My first experience ever with the PlayStation was when I was in college and a friend of mine had just picked up Twisted Metal for the PSOne. We used to spend hours battling each other in our tricked-out vehicles, using ridiculous weapons to constantly beat up on each other (instead of, you know, going to class). It was a lot of fun.
Cel Damage HD for the PS Vita draws a lot of inspiration from those earlier car combat games. It has the crazy characters. It has the whacky weapons. And it has the chaotic battles, requiring you to drive around while mercilessly destroying your opponents. What it doesn’t have, though, is the fun.
The first Cel Damage was released in 2001 as an XBOX, PlayStation 2, and GameCube game. It has now received a high definition makeover and has been released as a cross-buy title across the PS3, PS4, and PS Vita.
It makes use of cel-shaded animation to provide a beautiful and stylized look. The game looks great with beautifully created background art. Each of the ten playable characters is drawn in a strong cartoon style, reminding me strongly of Looney Tunes, and each has his own distinct personality. For example, Fowl Mouth, the character I found myself using the most, was a black and white duck who takes a lot of inspiration from old James Cagney movies. He would hurl insults and taunts at his opponents with all the charm of a 1920’s gangster. I’d always chuckle when he’d shout “You drive like a dame!”
The gameplay is divided into three categories: Smack Attack, Flag Rally, and Gate Relay.
In Smack Attack your goal is to get 300 “smacks” before your opponents do. This is the free-for-all combat mode in which your main objective is destroy the other guy faster than he destroys you. The first question of course is, “What is a ‘smack?’” Unfortunately, even after winning each of the 12 stages, I’m still not sure. The game’s non-existent instructions are of no help, so I thought I’d just dive right in and figure it out for myself. At first I was thinking perhaps a “smack” was when you hit your opponent, but that was not the case. Maybe it’s when you destroy an opponent then? Sort of. You will be awarded for “smacks” when you destroy another vehicle, but the number of smacks rewarded will change based on the weapon or method you use. The enigma of what a smack is will just have to remain a mystery for now.
Flag Rally is a mode where you pick up anthropomorphic flags which run around the area and return them to a designated spot. You can also steal them off of enemies to improve your score and deny them some points. It’s also possible to pick up more than one flag at a time, and you are rewarded with a score multiplier for returning multiple flags at a time. So to get to ten points, you can either return one flag ten times, or gather four flags and win right away.
And last but not least is Gate Relay mode which is a standard race in which the objective is to complete eight laps around the area while making sure to go through each of the designated gates. Missing a gate will require you to back track and loop back through before you’re able to continue. Along the way, not only will you have to look out for other racers who will knock you out of commission, but each track is laced with a series of traps and hazards which you will have to avoid.
Each of the three modes holds so much promise, and yet I had major issues with all of them. The one common element they shared was that most of the twelve available areas to play in are just too small. There is little room for strategy and everything feels very cramped.
The Smack Attack matches would end up with all the players gathering in one place and just pounding away at each other. There was no need to hunt down your opponents because everyone wanted to be in on the action. Then it simply became a matter of mashing the attack button to try and eke out more kills than the other guys.
The Flag Rallies were quite the opposite in that all the AI players were so focused on capturing flags that they did their best to ignore each other. It was rarely challenging and the task of collecting multiple flags and returning them for the win was easily accomplished.
And the Gate Relay games were rather dull in that each lap was extremely short, which is why it required 8 laps to finish a race. This would get boring and tedious very quickly.
Another major reason for many of these problems is that the difficulty balance is very uneven. Most matches were consistently too easy. While playing on Easy or Normal, I would frequently lap every other racer in Gate Relay matches, and I would win Smack Attack games with scores so lop-sided that you would hardly have known there were others competing (frequently I would get to 300 smacks while the next closest opponent would have less than 100. Maybe the AI doesn’t know what a smack is either). Raising the difficulty to Hard does make things more challenging but not in a good way. Hard is supposed to make the AI more aggressive and make the cars move faster. The cars are more aggressive, and they do move faster but only because everything moves faster. Instead of giving the cars more speed, it feels like you’re playing the game while it’s fast-forwarding through the action. Everything from the cars to the camera move more rapidly than before. It really puts a damper on the experience and instead of making it a challenge, it just makes it frustrating.
Moving too rapidly wasn’t the only problem I had with the camera. Too often I found it was having a hard time keeping up with the action, and many times I’d find it stuck at an angle that positioned it behind a tree or rock, leaving me able to see next to nothing of what was going on. Since the action can become quite hectic at times, being able to see the battlefield is important, and I found the camera just wasn’t up to the task.
Thankfully, controlling your car is pretty straight forward (and works reasonably well, until you switch to Hard difficulty). You have accelerate and reverse (brake) on the shoulder buttons while the sticks allow you to steer and perform flips. The face buttons are assigned to using your special attack, your generic attack, and to taunt your opponents. What it does not have is a way to look behind you, which is a feature that is a must in any racing game. What’s happening back there? Is your opponent trying to sneak up behind you and take the lead? Unfortunately you won’t know until it happens.
The real fun in a game like this is with the multiplayer. It is more fun when you’re racing your friends rather than the computer. Sadly, Cel Damage HD for the PS Vita does not feature multiplayer in any form. You can play split-screen multiplayer (there is no online component at the moment) on both the PS3 and PS4, but the experience on the Vita is single player only. In this capacity, the Vita version is designated as a way to practice on the go.
Enough with the rants already. It’s not all bad news. Believe it or not, despite my many complaints, there are qualities about this game that I actually do enjoy.
One of the few aspects of Cel Damage HD that I really liked was the voice acting for the different characters. They were funny and cute, and I would find myself laughing out loud a number of times throughout the matches. The characters all have their own unique sayings that they will shout at each other during races. Along with the heavy rock music blaring in the background, the audio was never something I had a problem with. If you throw in the hilarious movies that you unlock as you play, there are some genuinely funny moments in the game.
And despite the small battle arenas, the combat can be fun at times, just not often (and not for long). The further you progress and unlock additional weapons, the fights start to get more challenging. There is a lot of potential there, but only rarely does it translate into something worth playing.
It’s not that Cel Damage HD is a bad game, it’s just not a fun game. It doesn’t take very long before the game starts to feel very “blah.” Each race becomes very monotonous very quickly, and the cramped stages make the battle modes not very exciting. Since the game is cross-buy, if you intend to play it on the PS3/PS4 with a friend for some split-screen mayhem, then there might be some fun to be had here. But if you’re thinking of playing it only on the Vita, then I would recommend you pass on this one.