It is with a heavy heart and more than a little reluctance that I publicly admit that, yes, I actually liked RoadKill. I enjoyed the game far more than I thought I would; enjoyed it far more than I probably should have. Instead of playing Viewtiful Joe, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, SSX 3, or Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, I chose to spend every spare moment I could find last weekend with RoadKill. Why, exactly? Hard to say. After all, I'm a sophisticated game reviewer, an educated man, a New Yorker. I should know better than to be seduced by such low-brow, derivative pap like RoadKill. I should know better than to play a game that features gratuitous expletives and violence, hookers and strippers, a crime-boss named "Uncle Woody," and an amusement park that has a pirate-ship ride called—drum roll, please—"The Poop Deck."
I really should know better.
Believe me, I tried to turn away, tried to focus on those previously mentioned titles, but after only a few minutes with Viewtiful Joe or SSX 3, I found myself craving—actually craving—more RoadKill. It's like being offered the option of either eating dinner in a four-star restaurant or from the dumpster out back.
Me, I chose the dumpster.
I'm uncomfortable endorsing RoadKill. Doing so feels like a potentially incendiary act, because this is exactly the sort of "xxxtreme" game that brings the wrong kind of attention to the videogame industry, the sort of game that makes Katie Couric and Joe Lieberman jump-start their finger-pointing campaigns. (No doubt Midway, in anticipation of the lawsuits, assembled a team of lawyers before the game even went gold.) I'm concerned that such a game, if it sells well, if it generates the kind of controversy it seems intent on creating, could potentially stunt the artistic growth of an industry that already seems to have a hard enough time coming up with fresh ideas. Imagine RoadKill 2, or worse, a parade of RoadKill-like knock-offs, with names like Mowed Down! and Hyundai Renegade. In theory, I should be railing against RoadKill, not celebrating it, but to do so would be dishonest.
Set in a clichéd dystopian future—bleak desert vistas, jawless skulls (think Mad Max)—RoadKill centers on a car-driving loner named Mason who's trying to survive in the flourishing post-apocalyptic criminal culture. Mason destroys liquor trucks, collects lost cargo, makes deliveries, and uses his sniper rifle to thin out opposing gangs-all in the name of keeping the local crime-bosses happy. RoadKill makes no attempt to hide the fact that it borrows quite liberally from Grand Theft Auto III; this fact is stated in big, bold letters on the back of the box cover. Instead of picking up gold stars to keep my wanted-meter down, RoadKill had me picking up peace symbols to reduce my "Riot-meter." Instead of driving a bomb-rigged, radio-controlled car...wait a second, RoadKill actually did have me driving a bomb-rigged radio-controlled car. Indeed, the structure, aesthetic, gameplay, and even the distinctive type-font from Grand Theft Auto III can all be found in RoadKill.
But RoadKill isn't really interested in being original. What it wants to do is shock, offend, and titillate. It's a game that's designed to be controversial, nothing more. After the first expletives were uttered during the opening cinema, after I inadvertently hit my first pedestrian and watched as he stuck to the grill-work on my car and cried out in pain, I was fully prepared to scrap the game. Still, I kept playing, working through missions, exploring the map. Once I was able to get beyond Roadkill's gleefully odious exterior—and it's not easy to do—I found a solid, well-made car-combat game, that's actually quite compelling to play.
RoadKill's 35 missions are mildly interesting and relatively easy to complete, but the main attraction for me was the game's fairly large cityscapes. I explored the main streets, the back alleys, the short cuts. I enjoyed discovering hidden ramps that could send me, if I hit the nitrous at the right moment, sailing clear across town. I raced through secret tunnels, deserted airports, and power plants. It's incredibly gratifying to figure out the fastest, most efficient way to get from one part of the city to another. By the time I reached the game's final missions, I knew every square mile of the RoadKill landscape like the back of my hand. Having mastered the maps (there are three separate cities in all), knowing that a left turn at the donut shop will get me to the drive-in, was satisfying to me, and stood in stark contrast to the blind weaving through the streets that I did when I first began the game. Familiarizing myself with the landscape was a unique and somehow comforting process, and it's one that I hadn't experienced since Vice City.
The ESRB tagged the game with a Mature rating, which is somewhat ironic considering the content of the game feels like it wasn't created by anyone with a mature sensibility, but was instead dreamed up by a 14-year-old boy raised on a steady diet of Cinemax. While I certainly didn't appreciate the content of RoadKill, I did however enjoy the fast, visceral gameplay.
One final note: one Christmas my brother and I got a tape recorder as a gift. At a loss for what to do with our tape recorder, this wonderful new piece of technology, our first impulse was to make farting sounds into the microphone. We played the farting sounds back and laughed so hard that tears rolled down our faces. The medium of the videogame is clearly still in its infancy. When faced with this relatively new piece of technology, developers, designers, and publishers more often than not don't know quite what to do with it yet. RoadKill is evidence of this. Bawdy, tasteless, unsophisticated, bereft of any real creativity but genuinely spirited, RoadKill is the videogame equivalent of farting sounds being made into a tape recorder.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.