Judging from the NASCAR fans in my family, there's some truth to the old gag that they really watch auto racing for the crashes.
Video-game companies have long assumed as much. From arcade classics like "Death Race" to more recent demolition derbies like "Burnout," designers seem to enjoy showing how much damage a car can do more than how fast it can go. Sure, purists can geek out on more realistic sims like "Gran Turismo" or "Forza Motorsport," but the cool kids are blowing stuff up.
This month, we've seen three new games that prize destruction over speed. Your mileage may vary.
"ModNation Racers" (Sony, for the PlayStation 3, $59.99) is the most lighthearted of the three, a family friendly romp closer in spirit to Nintendo's "Mario Kart" series. The controls are simple enough that just about anyone can jump behind the wheel, and the whimsical weapons and power-ups scattered across each course keep the races tight. For solo players, there's a satisfying career mode with a clever story and a ton of kart parts to collect.
But the most impressive quality of "ModNation" is its broad range of customization: You can outfit your vehicle and driver however you like, and you can even create your own racetracks and post them online for others to play. Despite all the options available, the design tools are very easy to use, and you can get your avatar to the starting line after about 10 minutes of tinkering.
With more than two dozen built-in tracks and the promise of an infinite number of user-created ones, "ModNation" delivers a long ride for the cost of about two tanks of gas. Three stars out of four.
"Split/Second" (Disney, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) features more realistic vehicles and scenery, but the action is completely over the top. What separates it from other car-combat games is that you're destroying the racetrack itself by causing the surrounding architecture to collapse and explode. You usually want to time your attacks so that buildings fall on your opponents, but occasionally an alternate route will emerge from the rubble, giving you a shortcut to the finish line.
To accumulate enough power to unleash such havoc, you have to pull off standard racing maneuvers like drafting behind competitors and drifting through corners. That's the most tedious part of "Split/Second": You're forced into a particular style of driving if you want to see the good stuff. And while the destruction is dazzling the first time around, it gets predictable after a few laps. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.
"Blur" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) was developed by Bizarre Creations, the studio behind the more conventional "Project Gotham Racing" series, so it has the driving mechanics nailed. Throw in the usual weaponry — missiles, mines, lightning bolts — and up to 20 vehicles and you have one of the liveliest, most chaotic car games yet.
It may be too chaotic; with all the ordnance flying around, it's tough to grab a lead, much less maintain it. But despite the frequent frustration of losing a first-place trophy because of a well-timed rocket, the smartly designed career mode keeps you coming back for one more lap. Three stars out of four.