Note: Shortly after publication a massive new update was released that adds in a figure-8 track, a new car and makes various tweaks to handling and other aspects of the game. Please be aware that this preview does not reflect that update.
You can stop frowning like someone just stole your Mars Bar, it’s just a place-holder name. Indeed, Bugbear’s newest racer is still so early in development that it is yet to be properly named, the honor of doing so having been handed off to the fans who are currently working their way through just about every possible combination of words in the English language. But that’s not important, because what you really need to focus on is that Next Car Game is infused with the DNA of the Flatout series.
The first port of call was naturally a full-on 24-car destruction derby, perhaps not the best place to get a firm grasp on the handling model but certainly the perfect choice for checking out the impressive physics which allow for amazing displays of destruction. Also, I’d been having a bad day and nothing makes me feel better than smashing shit up. As 24 beautifully realised cars collided in the centre of the arena I was genuinely taken aback by the level of destruction on display, vehicles being ripped apart through sheer force, creating a brutal, almost balletic display. There’s a wonderful sense of weight to everything that make crashes look and feel fantastic, while the audio also does a great job of selling the impacts. It’s an overused word, but Next Car Game feels visceral. Cars are brualised, mangled and destroyed. There’s more skill involved here than you might first expect, because your car can’t take too much damage, and thus looking for the best time to attack is key. You have to strike fast and then get out before other cars pile into you, so situational awareness is very important, as is some fancy driving.
Yet it was in the lunacy of a 24-card race that my appreciation for the Bugbear’s work really began to show through, the sheer destructive capabilities of the engine working in tandem with satisfyingly weighty handling to create a challenging racing experience, one that I almost immediately fell head over heels in love with. With so many cars on track the first corner closely resembles World War II in a highly localised area, entire cars spinning through the air before crashing into the pack sending shards of metal flying. It’s while plowing headfirst into this mess, witnessing cars crumple and concrete barriers wrecked, that realisation dawns: despite the seeming encouragement of the on-screen destruction this is a racing game that demands patience and careful control of the throttle. Scream into the first corner and you might just make it out alive, but it’s far more likely that you’ll end up nearly destroyed. The smarter option is to go in careful, picking your way through the inevitable pile-ups, contacting other cars when its beneficial to you. It’s like a tactical shooter: you line up the perfect shot, and take it when you need to. Smashing into others is tons of fun thanks to the convincing way that they crumple, but a well placed slam into the side of another car can send them spinning into a wall with minimal fuss, and so every race is like a deadly dance, one that’s flirting with you, trying so hard to simply make you hit the accelerator and ram everything, only to lose it all. The steering has a real sense of weight to it, still far from the deadly lands of realism but nowhere near being “Arcadey” either. Perhaps the best way to think of the handling is believable. You can believe that this is what cars of this nature handle like, even if you know it really isn’t. In its current form driving the vicious muscle car requires some deft throttle work as it likes to step out and spin the wheels, slowing you down. To my surprise I’ve only recently began earning podium finishes and I love that fact. Next Car Game isn’t forgiving; it wants you to try hard.
Indeed the on-screen lunacy effectively hides the fact that Next Car Game is a surprisingly nuanced game, requiring far more skill than your average racer. Keeping your ride on track and getting the maximum speed from it takes constant work, and the AI you’re up against are an aggressive bunch, showing no hesitation when it comes to using use as a way of getting around corners. Their savagery is refreshing, even if it’s partially because they sometimes seem unaware of your existence. But even when not tangling with you they’re fighting with each other, shoving and pushing to claim dominion over the track. The end result is circuits which becomes littered with chunks of concrete barriers, tires and the wrecks of cars as the race progresses. Each lap presents more and more debris, with the husks of AI controlled vehicles often providing obstacles to avoid, bringing a nice dynamic to the races.
Things are far from perfect, mind you: cars feel like they wallow too much and the physics need just a bit of tweaking to ensure that being spun out isn’t quite as easy, because at the moment the slightest tap can send you completely out of contention. This might sound like a contradiction based on what I was saying earlier, but the thing is with so many cars on track and so little required to send you hurtling to your demise races can become a little frustrating. Likewise it’s actually a little too easy to spin your opponents out. Your cars damage also doesn’t translate very well to changes in handling, either. Finally the handling could do with being a little more responsive.
