09 January 2015
Released in 2004 by Supersonic Software, Mashed is a weaponised driving game with a 3rd person camera. It's buggy, broken, seemingly unfinished and we are obsessed with it. I'll pick apart its faults, charming and otherwise, but first I'll cover the basics.
Everything looks to be in order.
It's Micro Machines basically...
It's no surprise that the game shares significant traits with the most revered of multiplayer racers, Micro Machines, given that Supersonic software were also responsible for a number of the expansions and sequels.
For those that aren't familiar, races are broken down into mini-races (or rounds), with player elimination occurring when they fall too far behind the leader (off camera basically). A round ends when only one car is left, points are awarded (or taken away) and a new round starts again from roughly the same track position. Each player starts with six points. In a four car race two points are awarded to the winner of each round, one point to second place, minus one point to third and minus two points to last. The winner is the first player to reach twelve points, though importantly they must do so by winning a round i.e. a point earned for coming second will not win you the race even if you are on seven points. Whilst it might seem odd that I'm covering the minutiae, it is the small details and balance derived from this points system that give the game so much of its strength. Catch the leader mechanics mean that alliances are formed and broken on a regular basis and very few races finish without a dramatic climax of some sort or another. A person in last position can put together a few strong rounds and find themselves right back in contention. By contrast a player might well storm into the lead early on, only to find themselves reined in by the collective force of the other players peppering them with weapons. The system of short rounds helps democratise this system and the fact that the content of weapon pick-ups is visible and not a factor of current race position means that there is no purple-shell bullshit here.
The mid-race standings
There's nothing revolutionary about the weapons in the game, but they are surprisingly fun to use and very well balanced. All weapons appear as crate drops in certain areas on the track and have limited ammo. I'll offer a quick breakdown of each here:
Mortars - Fires forward and up at an angle from your vehicle, with a small amount of homing in on targets on the way down. A favourite tactic is to sandbag slightly to let an opponent get ahead into the sweet spot for you to drop a bunch of these down on them. An advanced tactic is to pre-empt an opponents position and fire them across a corner of the track.
Flash - A flashbang that momentarily whites out the screen. Can be very effective if timed just right, but be careful you don't end-up ruining your own race.
Proximity Mines - You get two at a time with each taking around a second to arm once dropped, meaning that they are no good if you're in a pack of other vehicles until you come 'round on the next lap. One tactic is to try to get slightly further ahead of your opponents before dropping them, though this usually ends with them shooting the shit out of you.
Machine Gun - A blue line of sight appears in front of your car and will lock onto anything within a small arc. A car being hit by machine gun fire is hard to control, veering around wildly, aided and abetted by the largely broken car physics. The range of the weapon is limited and the locking is not perfect, which makes using them very rewarding. Trying to claw back an opponent so they are within range is a great thrill, as is knowing that if you mess-up a corner that blue line just behind you is going to suddenly switch to red and you're going to be in trouble.
Homing Missile - A heat-seeking missile that uses roughly the same targeting mechanic as the machine gun. It's a one shot weapon. In order to get a lock on a target you have to keep them in your sights for half-a-second or so. The missiles are FAST so if you get a lock on someone, chances are you'll get them and flip them.
Shotgun - These badboys fire sideways off both sides of your car and come in batch of around five shots. Timed just right, say when you're sliding around a corner next to an opponent, you can unleash them to flip their car. They have a very small, undefined target area, but when you get the hang of them they can be highly effective.
Oil Slick - Classic. The Classic. Put this across the road before a corner with a cliff on the other side of it and watch your opponents fly off the track.
Drum Bomb - Two explosives barrels that roll backwards off the roof of your car. They take a while to become armed, but do serious amounts of damage to cars behind you.
Rear-Facing Flame-thrower - A one shot flame that can blow-out tires and even destroy a car if used perfectly. Another element is that they slow vehicles being hit by them, which is a subtle but vital effect.
Pink waits for a lock on Green, whilst Black finally makes the shortcut stick.
