Car combat titles are kind of a rare species in gaming nowadays, primarily because of the tricky balance that needs to be struck to make them. I'm not talking about those racers where there's some incidental or intentional rubbing or crashing; instead, I mean games where cars are stocked with missiles, oil slicks and cannons. Part of the problem is getting a variety of weapons or abilities that makes action on the track fun and engaging to fight through lap after lap. The other part is coming up with a variety of missions and gameplay that doesn't make the game feel repetitive. DT Carnage, Axis Entertainment and Agetec's recent release, is the latest title to attempt to straddle this complicated line with minimal success.
The main focus of DT Carnage is League Conquest, a story based mode revolving around the DT Racing Leagues. Players take on the role of one of five characters, each with their own natural skills like drifting, handling or speed, which is supposed to inform how they like to drive. The choice of character doesn't affect the plot, which is the same regardless – the character's father lost a driving duel and was placed in the hospital, but disappeared that same night. Trying to track down the mysterious circumstances that are swirling around their family, your character joins the league with the plan of discovering what happened to your father and destroying his attacker.
In the process of this search, you'll acquire a mentor, who will instruct you in the finer points of racing within the DT leagues, which isn't as simple as coming in first place. While that will automatically make you win a race, you can also win by destroying your opponent's vehicles, which can be done in a couple of ways. The first, and most obvious way, is to hammer away at the vehicle with weapons that you acquire by driving through archways scattered around each racetrack, such as missiles, bombs or oil slicks. The second way is to drop objects like ramps that will flip cars over or fences that opponents will run into. A third way is to ram the vehicles into environmental obstacles like walls, damaging the body work and detaching bumpers or fenders, eventually rendering the car inoperable. Finally, a player can use skills that you acquire to affect your target such as manipulating their vision so they crash into others or immediately slam on the brakes.
Unfortunately, the destruction actually becomes part of the problem within the game, not because it's included, but in how it's implemented. You're supposed to receive weapons randomly as you drive through each archway, but you'll frequently receive the exact same thing over and over. There were some races where regardless of where I drove, I only received oil slicks, which didn't really help when there was no one behind me to drive through the hazard. The same thing can be said for droppable objects, and you'll frequently see stretches where the computer will drop ramp after ramp because the same thing has happened to them. Instead of it being a tactical thing, they're jettisoning dead weight randomly, which is evident by the haphazard spread of the items. Coincidentally, you'll notice that this method will frequently knock out half your opponents, because the AI will often forget where it placed these objects, driving into them over and over. That also leaves out traps that will randomly be activated in certain races, most of which always target the computerized drivers. When you start in last place and vault ahead because three guys were stupid enough to take themselves out without any help from you, you realize that the challenge is somewhat reduced to how well you can drive a particular stage and the various races attached.
You can only gain these skills by expanding something known as the Growth Board, a massive grid that governs every facet of the character. This ranges from skills to new cars to character abilities, allowing you to boost things like how much of the top speed, acceleration or handling of a vehicle that character can get out of the machine. Choosing which grid you'll unlock is a matter of points that you'll earn by participating in the various races scattered through the game. These include time trials from one point to another on the track, survival races where racers that aren't in first place receive damage to their car, and longer, endurance style tracks. Based on your performance, you'll receive points which can immediately be redeemed on the grid, adding to your character or leveling up their abilities.
For the most part, the changes happen instantaneously, unless you wind up selecting a new skill, in which case you'll have to "equip" the skill, assuming you have enough active points within your skill book to have it active for a race. Although you won't be able to continually use these skills during a race because they're governed by skill energy points, gaining more is simply a matter of purchasing additional skill points on the grid, which adds a certain RPG-nature to the gameplay. What's more, since you can always return to a previously completed race in the league you're in, you can attempt to improve your performance, gaining more points and thereby unlocking more skills.
Initially, the idea of leveling up your abilities seems to be a great addition to the gameplay. Unfortunately, it feels hit or miss based on what you attempt to unlock. For example, the abilities are supposed to govern what a driver can do with a car. However, even with leveling up the speed freak character multiple times to allow her to squeeze every bit of acceleration and velocity out of a car, she still drove like a snail. Even changing the car she drove, which was supposedly better in every way, had no effect on her driving, which is truly ludicrous because it meant that just about every car was exactly the same regardless of its inherent stats. I may not have any experience driving a highly tuned sports car, but I know that its acceleration, speed and handling is better than that of a stock model sedan. Not so much in this game, because every car drives and feels the same, which is especially confusing because every computerized driver seems to have a much better machine that you do at all times. Even the option to switch back and forth between all of the available racers doesn't feel like a significant enough change, which significantly reduces the impact of replaying the game because it doesn't feel like there's a point. Plus, the story feels as though it drops off, with only mild hints of things being brought up by bosses at the end of a league, which feels like too little, too late.
The only thing that does feel as though it works are the skills. Something that the instruction manual doesn't mention is that you can reverse the dangerous effects of an opponent's skills if you trigger a contrary ability within a short "window of opportunity." For instance, if someone uses the smear effect on you, you can trigger the windshield wiper skill and bounce the harmful effects back on the original user. However, there's a few problems here. First, you don't always have access to the skill or the counter that you need when you run into drivers that are willing to use them against you. Second, you have no way of knowing what skills racers will use against you, so you can never prep at all, which automatically puts you at a disadvantage. Finally, you won't have any clue about when an opponent will trigger the ability until it happens, so you'll have to always cycle between your defensive skills instead of your offensive to protect yourself.
There are other gameplay modes, such as a timed race mode, 2 player mode and even quick races, but these are somewhat complicated by the fact that everything related to these modes are tied to your progress from the Conquest mode. That means that if you haven't sunk a number of hours fighting your way through the issues within the Campaign mode, you won't be able to access anything but the most basic options presented. That might not be that big a deal, especially since the cars don't feel that different, but it is a bit of a disappointment in thinking that you'll have to deel with the shoddier elements if you're interested in checking out other segments of the title.
Outside of that, there's also three mini-games, two of which are at least amusing. The first one, Bowling, is engaging because you aim and then launch your selected car down a lane and attempt to crash through giant pins. The other mode has you "exorcising" ghost cars by driving past or through cars, which is a different twist on lap based races. Unfortunately, the parking garage section is one of those that is extremely infuriating, primarily because it's very hard to see where you're going and your machines don't control particularly well, leading to a many trial and error drives where you'll potentially make it through one section, only to be quickly destroyed in the next through no fault of your own.
While DT Carnage doesn't look horrible, it's not the best looking title either. Granted, the title does show a surprising amount of damage modeling, with bumpers, fenders and spoilers flying off, eventually erupting in flame or explosions. Some of the particle effects are good when it comes to car parts flying off -- Not phenomenal, but fine for the PS2. Similarly, environments are somewhat varied, although you'll find that the tracks in the league only take place along one primary track per location, with sections of the track being used for time races or other race types. However, the downside is that the tracks themselves, although they look good, are hampered with visual pop-in and other oddities. don't This is particularly true if a large effect like an EMP wave is released that travels across the track. Buildings and walls will suddenly snap into view, which can be somewhat distracting. Soundwise, DT Carnage is one of those titles that is fine for the first two or three races. After that, however, you get extremely tired of the generic guitar rock and basic sound effects.
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