Stalled at the starting line
When I first watched a preview trailer for Auto Age, I was very excited. It looked to be a classic multiplayer vehicular-based shooter in the venerated traditions of Twisted Metal with a colourful smattering of 80’s saturday morning cartoon nostalgia. The story focuses on an all-out vehicular war between a Skeletor-esque cackling villain called Dark Jaw and a wisecracking sassy superheroine named Vega. As I listened to the rocking hair metal ballads in the trailer I began girding my loins for awesomeness. When I actually got hold of the game, I had to thoroughly un-gird my loins, because there’s barely any actual game to play here.
During the beta phase of development, Auto Age was compared countless times with the classic nineties car-wreck-em-up Twisted Metal, but in actuality the comparison is far off the mark. Twisted Metal had a wonderful element of chaos to it with crazy power-ups and destructive scenery. Auto Age: Standoff trades in that very modern currency of cooldowns and abilities, and along the way, all of the wild random fun was squeezed out in favour of an automated war of attrition.
The classic Mario Kart 64 got vehicular based battles right. Every hit from a red shell or slip on a banana was a climactic event. Auto Age isn’t about awesomely cool dodges, ramming other players off ledges, crazy power-ups or other actually entertaining stuff like that. A great deal of the time you’re just awkwardly circling other cars and whittling down vast health bars with weedy machine guns. Even more tediously, these weedy machine guns overheat, meaning you’ll have to keep a mental tally of how long you’ve been firing them. Using your abilities well between the long cooldown periods can add help you do damage a bit faster, but there’s very little drama in the drawn-out battles.
This isn’t to say that Auto Age isn’t potentially fun. I did actually have a couple decent duels with other players. Every car has the ability to quickly gain a boost of speed. This led to a couple fun moments where I was pursuing a wounded player’s car and we were boosting up and along walls. Likewise, cars can also “jump” into the air, allowing you to more quickly spin your car around (cars can turn faster in mid-air because cartoon physics). This can let you quickly turn on opponents and fire a rocket up their backside if used correctly.
There are a few different vehicles to choose from. However, the difference between Dark Jaw’s cars and Vega’s vehicles are mainly cosmetic. There’s not even that much of a cosmetic difference! You’d hope that Dark Jaw’s cars would at least be festooned with skulls and other macabre imagery rather than just painted blue. Each vehicle comes with a unique set of abilities. Vehicles can fire rockets, heal themselves, drop mines or stationary turrets.
These abilities are unfortunately hugely unbalanced. Mines are virtually useless compared to rockets except in the very rare occasions you have someone chasing directly behind you. On the other hand, having a self-healing ability pretty much trumps all others given the grinding, attrition-based gameplay. It’s a shame that abilities aren’t even remotely close to parity as it means you see some vehicle types barely used at all.
This Town… is Becoming Like a Ghost Town!
There are three different modes in Auto Age: Point capture, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch. But for these game modes there is a grand total of… (drumroll) four whole maps to choose from. As if the anemic map count wasn’t bad enough, in the one and only point capture map, there’s but a single point to actually capture. Playing it is like being forced to circle the same nightmarish roundabout for hours. Deathmatch mode is likewise undermined by the inherently attrition-based gameplay. You can spend multiple minutes gradually whittling down a car’s health bar to a tiny sliver only for someone else to pop in and steal the kill.
The heaviest vehicle – which is basically a death-dealing tower on wheels – emphasizes teamwork in how it provides a lovely purplish healing area effect. In theory, you could imagine a convoy of cars skillfully making a formation around the healing beacon before breaking off for more mayhem. However what really torpedoes any prospect of meaningful teamwork in matches is not only the lack of voice chat or short-hand commands, but the game’s biggest problem of all.
The biggest problem Auto Age has is that the player base is virtually non-existent. I was roaming the servers on launch day, and I even stayed up a little later so I could be on during American prime time, but I could count the total number of players online on one hand. Even at my luckiest, I never managed to get in a game with more than three others. All the big multiplayer bashes I was involved in were mostly populated by dumb-as-dirt bots, which are no fun to play against. Lacking any sort of single-player campaign mode, such a stunted player base so early on really doesn’t bode well.
Before I wrap things up, I would like to give one congratulatory fist bump to Auto Age. The music is superb. There’s a combination of goofy retrowave instrumentals and guitar-thrashing rock songs that instantly transport you back to saturday mornings planted in front of classic 80’s cartoons. But all this awesome audio providing the backing really underscores just how empty the game itself currently is. Auto Age: Standoff is like downing a pint of Red Bull and putting on the rockingest hair metal at full blast, only to take a gentle drive to pick up Grandma from the bingo. A lot of shiny, neon gloss can’t paint over a a fundamental lack of content and substance.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: Xbox One (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Microsoft Studios ; Developer: Remedy Entertainment ; Players: 1 ; Released: April 5, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail Xbox One copy purchased by Hey Poor Player.