features multiplayer games that allow you to adjust the victory conditions (laps, kills, or time). You can join others using the in-game browser (or quick match option), and empty slots can be taken up by bots. While there are certainly areas where the features of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem could be improved, there are some good options to be had.

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem assumes you own an XBOX gamepad, as all of the menus and in-game prompts refer to those multi-colored buttons or console evilness. Handling in the game is obviously very arcade, featuring slightly different characteristics for each game. Nitro offers subtle enhancements in acceleration that allow you to catch up from the rear of the pack or drive past an opponent to deploy a weapon. Easily the worst part of the game is when your vehicle goes airborne: every vehicle “floats” in mid-air for seconds at a time, especially when you hit an object at a weird angle (the sensation is less noticeable when using proper jumps). It can be really annoying to correct a vehicle when it’s gone off the track.

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem features six vehicles with varied attributes in acceleration, handling, and mayhem. There is a school bus, jet engine buggy, pickup truck, logger, SUV, and druggie RV (a Breaking Bad reference, no doubt), and only one of each type is allowed at a time in a race. Each vehicle has three unique weapons that deploy from the front, sides, or rear of the car, though they generally fall into several categories: mines, bombs, short-range weapons, or things that affect other vehicles’ handling. A rear-view camera assists with the placement of certain weapons. Ammunition is collected from barrels scattered around the tracks (color-coded to match the XBOX controller buttons), you can only store one shot per weapon at a time, and all of your ammo is lost if you respawn. There doesn’t seem to be any over-powered vehicles (although I certainly have my favorites) since each car gets two “good” weapons and one “bad” weapon. It’s easy to see deployed weapons on the ground (most glow) and the game also highlights parts of each vehicle that are armed, so if you have an eagle eye, you can see where to avoid other competitors.

The AI is slow on anything but hard (by design, I am sure), but good at combat on any level: they will take you and others down with decent precision (as good as an average human player, I would say) and provide good competition in the fight for the most kills. Since most players will complete the same number of laps (the layouts are lengthy and everyone only completes one full lap each 5 minute game), Post Apocalyptic Mayhem is all about the kills. This is one of the only racing games where finishing in the lead doesn't matter at all. What the score system means is that you want to be close to the other racers so that you can cause them damage, but not too close where they can damage you. It's an interesting mix of strategy as you position yourself in the best place between the other competitors, based on the weapons you and they have. Rewarding kills more than track placement is, frankly, a brilliant move that makes for a much more interesting and chaotic game. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem removes a lot of the frustration associated with these types of games: you can't lose because of a last second “red shell” right before the finish line, since kills are weighted so much more than position. Also, being so much faster than your competitors matters none, since you must kill them in order to win. I would like shorter laps (so position made a small difference, compensate for a kill or two) or partial credit for lap completion to make the focus at least a little bit on actually racing, but the balance Post Apocalyptic Mayhem strikes is captivating.

Unlike most racing combat games where destroying your opponents is the best way of finishing first, in Post Apocalyptic Mayhem destroying your opponents is the only way of finishing first, as your actual position on the race track matters none. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem feels different from other combat racing games because being first on the track could mean finishing last; it's a great way for penalizing people who race out to a commanding lead and stay there (and subsequently cause boring races) without resorting to “cheating” (rubber-banding of AI or super-powerful weapons directed at the leader). This emphasis on destruction makes playing the game feel a lot less boring, since you should always try to be in the thick of battle instead of half a lap ahead of your competitors (at least if you want to win). I'd like your track position to impact the points a bit more: since everyone will complete the same number of laps in a five-minute race, scoring is solely determined by kills. The AI drivers are quite competent: while they simply drive slower on “easy” and “medium” difficulty settings, they are equally adept at combat across all levels of difficulty, making “hard” the beest choice for an interesting race. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem also features nice game balance, from the varied car weapons to the use of nitro boosts: each vehicle has two “good” weapons and all are proficient at taking out the enemy. Physics while in the air are dreadful: even massive armored school buses seem to float for eternity, especially when you catch a trackside object at an odd angle. While Post Apocalyptic Mayhem supports multiplayer for up to six players, there are only three maps to play on. Still, Post Apocalyptic Mayhem is one of the better car combat games around thanks to its balance in favor of combat over racing.