What makes the weapons so fun to use is the feeling that you have to adapt your driving to maximise them. For instance there isn't much oil in the oil slick, so you're going to have to get it just right if you want your opponent to drive through it. Nothing is fire and forget here, how you execute your use of weapons is totally crucial to achieving victory. Another thing to consider is that the perfect information of having crate contents means there is a confluence of cars trying to get certain items, not only that but it presents itself as a tactical decision to be made. A car in the lead would be well advised to pick-up rear-facing weapons, but in doing so leaves the more potent forward-facing weapons out on the track for their rivals. It is exactly this kind of blend of mechanical subtlety and chaos that I want to emphasise in Friendship Club.
One last thing I should mention is that you can turn on a game mode that allows eliminated players to return to the game as gun sights. If they manage to hold a lock on one of the remaining cars long enough they can hit the trigger and fire a homing missile from camera helicopter that flies above above the track. These missiles can be avoided by the cars if they drive smartly enough, with the speed of the missiles set so that gradually gain on the cars. It's not a particularly original mechanic, but it provides an additional catch-the-leader aspect and the act of trying to get a lock-on whilst dealing with the already nuts camera handling, then watching the ensuing chaos unfold is very rewarding indeed.
Judging by the rocket on the far left, Green has about half a second to live.
Now, it's worth my saying that I've not seen half the tracks or cars in this damn game. Why? Well, because you have to unlock them in the sodding single-player, the single-player that is totally awful. We've got a selection, courtesy of a few unpleasant lunch breaks and a work experience student we had last summer who put in a couple of hours. As with so much of the game, the track design ranges from inspired to shameful. Perhaps the finest in the game is the opening level, a short loop with a chicane on the back-straight. It exemplifies what can be achieved with condensed form, its simplicity garnering increasingly complex player dynamics. An example is the small wall on the right, half way down the main straight. Just wide enough for a car to get stuck on this creates absolute chaos amongst practiced players as it becomes an obvious obstacle to push other cars into. The starting grid can occasionally reduce itself to a "no, after you..." affair as no-one wants to end-up getting piled into that alcove, or worse, find themselves on the outside of the back-straight which has a sheer drop running along its edge.
Yeah, that wall, that one right there...
It's worth mentioning at this point that there is a starting boost that can achieved if the throttle is timed just right off the get go. A perfect start should see you get far enough ahead of your opponents off the line so as not to get caught-up in the mêlée.It goes without saying that firing a machine gun at a car in front, then watching it lose control and fly straight off the track is a cause for much rejoicing.
What not to do and exactly how you should do it
So, I don't know if I've made it clear enough yet but this game is really broken. The physics are quite frankly fucked. Jostling cars will extricate themselves from one another all of a sudden with comedic consequences. As mentioned the camera is bugged to hell, sometimes causing the end game shot to feature nothing. Some of the tracks are glitchy to the point that in one case there is a jump which it's give or take whether your car will leave the ground or just catch its rear axle on an invisible lip before tipping vertically and plummeting to the ground. Don't even get me started on the menu system. However, all of this conspires to make the game completely hilarious. At times it feels as though it could be a fully signed-up member of the current spate/plague of games with hilariously broken physics.
I've thought long and hard about these problems, wondering if in some perverted respect they are a defining contribution to the gameplay experience. If this was just a really good, well polished multiplayer racing game from ten years ago would we still be playing it in the studio as much as we do? No, probably not. It is that unpredictable friend who wouldn't ever want to be any different. Moreover, its failings provide a signal noise that actually helps balance the game. From a game design point-of-view I sometimes treat this low-level randomness as a form of dithering, and a way of removing perfect information and predictability from a system (if that's what you're trying to achieve to some degree). However, don't think for a minute I'm suggesting that you put broken shit into your work, but that if you do increase elements of randomisation (...or dithering) you make sure it's funny or at least fair.
This isn't a screenshot from Interstate '76
I whole half-heartedly recommend.
Having said all of this, it should be clear that we all have a real soft-spot for the game. Buried in amongst all the rough edges is a very compelling multiplayer experience, though I'll never be able to tell if that was through some vague and distant sense of genius or sheer coincidence.