I was once a happy Xbox owner, and glad, glad for the promise of a host of excellent launch titles. Cel Damage, a strange new racing game from EA, was among them. Featuring a bizarre cast of characters and a cartoon look and feel, it looked, for all intents and purposes, to be a bright, shining new gem in the Xbox crown, and definitely one of the launch titles that you wouldn't want to miss. Hopefully, this review will shed some light on how I was satisfied in some of my expectations, but completely let down in others.
The first thing that strikes you is this games appearance. A truly 3d racing title, each and every part of the game appears to be rendered with a hand drawn cartoon feel. Thanks to the technology of Cel Shading (which lent its name to the title of this fine arcade game), the designers of Cel Damage can render 3D characters with a cheesy, cartoony look that is, for lack of a better term, utterly convincing. They've got the same easy-on-the-eyes color and curve that you've come to love in the cartoons of yore, and thanks to the strange animation style, you've now got a safe and child friendly excuse to abuse your friends and family while playing this game.
Cel Damage is set in the fictional world of the Cel Damage television show. As quoted by the publisher, "Populated by 'Toons, Cel Damage is an insanely popular TV series that pits many different contestants against one another, in a wicked melee whose destructive power must be seen to be believed." Although each character technically has a small story, as glimpsed in the intro videos, it quickly becomes very clear that the only thing you're here to do is raise mayhem. And thankfully, because 'Toons can't ever die, you can thrash opponents with any number of strange implements of destruction, safe in the knowledge that, should you or your opponent be destroyed, you'll reappear, falling from the sky in a large crate, ready to do battle yet again.
Anyone think this seems like Wily E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner on crack? Good, because it does and is.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
First off, although this is a racing title, you'll be doing very little of what could be considered true racing. 'Toons have remarkably short attention spans and a very large penchant for mass destruction, so you'll be blowing stuff up most of the time. To facilitate this, the designers have given you three different gameplay modes. Smack Attack requires you to achieve a certain number of hits before any of your opponents. Gate Relay has you running back and forth between two 'gates,' of which you'll need to pass through a total of ten times each. Flag Rally requires you to grab four flags and race to the winner's circle before anyone else. At first you've only got access to Smack Attack, but as you complete levels, you'll unlock Gate Relay, and finally Flag Rally.
There are six different 'Toons to choose from, at least to start, with four bosses that you can unlock later. Each 'Toon is equipped with a different special item, and has a completely whacked vehicle to drive. Fowl Mouth has a studebaker, with a tommy gun special item. Violet, the anime demongirl, uses an APC, and can equip a mortar to destroy her enemies. Sinder, the demon that was kicked out of hell, drives an ATV that has a wood chipper on the front end. None of the characters are remarkably different from one another, as they only truly vary in appearance. Of course, for a good breakdown of their strengths and weaknesses, you can check the manual, as it relates all of their relevant info.
This game takes a truly quick eye to play properly, as it moves at a pace that can only be considered blistering. I was fairly annoyed by the fact that each level has enough curvature and obstacles to present you with a fairly short viewing distance, and even when you can see far enough to catch a glimpse of the other drivers, you'll only have them in view for a second or two before they speed past you.
Of course, any 'Toon race game isn't complete without weapons. There are a number of wacky 'Toon-style weapons, from the Chainsaw and Baseball Bat to the Buzz Saw and Chain Gun. Each vehicle has a basic weapon, which is only good for annoying your enemy and cracking ice blocks, and a special weapon that usually does tremendous damage or a strange effect. The basic weapon never runs out, but the special weapon must be collected like a normal weapon. Each is rendered in typical cel-shaded fashion, and looks entirely appropriate for the style of game. One thing you may be dismayed by, one that I particularly couldn't stand, is the difference between the damage your weapons do, and the damage your opponent's weapons do. Granted, it only takes a few hits to destroy an enemy, but it certainly seems like it takes you a few hits, while the computer only needs a hit or two.
Each game can be played in twelve different locations, for thirty-six different competitions in all. There are four different terrains, Desert, Jungle, Transylvania, and Space. Each has environmental hazards, and different powerups. My biggest problem with the layout of these levels is that each of them is very small. The size, combined with the skill demonstrated by the computer and the lack of variety in powerups turns each course into a pint-sized maelstrom. The gameplay is loose and fast, and rather than being enjoyably quick, they're frustratingly jumpy. You'll probably need to play for quite a while before you can get good enough to beat more than a single level, even if you're playing with more than one player.
Ah' fortunately, this is an area in which Cel Damage excels. Adding more than one player is easy, as you join in just as if you were starting a normal game. You and up to three of your friends can play in any game mode and area you've unlocked, and best of all, there isn't really any difference between normal gameplay and multiplayer.
Cel Damage features Cel Shading, to give it that cartoony look, and a very forgiving 3D engine to give it that cartoony feel. As you bounce along the landscape, you'll be happy to notice that it does realistically resemble the traditional cartoon format, with nice pastel colors, and an abundance of rounded, deformed corners. Even with this heavily specific design though, most of these graphics are incredibly simple. Objects have very little texturing or intricate detail, with the most polygons being reserved for the player models. The Transylvanian world is probably my favorite, with its gravestones and ramps, but for the most part, there isn't much beyond the cel-shading gimmick to keep your eyes entertained in this title.
The best thing I can say is that the background music isn't annoying. It is lively, sets a good pace, and doesn't distract from the gameplay. Sound effects are crisp, and perfectly suit the cartoon environment, even down to that little zippy swish sound when you fall from a great height, leaving behind only a small puff of smoke to note your passing. I did enjoy listening to the voices of the characters, as none of them were high pitched or whiney, and always seemed to have a good quip for any given event that occurred near them.
All in all, Cel Damage is certainly entertaining, for at least a few minutes. Its gimmick is mildly entertaining, and I've got to give it credit for being the first title to do a cartoon effect really well, but it still falls flat with vacuous gameplay that focuses more on being frantically fast than really entertaining. This game is an excellent title for someone suffering from attention deficit disorder, but if you're looking for a game with lots of replay value, shop elsewhere. Given how much I was looking forward to playing this game when I got it, I was sorely disappointed.