Finish Line Games update Pseudo Interactive’s overlooked vehicular combat game from the 6th gen with flair, providing a slightly brief but enjoyable handheld package held back by a few frustrations.
World-building & Story
Cel Damage is based around a destruction derby that takes place on a TV network. A number of highly stylized cartoon characters do battle in various arenas in their vehicles for supremacy, often armed with bonkers weapons.
However, you really wouldn’t get that from any of the game’s storytelling. An opening cutscene introduces the main characters (although tells you very little about them) and then that’s it – there’s no more in the way of cutscenes; conversations or character development at all. To be fair, the game satirizes this in its opening movie (which is quite amusing, adding a bit of melodrama before shoving this out of the way and stating “NAH… we’ll just drive really fast and blow things up like we do every week!”)
Any development of the cast is done instead through the actual gameplay and you’ll regularly notice them throwing quips at each other while battling it out. These are never more than an extension of their stereotypes though – the vampire is a traditional Transylvanian count; the guy with glasses is a nerd etc. It’s fine for this type of game, but it was a shame not to see the developers attempt anything more with it.
As a result – there’s little to no word-building done in the game, as it’s simply a collection of maps and characters designed specifically just to blow each other up in vehicular combat.
Presentation & Sound
Graphically, Cel Damage uses cel-shading to create a Saturday-moming-cartoon look for the game and it’s immensely impressive. All of the characters; their vehicles; weapons and environment pop with colourful over-the-top exaggeration that make it a joy to watch the game in motion.
To look at each of these elements individually – the characters are all stereotypes ranging from the blonde bombshell to a 20’s gangster and everything in between, which helps enhance the game’s comedic tone. Their vehicles all reflect their personality, with the Bruno the construction worker driving a JCB and Brian the alien brain driving a futuristic space-tank. And each of these vehicles animates well too – they’ll buckle when hit and explode with a satisfyingly silly bang when destroyed. It all meshes together to creative the cohesive feel of a cartoon full of wacky action.
The environments aren’t quite as impressive and are generally based on themes – desert; swamp; space etc., with three levels based on a different central landmark in each. Some are just better than others – one sees you driving around the rings of a planet and can bounce off the central landmass if you fall off, while others will just place you in a generic zone with no real definition. They are all unique in their own ways, however, and are generally interesting arenas to zip around.
By far the most entertaining element of the presentation, however, is the weapons themselves. As a vehicular combat game there was a lot of scope to add a variety of ways to annihilate your foes and the designers didn’t hold back in this regard. Everything has a fun, wacky twist and it never ceased to be amusing seeing giant saw blades flying across the battlegrounds or throwing out an exploding sheep or two. Even more common weapons like baseball bats and boxing gloves are all animated so well that they’re fun to watch smashing into enemy vehicles time and time again.
Sound is solid throughout – and for once, it’s not even the music here that I’m complimenting as that mostly remains background noise. It’s everything else – the hilarious yet incredibly fitting voice-acting; the pop and smack of each weapon as it connects with a foe etc. As with the graphics, a conscious effort had been made to emulate the feel of a Looney-Tunes esque cartoon and it comes together very well.
Gameplay & Content
A car combat game in the vein of Twisted Metal and the like, Cel Damage mixes both racing and destruction derbys into its game modes, although personally I think it manages the combat a little better.
Vehicles handle fairly well, although there’s a definite feel that they’re designed to have some cartoon-like tendancies as well. Aside from accelerating and braking, any competitor can also ‘flip’ – either forwards, backwards or sideways – which aside from being a great way to escape foes, will also fill a boost meter you can use for speedy getaways.
The problem with this mechanic is that often the scenery will get in the way of flips you perform – I found myself stuck on rocks etc. and there are times your player will feel squishy and bouncy rather than a solid vehicle. It certainly took a little getting used to the first time I played.
With a heavy focus on combat there are a large variety of weapons available. Your character will be equipped with a basic pea-shooter at all times that causes minimal damage, but the really meaty stuff has to be picked up in the levels. There’s a lot to choose from and they’re sorted into categories – basic pick ups are good for smacking your foes across the maps; immobilizing weapons like freeze rays and wood chippers are in play; special-use items like exploding sheep and bomb drops exist and there’s even a powerup to turn your vehicle into an armed flying machine. Each weapon has a durability that will expire after a certain number of uses, as with the genre norms, that means you constantly have to switch things up.
The weapons play a central role in certain game modes, the main one being ‘smack attack’. This is a destruction derby with a twist – points are awarded for destroying enemies and the first to pass a set amount wins, but you’re also awarded points for hitting foes. Certain weapons – such as the boxing gloves – are hilariously overpowered in this mode as they can provide a flurry of hits without sending your competitors flying; whereas ‘once and done’ attacks like the freeze ray are only situationally handy.
But rather than this making the mode seem like an unbalanced mess, it actually makes things more exciting. It’s a mad rush for the weapons that are useful and you’re constantly left with decisions like going for a far away helpful weapon or grabbing something nearby and getting straight back into the carnage.
The other game modes are fun too – ‘flag relay’ requires you to chase flags with legs around the map and deliver them to a central point; while ‘gate relay’ has you racing around the maps. For me, ‘smack attack’ is the game at its best while I liked dipping into ‘flag relay’ from time to time. This is one of the better points about Cel Damage – you can choose to progress in whatever mode you wish and the game doesn’t penalize you for it, as maps are unlocked separately for each mode. This means you can fully ignore one aspect of the title if you wish, which is a neat touch.
Speaking of maps, while (as previously mentioned) these aren’t the most graphically impressive, they remain fun arenas to duke it out in. Each has some kind of gimmick – whether that’s a central pyramid to drive through or that the whole zone is a graveyard with tombs all around. They’re designed with plenty of secrets in mind too which makes replaying them a lot of fun, as you’ll be finding new routes and ways to navigate around each time.
Sadly, however, the main area the title is let down in the gameplay department is in its AI – other competitors are annoying and best and actively try to sabotage you at worst. It’s inconsistent – sometimes the AI will do its own thing and fight each other, while at other times they’ll hunt you down the whole game to stop you from doing anything, making it frustrating as you’ll constantly be in a cycle of being ganked and respawning. It isn’t always like this, but I did find myself leaving to combat for a bit to do other stuff when things got particularly annoying.
Aside from the game’s AI frustrations, the other area that Cel Damage struggles with (apart from an fairly absent story) is content – although there are twelves levels available here based on four different themes (plus a bonus thirteenth map), they don’t take long to unlock and the only incentive to go back is to set yourself different challenges or try on a harder difficulty. There’s a fair amount here based on the price it’s available for, but I definitely came away wanting more.
Cel Damage is a game that has now been overlooked three times – originally on Xbox, then again on PS2 and now on the Vita. It’s an fun time, with a wacky sense of humour and some inventive design. While it lacks something in content and the AI can be incredibly frustrating at times, it’s more than worth checking out on Vita whether you’re a fan of the genre and it’s still recommended if you’re not.