A number of years ago, I had a really close group of friends who were all into video games as much as I was. We’d play everything together. We spent a New Year’s Eve playing Goldeneye on the N64 and got so engrossed, we totally missed ringing in the new year. It was 3AM before we realised. We’d play Halo on the OG Xbox for hours after college when we should have probably been doing course work. We had our own clan on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and we were good enough to win a few regional competitions. We often talked (or, more appropriately, dreamed) about going ‘Pro’ with it. Gaming was the glue that held us together. It was the one thing we all enjoyed and we enjoyed it the most when playing together.
Over the space of a year, things changed. Some of my friends moved away. Others entered into a relationship and, as so often happens with teenage romances, they disappeared off the face of the planet. Despite life splintering our group to the 4 corners of the UK and beyond, we kept up one tradition – Wednesday gaming night. Every week, we’d catch up over an online death match or 2. We’d maybe bump into each other face-to-face once a year, but every Wednesday, we’d talk about life, work, relationships, movies, comics and anything else that came up while racking up kill streaks. Strangers would end up joining our team when our lobby wasn’t full but they’d often leave just to get away from our inane chatter.
A number of my friends in this group had always been into racing games and took them very seriously. They paid for custom built racing rigs with eye wateringly expensive racing wheels, pedals and screens that they obviously wanted to use. Gradually, over several months, we dropped our regular Wednesday FPS/TPS game rotation in favour of a few racing games. At first it was 1 session of Gran Turismo. Then it was Test Drive. Then F1 and Forza. The group chat was full of positive talk about the newly labelled “Racing Wednesdays”. There was a leader board in an Excel spread sheet that showed how many wins we’d all had. Everyone one was having fun – except for me. I’d never been the biggest fan of racing games because, honestly, I suck at them. Cars in general had never interested me. I’m just not a “car guy” while most of these friends were. I could hold my own in arcade racing games so tried to steer the group to the likes of Blur and Split/Second but to no avail. They wanted simulation games and that’s where I was least comfortable. I’d finish 10 seconds or more behind everyone else and honestly, it wasn’t fun.
I practiced. I practiced a lot. I didn’t want to lose contact with some of my long-time friends, now basically internet friends, over my inability to play racing games. I was determined to get at least among the pack and to be competitive and after weeks of trying, I was – but it wasn’t clean. I’d cut corners. I’d run into others to push them off the road. I wouldn’t slow down for corners and instead, use the cars of my friends to slow me down. Sure, some of these games would penalise me for these actions but so often, I’d manage to make up enough time by crashing others off the track for it to not matter. I won a few races. I was having the best time playing these simulation games as if I was playing Destruction Derby (one of my all-time favourite racing games despite not really being a racing game at all) and had just enough skill to make it stick. Of course, this didn’t go down well with my friends. Things got heated a few times. A few people accused me of cheating and while I argued that the game set the rules and would penalise me for breaking them, they were right that I wasn’t playing the game in the way they intended.
I should have seen what happened next coming. While they studied racing lines and practiced overtakes to win cleanly, I was figuring out how much speed I could carry around a corner after not breaking and riding the barriers. The group chat got really quiet. Then silent. One Wednesday, we were scheduled to play Project Cars but no-one was online and no party invite came my way. A few weeks went by with no Wednesday gaming session that I was aware of until one of my friends, Adam, reached out to say they’d moved the race nights to Friday as it was more convenient for them and I was welcome to join any time. They knew I wasn’t available on Friday nights. I was working. I took the hint. I was ruining their fun. I didn’t ever join their Friday night race sessions, even when I wasn’t working.
That was 4 years ago. Since then, aside from the occasional WhatsApp exchange about life in general, I’ve barely spoken to my once group of best friends. I’d say to myself it’s because I’ve got 5 kids, a full time job and not enough free time to catch up with them but in reality, I still felt a bit burnt by it all. A few months ago, Adam messaged me and I asked about the racing nights. Apparently they’d stopped playing a few months after I’d ‘left’. A few of them still played together occasionally but the group had fallen apart. It was sad to hear, despite the fact that I wasn’t even part of it at the time.
Then came Wreckfest. My love for Destruction Derby meant that Bugbear and THQ’s wreck-‘em-up racer was always going to be a day one purchase when it launched on consoles. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. I don’t want to step on the toes of Greg’s upcoming review but Wreckfest for me is one of the most fun racing games of this entire generation because it’s not really a racing game at all. It’s more like a mud wrestling match at high speed only with cars. It’s a game that rewards spinning your opponents. It encourages you to nudge other drives wide into barriers. It wholeheartedly endorses T-boning them. It’s the only game I’ve ever played where the statement “I got rear ended by that Grease Finger” won’t land you on some kind of government mandated register (Grease Finger is a name of an AI driver). While you’ll get penalised for skipping sections of the track, those corners are very forgiving. After years of sucking at simulation racing games, Wreckfest feels like the racing game built for people like me who couldn’t spot a racing line if it jumped up and bit me but for sure knows how to launch my car through the side of another.
It was last Wednesday, a day after Wreckfest had released on PS4, when I got the first invite. It was Adam. He was also playing the game. We party chatted about the game, how much we’re enjoying it and life in general. We had a few races online and while neither of us could keep up with the front pack, we were having a whole lot of fun ramming into cars and walls. A little later, Paul joined our chat. He was one of the original group. He’d bought Wreckfest that morning. We raced. We laughed. There was half an apology for cutting me out of the group years ago which I waved away as unnecessary. It was water under the bridge, especially after I trashed him with a school bus in the game. It felt like old times and most of all, we were all enjoying it.
The next day, the old chat was alive again. Adam asked if anyone else was picking up Wreckfest as it was “like Destruction Derby but not s**t”. Jonas was getting it that night. Adrian was getting it on Friday as it was pay day. Ade had already bought it – but it was on Xbox One (he decided to take it back and swap it for a PS4 version with the story that his mum had bought him the wrong version). Wednesday night racing was back on the menu and almost all the old gaming group was in on the action. Before we’ve even begun – the first games night is tonight – we’ve caught up on what’s been going on in our lives via WhatsApp and while having some Wreckfest practice sessions together. Some of my old chums didn’t know I now had five kids. The last they’d heard, I had three. Paul is now working in his dream job. Ade got married. It has been incredible to reunite with people I called good friends for almost a decade over the bad crashes and clutch wins in Wreckfest.
So, thanks Bugbear/THQ, I guess. Thanks for making a racing game I can play and enjoy – someone who doesn’t know or care what a gear ratio is – and that even the most hardcore racing game fans can get a kick out of. Without it, I doubt my old pals and I would have reconnected and now I get to run them over with a combine harvester in a game that’s designed for exactly that. Perfect.