Updated: March 3, 2021
A few days ago, me wife discovered something remarkable. She realized she had married a simpleton. How did it happen? Simple! I called her over from whatever important thing she had been doing and I asked her to watch a slo-mo replay of me crashing a car in BeamNG.drive, a realistic, soft physics car simulator, with emphasis on aforementioned crumpling of metal and plastic. I was delighted, she was baffled by my repetitive fascination that is encoded in every boy's DNA - watching stuff get destroyed in exquisite detail.
She slapped me on the nape, used expletives that are forbidden in seventeen countries, and went back to doing whatever important thing she had been doing. And I went about writing this lovely review. To wit, I got meself a new game, and it's one that's lurked in me wishlist on Steam for a good few years. Cars, crashes, and then more of that.
This is the buzzphrase you'll see thrown about a lot when people talk about BeamNG.drive. So let me give you a very brief version of it. A bunch of folks decided to make a car simulator. But then, they decided to make it realistic. Well, one primary aspect thereof - what happens when your car hits something.
BeamNG was a crash simulation sandbox - and it still is. It's a game that does let you do the driving bit and whatnot, but that's only the necessary formality. The entire focus of this lovely title is to strap into a car of some kind, and then drive into a wall, a tree, another car, and then watch the action over and over and over again. Sounds quite unremarkable, and yet, it's everything I didn't know I needed.
Clunky interface, joyful destruction
The UI element is crude at best. It comes with some super-annoying elements. First, the abundance of commands, and the fact many shortcuts do different things in different modes. Second, if you ain't got a steering wheel, you need to drive with the arrow keys, which means binary input - either zero or 100% throttle or brake - there be filters, and I shall talk about them in a separate piece, but. Not refined. Yes, you can configure your mouse, but unlike say Live for Speed, another nice car simulator with decent crash physics, the mouse driving is very imprecise. And you cannot bind the right mouse key to the brake pedal, so it's sort of pointless. I didn't test the game with a steering wheel, yet - I've got a G27 lurking about, which does wonders in Assetto Corsa - another simulator, decent physics and all - so that's something for a different article, too.
The actual command interface is even worse. You get an arcade-like overview, and if that's not enough, you can add more stuff. But it's not intuitive, and it took me quite some time figuring how to add the Replay widget, which indeed lets you record your driving and then replay and enjoy the crashes. Why it's not a default, beats me. On top of that, you can hide the entire interface with Alt + U, if you want to take lovely screenshots. But then, there's also the "Photo" mode, which lets you angle your camera about and whatnot, and make dramatic photos, rather similar to what you can do in Assetto Corsa, actually.
All in all, the environment feels unfinished, it's nerdy, and it's not really helpful. But then, you forget all of that the moment you start driving cars into obstacles. This is where BeamNG shines like no other, in a thousand broken pieces of your windshield.
The fun begins ...
It won't take long before you end up with a ruined mess of metal. The driving physics aren't really good, either! Most cars behave like a typical 1970s car, which means rigid, unforgiving suspension, no driving aids of any kind, total oversteer. All of the vehicles feel quite heavy. Now, I'm not saying that there isn't an element of realism, it's just not very high. Perhaps it's the arrow key driving, and perhaps BeamNG takes practice. But then, none of that bothered me really. I've not bought the game to pretend to be a racer. If I want real speed, I'll go to a racetrack like Spa. The whole idea is to see stuff break, and no one does this as brilliantly as BeamNG. Blimey.
The crashes are magnificent. Really. There's no better way to describe them. You get a good sense of what could or would happen to your car if you subjected it to some horrific acceleration - because that's what crashes are all about in the end.
Here, you get plenty of realism. 1950s cars crumple like a sheet of tin. Modern cars are more resilient, but not invincible. You can reinforce cars and whatnot, but in the end, they all succumb to physics. Trucks and buses are much more robust, but even they have their limits.
Then, to make everything interesting, you have five or six different camera angles, plus you can slow down your replays. Everything is designed to maximize the destruction fun, and BeamNG delivers most spectacularly. And you will find yourself immersed in this senseless, pointless havoc, enjoying every particle of it.
To make things even more interesting, you can spawn all sorts of non-car things in the game. And the best place to put them down is the open-ended default gridmap - which is where you can do all manner of experimentation. Some of the contraptions include a medieval cannon that can drive and fire, a car crusher that consists of four fast-spinning hammers, a hamster wheel, and then some. Then, you can use these to inflict further damage on your vehicles.
Here, you simply need to do silly stuff. The more the merrier. Like jumping off a cliff and aiming for maximum distance and damage. The game will supply its own slo-mo camera moments for best effect. So you'll be tempted to do it again and again.
In addition to the campaign, you can also try one-off challenges. I found these somewhat frustrating, as driving with the arrow keys is impossible, plus the cars actually don't behave as they should. A good example is the Gravity Fuel one, where you need to take a hard turn at the bottom. Totally not how a car would react, not even a modified 1973 Beetle. Besides, going downhill without any power, coasting, that's a challenge of its own really.
If you don't fancy the stress of these trigger-and-time missions, you can always freeroam, driving about as you please, and making sure you end with a lovely crash, otherwise, what's the point. The scenery in the game is quite pleasing, and the ambiance does add to the overall experience.
You can also try your luck with a bus. You can attempt to complete a bunch of timed courses, which involve some tricky maneuvering in narrow streets - no power-assisted steering that is. Or you could choose a vehicle mod that has JATO rockets, complete with a giant American flag that will adequately flutter when your billion pounds of thrust kick in.
And this is what happens when your rocket-assisted bus hits the side of a cliff:
Moar fun at 330 km/h:
Then, ramming vehicles is also fun:
Finally, ze glitches!
There were plenty of these. The game eats GPU power like no other. My RTX 2080 was maxed at 100%, believe it or not. Even so, map loading took a long time, and it happens piecemeal, texture by texture, so you often see through things before they are fully rendered. Or not.
Sometimes, cars had actual "gaps" in their final form. You can see it with the ramming bus earlier. Not that it matters, but still. On top of that, the game crashed on me once. All in all, not unexpected for a raw sandbox simulator. But this has been a frequent motif in reviews for years now. I guess much like Goat Simulator, the bugs are now an inseparable part of the fun.
BeamNG.drive is a silly game. Delightfully so. Monty Python level so. It has no higher goal, no higher purpose, it's resource-hungry, it's glitchy, the driving is mediocre at best, the commands are clunky, the interface is nerdy. But the crashes are fantastic, the joy is aplenty, and you end up having awesome childish fun. And if you remember your childhood, you know that nothing really mattered - a piece of cardboard could be the bestest sword and a couch pillow was a spaceship. What mattered was that you immersed yourself in the experience, and the world around simply didn't exist.
This is an excellent choice for the entrepreneuring manchild, with plenty of great tricks to keep you entertained for a long while. Now that said, it would be great to see somewhat improved, well, everything, but mostly the interface and the driving dynamics. I am less bothered about the glitches and the great hunger for GPU cycles, because something's gotta compute them soft physics. This is a game for whenever you feel like doing silly things, and the adult world provideth no escape. Well worth it and then some. Happy slo-mo crashing!