Other elements of the game are currently grayed out or limited, but serve to provide an idea of what else we can expect. Cars can be customised with different parts like a new engine or tyres for specific terrain, while a selection of driving aids lets you customise the handling, gently prodding it toward either end of the spectrum. And thus we arrive at a small point of contention: in its current form Next Car Game feels like it’s trying to appeal to everyone, and therefore may struggle to please either crowd. The handling model sits firmly in the middle of the realism/arcade spectrum, perhaps leaning more toward realism, and while it feels nice to me I can imagine people wishing it would fully commit to one or the other.
In terms of tracks the designs are firmly within the realms of realism. On a completely personal level I’m hoping to see a few added with some low-key jumps and maybe some high embankments on the corners to play up the destruction. Nothing to over-the-top, mind, but in its current form Next Car Game is a surprisingly po-faced racer, but then that makes it fairly unique on the market as we’ve rarely had a destruction derby style racer that isn’t purely arcade in nature.
Alongside the normal Early Access section of the game Bugbear also kindly permitted me access to their aptly titled Technology Sneak Peek, a virtual playground where they test various aspects of the physics and handling. It’s a sleek, white world filled with weird things, many of which are built for the simple purposes of wrecking cars in numerous different ways, pushing the engine as far as it can go. Perhaps more interestingly it gives fleeting glimpses of other, more wacky modes that could turn up in the full game. Again, anyone with a few memories of the Flatout series will recall that Bugbear were fond of presenting players with various distractions, like bowling with cars and ski jumps. If this playground of destruction is any reliable indication we could be in for a wide variety of activities.
At this point the most exciting prospect about Bugbear’s latest project is multiplayer, a feature that’s definitely coming but that has not yet been added to the Early Access program. Racing against the AI is brilliant fun, but the idea of taking part in a destruction derby with 23 other players sends tingles down the spine. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned, though: even with AI-controlled races can on occasion be a frustrating experience, so with real gamers in play there’s just a little seed of doubt sitting within my soul. Could standard races become far too irritating, as any chance of winning is stripped away because of the game’s strongest asset, the physics? What’s to stop every race devolving into a destruction derby? It’ll be interesting to see how Bugbear handles this potential problem.
It’s also important to for me to stress that Next Car Game is very much an Early Access title as the system feels like it was originally intended, by which I mean your money buys you a barebones package. Alongside the destruction derby there’s just two different races to partake in, and two vehicles in which to do so. The Early Access scheme is for people who want to actively help fund the development of games and provide direct feedback, and this regard Next Car Game feels like an almost perfect example of what Early Access titles were likely originally envisioned to be, giving you a sampling of what you can expect the finished game to be like. It’s just a shame that the relatively high entry price may put some people off. It’s here we encounter what I view to be the biggest flaw in the Early Access scheme: you have to trust the text and video information provided to give you an accurate representation of what the developers are aiming for, otherwise you could find yourself paying to access a game only to discover upon playing that you have no interest in funding its development. As it stands the Early Access scheme is a powerful tool, but one fool of potential pit-falls. But that’s a topic for another time.
It’s also worth noting that by heading over to the official Next Car Game site and signing up for the newsletter you’ll be provided with a code to access the Sneak Peek Tech Demo absolutely free, which should be enough to give you an idea of whether it’s worth purchasing Early Access.
Let’s me stop for a brief second and play the dreaded What If game. If this had been a demo rather an Early Access scheme, a chunk of the game made freely available to the public, then after playing through it I would have immediately taken out my wallet and placed an order for the full game without hesitation. Even in its current form Bugbear have convinced me that their new project has what it takes to be a damn good game.
But this isn’t a demo, and I need to maintain a calmer head than that. The simple truth of the matter is that Next Car Game is an Early Access project, and appears to be far away from becoming a full-fledged product sitting on store shelves, thus I can’t claim that it will be a good game, because I have no way of knowing. Anything could happen between now and the projects final minutes, including cancellation or complete overhaul. So I must fall back on an often used word when describing Early Access titles: potential. Next Car Game is brimming with potential, the DNA of the Flatout series mixing with an incredible physics engine to produce something…special. Special, that is, in theory. Special, waiting to coalesce into reality. Waiting.
Make it happen Bugbear.