Destruction AllStars review: Amazing PS5 car combat, in spite of speedbumps

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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.

This guy with a box on his head is amusing as hell, but that doesn't make the game's carless running-and-jumping content any more fun.
Enlarge / This guy with a box on his head is amusing as hell, but that doesn’t make the game’s carless running-and-jumping content any more fun.

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.

A deliriously fun ride inside a Carnado

As of the game’s launch version, only four modes are on offer: a boilerplate, free-for-all (FFA) destruction derby, called Mayhem, where players win by doling out the most damage; a single-life survival spree, called Gridfall, where the arena’s floor disintegrates over time and players must avoid either falling into lava below or getting KO’ed; and a pair of eight-on-eight team modes where players accumulate “gears” by doing damage, then must pick up and cash these gears into scoring pools to earn points for their team.

Driving your car into an explosive tornado, then having your driver launch harmlessly out of the explosion so that you can find and drive another car, is one of the giddiest PS5-exclusive gaming moments you can find right now.
Enlarge / Driving your car into an explosive tornado, then having your driver launch harmlessly out of the explosion so that you can find and drive another car, is one of the giddiest PS5-exclusive gaming moments you can find right now.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Carnado team mode is the absolute highlight at launch, thanks to its tantalizing risk-reward proposition. Crash into opposing cars, and the gears you earn are assigned to the car you’re currently driving. To cash those gears in, you must sacrifice the car to a massive mid-stage plume of fire and wind (as in, the mode’s titular car-tornado). If you eject from the car or it blows up outside of that center plume, kiss those points bye-bye. Foes with a ton of points have a big number hovering over their cars, so they become massive targets, and the idea of stealing their car, and thus engaging with the on-foot, gem-collecting metagame, becomes all the more lucrative. Steal their car, steal their points. Best of all, this mode forces players to limit their use of supercars, since again, any points they rack up only count if the car in question is sacrificed.

Honestly, this mode alone nudged me over the finish line of talking about DAS as a compelling PS5 game, because every good, bad, and weird element about the game melts together in this mode’s calculus of scoring and emergent opportunities. The other modes are fine enough as flexes of the core smashy-smash conceit, albeit with their own annoyances. Mayhem exposes how spread out and oversized each arena is, so players in that FFA mode can find themselves isolated for far too long. Gridfall is a good twist on FFA car combat but ends too quickly with its single-life limit. And Stockpile, the other team mode, requires constantly jumping into and out of your car for its gear-scoring conceit (which, again, isn’t a fun thing to do in the game’s current state).

My biggest beef thus far is that each mode feels shallow, since the beat-by-beat gameplay is about quickly reacting to nearby chaos, as opposed to communicating with teammates and working out map-wide strategies. Would any of the modes be more fun with, say, a Rocket League-style ball that needs to be controlled and moved? Or what if the on-foot mode was retooled so that a human player could sit on top of a car player and create a tank-combat scenario? I only needed a day of frenetic, arcade gameplay to start dreaming of more depth.

That’s not a good day-one sign—and there’s no way the gameplay in this month’s release would have held up to the scrutiny of a $70 price tag.

No, I would not like to subscribe to your mid-game podcast

A few more quibbles on my way out:

DAS enables voice chat for every online competitor by default, and it offers no in-game option to silence individuals, let alone the entire lobby. The only way to disable this is to go into root PS5 menus and either disable voice chat altogether or use the confusing “activity cards” feature to find and disable an individual game’s voice chat. PS5 DualSense controllers have built-in speakers and microphones, no headset required, which so far seems to crack open everybody’s personal can of dumbassery. In only one day of play, I’ve run into too many players eager to shout obscenities, racist slurs, and—in my worst case—replaying an alt-right podcast about the Dark Web and QAnon.

The limited single-player campaign mode is broken up into a series of missions, and only one of these can be accessed as part of the retail game without paying extra. You have to buy the game’s “coins” to unlock additional single-player mission chains. Beating these rewards exclusive cosmetics, but there’s no way to neatly preview what those cosmetics will be before committing to a $2-$4 purchase.

DAS cosmetics at a later date, and by "more," we hope they mean "anything at all."”>How do you feel about cosmetics that start and end with color swaps on identical geometry? Sony says we can expect more <em>DAS</em> cosmetics at a later date, and by "more," we hope they mean "anything at all."” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/50566153518_21b83be858_h-251022601924c0cfcd99.87304010-980×551.jpg” width=”980″ height=”551″></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / How do you feel about cosmetics that start and end with color swaps on identical geometry? Sony says we can expect more DAS cosmetics at a later date, and by “more,” we hope they mean “anything at all.”
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Speaking of cosmetics: so far, every optional “outfit” and cosmetic tweak is nothing more than alternate color palettes, as opposed to any updates to geometry or design (and some of these palette swaps can only be purchased with real-world money). Considering how stylish and vibrant the default characters are, it’s weird to see Sony trot out a cosmetic microtransaction system without a single compelling reason to buy in. At that point, why even bother? Either give people creative, unique content worth spending money on, or just make all of it free and earnable in-game at a reasonable rate. (The most expensive in-game purchases require roughly eight hours of consecutive online winning to earn enough non-cash currency.)

Thankfully, the default designs look cool enough without spending a penny, and you’re already getting into this car-combat frenzy at PS+’s reasonable subscription rate. It’s more of a nitpick than a dealbreaker.

The good:

  • Absolutely gorgeous as a PS5 exclusive. Locked 60fps racing at near-4K resolution, with handsome reflection effects and a robust car-crumpling physics model.
  • The core car-crashing system, as tied to each mode’s objectives, surpasses every modern Burnout-revival game I can think of, particularly 2019’s promising-but-flawed Onrush.
  • eight-on-eight Carnado mode is a particularly brilliant marriage of the game’s core combat, supercar upgrade system, and on-foot metagame.
  • As cheesy as the game’s characters looked in preview videos, I found myself surprisingly charmed by how they fit into live gameplay—and appreciate the art team trying new things instead of locking into tired tropes.
  • Day-one online connectivity has been surprisingly robust.
  • It’s not $70.

The bad:

  • On-foot gameplay feels way too tedious and wimpy and could use a second pass.
  • Modes outside of Carnado expose the game’s utter lack of depth.
  • As of press time, online connectivity goes into the toilet if you try to matchmake with friends while using the in-game “party” system. I suffered most of my testing disconnects while in a party.

The ugly:

  • Gaining XP feels toothless, since it only earns ho-hum cosmetics and a boring array of banners and profile icons.
  • Rando voice chat enabled by default? In 2021? Who hurt you, Sony?

Verdict: The good outweighs the bad. Get a PlayStation Plus trial and give this imperfect car-combat gem a spin.

Destruction Allstars gameplay overview trailer.

Listing image by Sony Interactive Entertainment

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