I miss Car Combat, and so do the developers of Auto Age: Standoff.
Despite its weirdness as a genre (cars are like 20th on the list of “best ways to fight”), Car Combat is the home of some excellent titles of the past. I had some truly great times playing the original Twisted Metal, Extreme-G, or Mario-Kart’s arena mode. But Car Combat has become a rarer sight for gamers in 2016, which is why I was psyched to get my hands on Phantom Compass’ Auto Age at EGLX and to speak to programmer Adam Eaton about the title.
The game’s look is the first thing that will catch your eye. Auto Age: Standoff wears its love of nostalgia on its sleeve with a cel-shaded cartoony aesthetic, which chases the memories of 80s cartoons and the games that made Car Combat a genre. Eaton elaborated;
A lot of the guys, (on the team) they’re very fond of the 80s as you can tell by looking at the game. They were very fond of that age where car combat was a thing… …I grew up on Twisted Metal. Car Wars, Interstate 76, Vigilante 8.
They’re all about that 80s nostalgia, and we want to pull that out both in the gameplay and the aesthetic. We’ve got a small campaign mode in the game with these campy 80s style villains.
The game’s art looks excellent and really fits the chaotic silly vibe with small touches everywhere to make you feel like you’re in a Saturday morning cartoon. Explosions are rounded puffs of cel-shaded smoke and the targeting reticle has the feel of a computer you might see in WarGames. Even the game’s narrative hews to the rules of cartoon universes.
One of the fun concepts of the game is that there are no people in the cars, its all AI chips driving them, because back in that age you weren’t allowed to kill people on screen, you can maybe hit em with a Blackjack in the head and knock em out, but thats it.
Once you stop nerding out and pretending you’re in Wacky Races (like I did), pick up the sticks and dive into Auto Age: Standoff—there’s a lot to take in. You could describe what I played as a Car Combat MOBA, which raises the question of what an automotive MOBA would look like. The build I played showed off the Auto Age’s take on MOBA gameplay, with players at the convention taking control of one of 3 vehicles: light, medium, and heavy with their own kit of abilities. We played co-op against AI opponents, pushing across a map with multiple routes (lanes) to take down towers and an eventual end-objective. While this is what was demoed at EGLX, Adam dropped tantalizing hints about other game modes:
… the MOBA style gameplay mode is something we really want to focus on in this game. But we’ll have other game modes as well; like Deathmatch, Sumo where you’re trying to push each other off a tower. We’re also entertaining things like Battle Race and other standard multiplayer gameplay modes but MOBA and Deathmatch are the main ones we’re focusing on.
The build at the show didn’t have minions or a jungle, but the MOBA elements are immediately visible with each vehicle possessing 2 unique abilities requiring strategic use and cooldown management. Once you get into combat, however, the game dispenses somewhat with the strict rules and combos of conventional MOBA titles. As soon as I engaged an enemy I was a kid again; my chosen vehicle had loose controls that led to me smashing into enemies, allies, and walls in somewhat equal measure. The frantic chaotic gameplay style gave me a different kind of enjoyment than an expertly played game in the Mid-lane of a typical MOBA.
The primary abilities vary depending on what vehicle you’ve chosen. While each car has cannons to shoot with, cooldown abilities, defense, and health pools differentiate. The light car is a glass-cannon damage dealer, while the heavy can deploy shields and heal allies with a shimmering bubble of positive energy. One-on-one it can lead to some “Rock-Paper-Scissors” style engagements, but has more depth when you begin synergizing with allies.
The missle-fueled demolition derby is definitely fun to smash around in, but the build we played felt a little barren. With a large map and relatively few substantial enemies, there were stretches where I was just waiting to find the next enemy rather than doing something proactive. This is the only real issue I had with gameplay, and one I’m hopeful can be addressed before the game goes live this fall.
Auto Age: Standoff is taking a bunch of risks. Car Combat games are few and far between in 2016 and while MOBAs are hugely popular, we don’t even know if shooters can crossover effectively. But what makes Auto Age a risk also makes it hugely unique, and I had a bunch of fun playing it. When asked what made the game special, Eaton replied:
I don’t think anyone has so thoroughly pursued that 80s aesthetic as we have. We want to capture the hearts of people who’s hearts were captured in that era, we want to bring you back to that time.
I think that’s a pretty solid goal. Phantom Compass’ Auto Age: Standoff is scheduled to release on Steam in Fall 2016.