One of the oldest video game subgenres, right beneath “shooting aliens” and “eating yellow pellets,” is “destroying stuff while driving a car.” Yet, while Mad Max‘s ’80s heyday pushed the needle as the games industry first exploded, we’ve rarely seen the genre explode on a mainstream level.
Mario Kart may seem like an exception, but when I say “car combat,” that’s less about green shells and banana peels and more about direct collisions and destruction derbies. The biggest series under that banner, Twisted Metal and Vigilante 8, are minuscule compared to Mario Kart—and don’t have many peers.
The genre gets a major jumpstart this week with Destruction AllStars, Sony’s first entirely new game for PlayStation 5. (Last year’s Demon’s Souls doesn’t quite count, since it’s a remake of a PS3 title.) For a certain class of driving-game savant, this one’s a biggie, as it sees Lucid Games finally return to automotive gaming after blazing the genre’s trail with Project Gotham Racing. But can they succeed with car combat where so many others have stalled out?
Much like a PS5, you currently can’t buy this game
The best thing going for this game is that it was yanked off of store shelves.
Let me explain: DAS nearly launched alongside the PlayStation 5 in November as a $70 retail game. At the last minute, it was both delayed and transformed (for the foreseeable future) into a giveaway with Sony’s paid PlayStation Plus subscription service. So as long as you’re a paying PS+ member between now and March 31, you can claim a copy of the game, and if your subscription lapses, you can get the game back by resubscribing.
It’s unclear whether this default PS+ access will continue after March 31, and as of press time, you cannot individually buy DAS as either a disc or an online license. Thus, if you’re already paying for PS+ as, say, a PS4 owner, I urge you to claim what’s rightfully yours via DAS‘ PlayStation Network listing within the next eight weeks, which you can do on a Web browser without owning a PS5 console. (There’s a good chance you don’t own a PS5 console yet, or so we hear.)
As a result, this predominately online multiplayer car-combat game has already landed on a majority of PS5 consoles—and you can’t play PS5 games online without PS+, anyway, so this overlap is cleverly redundant. So far, the game’s first day benefits from a healthy online population, which might not have been the case for a brand-new series costing no less than $70 upfront. That being said, since DAS is predominately online, Sony Interactive Entertainment declined our request to test the game ahead of its launch, so I logged in as soon as the game went live to the public on Monday evening.
Passing the smashy-smash sniff test
DAS offers four types of online destruction derby gameplay, along with offline versions where AI takes the place of real drivers. (Want to play with friends? You must each play online with your own PS5; the game doesn’t offer split-screen or system-link options.) In each mode, winning and losing revolves around piloting your car in such a way that it smashes into other cars, and the modes are differentiated by additional objectives.
The first order of business is the smashy-smash, and that’s DAS‘ immediate sniff-test success. Every car in the game can activate two types of boosts—forward and sideways—which both do damage to other cars while temporarily protecting you from taking head-on damage. A forward boost is your typical video game “nitro” button, sending you surging forward in a way that’ll either tap a car immediately in front of you or help you guarantee a solid T-bone collision angle. The side-boost, meanwhile, makes your car unnaturally shift to the side, as if it had hips and could swing them directly to the left or right.
A brief “recharge” timer for both boost maneuvers takes longer if you whiff, so that’s a tidy way to nudge players into saving their boosts for clearer collisions and chaining together more smashes in a row. You’ll want to string together chains, because slamming into a car in DAS looks and feels really darned good, with Burnout-caliber momentum plunging into whatever car crumples up with the worst blow. Single-player modes include a Matrix-style bullet-time slowdown when you really trash an opposing car, but these collisions still look and feel great in real time, which is a testament to how Lucid Games models and sells them.
Yet DAS includes a wacky twist: every match shows players leaping onto the battlefield as a person, not a car. At this point, you’re encouraged to run up to a number of empty cars sitting on podiums, claim one, and start driving. The point of this is to emphasize that you can eject out of a car at any time—or fly out of your own car if it’s destroyed. Often, you’ll bail on your own car because it’s low on health, and you’re safer ejecting and claiming various empty cars that appear on podiums mid-match.
Lucid Games tries to nudge players into ejecting from their cars for other reasons. The biggest is that you have to run and jump over floating platforms and walls to pick up a “gem” currency, which is the fastest way to fill your character’s two “special” meters. This gets confusing. The first meter controls your avatar, and spending that meter temporarily increases your character’s running speed, adds a double jump, and lets them hop onto opposing cars and try to overtake them via a button-tapping mini-game. The second meter lets you spawn a character-specific “super” car, which has a higher health rating and one unique, rechargeable ability. In general, you want the super car more than the freebie cars scattered across maps.
Wheels > feet
This dual gameplay system has long been teased since the game’s mid-2020 announcement, and I wondered at that time whether it would compare well to Titanfall, which lets players alternate between human-sized soldiers and gargantuan robots. That contrast works wonders for Titanfall, as each extreme has its own appealing strengths and can counter the other side. DAS, sadly, doesn’t come close to living up to such a standard.
Instead, Lucid Games forces players to deal with a less satisfying metagame of grabbing and spending gems on nicer cars—and this means having to awkwardly run, jump, and wall-glide to accumulate those gems. Running around simply doesn’t feel as fun as driving, because the human half of the game utterly lacks power—unless you perfectly time the “human special” meter to jump on opposing cars, and even then, it’s usually faster for the driver to shake off a foe than it is for the human to capture such a car.
When you’re on foot, you can activate miniature barriers by walking over them, and these mildly harm cars if they crash into them, but this never pans out in as satisfying of a “hahaha, gotcha” manner as you get from dropping banana peels and bob-ombs in Mario Kart. Lucid Games simply didn’t think the human half of this game through, and I really hope they have any development budget left to retune it entirely. Even something as simple as a more controllable jump or a wider, see-the-whole-arena camera angle would help, let alone giving players some standard on-foot weapon options.
Each character-specific car, on the other hand, ranges in utility when its special meter is activated, and already, these cars appear to be painfully imbalanced. Some cars merely get a temporary, beefed-up shield, while others become limited-time super-murder-mobiles, particularly the ones equipped with unblockable waves of AOE damage. Ideally, these imbalances will be resolved to some extent with mathematical touch-ups, and I’m hopeful this narrows the playing field, as many of the power-ups are compelling. One character’s supercar can lay down temporary streaks of fire in their wake, which do a ton of damage to foes who drive through, while another can temporarily blind a single driver—which squadmates can take advantage of and destroy a sitting duck.