Targem's supremely polished post-apocalyptic racer mixes goofy humour with solid handling mechanics, wrapping the whole affair in a stunning Burnout Paradise-esque open-world environment. The package could have been elevated with an online multiplayer mode, but there's enough to the game's single-player to make it a very compelling purchase.
We spent much of our time with Armageddon Riders waiting for the game to trip-up. "Surely this barely publicised PlayStation Network racer has to have a caveat or two," we told ourselves as we spent an hour or so maniacally racing through the game's beautiful sandbox environments, mowing down zombies in our path. "This is too good to be true. Why is no one talking about this game?"
Turns out Armageddon Riders' only major flaw is that no-one's playing it. We went into Targem's apocalyptic racer on a whim, expecting the downloadable title to tide us over until Twisted Metal later in the year. But despite the game's bland title and lack of marketing, this is a PSN product that absolutely should be on your wish-list.
Armageddon Riders doesn't necessarily do anything original, it just takes a number of pre-existing concepts and executes them very well. Set in a Burnout Paradise-inspired open-world that grows as you progress, Armageddon Riders places you in the middle of a large apocalyptic city brimming with the undead after a catastrophe occurred with the Large Hadron Collider. Thankfully, you — and a group of other clinically insane racers — have happened upon the technology that transforms zombie blood into nitro. Ignore the plot — it's brushed under the carpet within the first thirty-seconds of the game — this is all about speeding through hordes of rotting corpses in order to increase your top speed. And its awesome.
What's instantly noticeable about Armageddon Riders is just how well it plays for a PlayStation Network download. Retailing for £7.99/$9.99, you would be forgiven for expecting some shoddy handling mechanics. But Armageddon Riders feels exceptional; the sense of speed is good and the vehicles have a satisfying weight to them. The game's obviously been inspired by Burnout Paradise, and while it naturally falls short of Criterion's brilliance, there's a similar crux to the gameplay. Cars are nimble but weighty at the same time, offering satisfying drifts and leaps.
In fact there's much more Burnout Paradise in Armageddon Riders than it first seems. The game's open-world setting — which is microscopic compared to Paradise City, but big enough for the game's purposes — has the same colourful city vibe as Criterion's creation, and the vehicles themselves have the same sleek, elongated style. The difference in Armageddon Riders is that you can upgrade your vehicles to better deal with the undead that limber through the streets of the game's open-world. And there are a lot of zombies in this city — at the time of writing we've ploughed through 4,954 of the things.
Some of the upgrades are pretty standard-fare — boosts, liveries, etc — but it's the zombie mashing extensions that are most fun. One of the first upgrades we bought for our starting vehicle was a a mincer that slotted onto the bumper. Pleasingly this sucks up zombies as you ram into them, squirting excess blood out of the sides of the car as their body is processed. The zombies scream and wriggle as the mincer pulls them in. It's gory, but also goofy and hilarious. Other upgrades include wings that can be attached to you car that pop out and slice zombies in half as you steer past them. It's great fun. We were surprised to learn as we progressed through Armageddon Riders' campaign that each vehicle has its own set of upgrades to unlock too. While the vehicle roster is admittedly slim, these upgrades become the game's ultimate temptation as you desperately go in search of money to fund a couple of lightsabers to attach to your bonnet. Seriously.
While driving through zombies is a source of income, Armageddon Riders introduces much more. At its core, it's still a racing game despite all the walking corpses that litter the tracks. Like Burnout Paradise, Armageddon Riders' city is filled with mission markers which are pointed out by the game's mini-map and on-screen arrow. Stopping on these markers will open up a number of mission objectives, with races being the most prominent. While the races are heavily featured throughout Armageddon Riders' campaign though, there are other distractions and mission types. Sometimes you'll need to protect an AI controlled partner while it collects orbs, other times you'll be plopped straight into a Destruction Derby style arena. In each case you'll need to think about your upgrades. While lightsabers and mincers are great for cutting through zombies, they're not great at taking out other cars. This is where the upgrade system comes into its own — adding half of a combine harvester to your car makes you pretty deadly in arena battles for example.
But there's even more to Armageddon Riders than just that. Zombies are not just fodder to drive through, they actually have an impact on the way the game plays. As well as earning you money, they also add nitro to your boost meter. In races then, it becomes a challenge of balancing the best race-line with the best line of zombies. Sometimes you'll need to take a corner wide just to handbrake through a litter of corpses, earning enough boost to allow you to speed into a straight section and take the lead. Similarly zombies can be dangerous. They are capable of jumping onto your car and doing serious damage unless you are able to shake them off. Later upgrades allow you to arm your car with electronic zappers that kill any zombies clinging onto your hood, but they do so at the expense of boost power. Other zombies might leap in through your cars window, in which case you'll need to punch them out. It just adds another dimension to the gameplay.
For a game that's so chaotic, Armageddon Riders runs really well too. The frame-rate almost never dips as you power through groups of zombies, splashing the screen with blood splatters and gore. Admittedly the game has some tearing issues, but it's a ridiculously pretty title by PlayStation Network standards. It looks dated by retail expectations, but Armageddon Riders is not a bad looking game by any means. Unfortunately it doesn't sound particularly great, with a strange soundtrack of country rock music adding to the goofiness of the action but becoming irritating before long. However, Armageddon Riders supports custom soundtracks, so whack on something you like and you're good to go.
In fact, the only real disappointment we have with Armageddon Riders is that there's no online multiplayer. There's enough single-player content to keep you playing for well over ten hours, but a multiplayer component would have been welcome. We could just imagine tearing up the game's open-world online while ploughing through zombies with friends. It would be immense. But it's hard to criticise a game for what isn't there, and while the package would have undoubtedly been better with online multiplayer included — it's still absolutely fantastic without the feature on-board.
What's amazing about Armageddon Riders is that even though we're exceeding our hard word limit, there's still more to say. How about the pick-ups that start mini dance-parties amongst a group of zombies, allowing you to easily slide through a group of oblivious undead doing their very best ABBA impersonation? Hardly original, but it's in the game. What about the game's mix of day-time and night-time objectives that add variation to the tone of the open-world? The game's clearly running on a competent and flexible engine.
See, we bought Armageddon Riders expecting absolutely nothing from it at all. We're car-combat fanboys and that's the only reason we considered it. But the more we played, the more we wanted to write this review. We suspect the limited marketing and lack of awareness is going to hurt Armageddon Riders commercially, but that doesn't seem fair for a game that's so polished and so much fun. In a way we're urging you to give it a shot because we genuinely enjoyed it that much. The game's clearly not going to win any awards for originality, but for straight-up goofy fun it's in a league of its own.