Clutch: And by no means take off my sunglasses!

, | Game diaries

This is my first view of Atom-city from behind the wheel. In addition to showing me that is indeed how I’m supposed to write “Atom-city,” my opening diary entry informs me that on September 24th, 2006, there was a failure at the particle collider there. As everyone in the post-924 world (never forget!) knows, when your large hadronic collider has a “White Ring” anomaly that’s accompanied by “forceful energy blowouts”, everyone around it is either going to die, or turn into a zombie. Or, as my diary puts it, they will pass into a “somnambulic state,” which really doesn’t seem like the right term even if you are a Romero purist about what exact state of unpersonhood constitutes zombieness. It may be an accident of translation, but if so it’s a happy one–the frequently bizarre phrasing adds to the sense of disorientation from the start.

Keep reading after the jump to learn the solution to all problems.

Clutch is an overlooked gem of a budget game, released a couple years ago on Steam to approximately zero fanfare. The title probably didn’t help. For one thing, none of the vehicles available in it actually have clutches. They don’t even have speedometers. It’s an arcade racing and vehicular combat game with a heavy focus on driving over and through zombies as a key part of the design. It draws obvious comparisons to the classic Carmageddon, but is very much its own beast. Among the key differences: Clutch has a story. The player isn’t a nameless driver there just for the entertaining carnage, but is a nameless driver undergoing a crisis of character, a long dark night of the soul spattered with zombie innards and set to energetic Russian pyschobilly and roaring engines. Players will be tempted to skip the story, even to take the in-game option of disabling the diary entries entirely, but this would be as grave an error as taking off your sunglasses.

Now, many people who understand the core appeal of running pixel people over with cars may be skeptical about this point. What in the world do you need even a tenuous story for in a game about vehicular homicide? The stock Carmack quote: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” That’s a defensible point, but Clutch dodges it with surprising adroitness (like the last zombie you have to hit in a late mission, but hold that thought till entry five).

For one thing, there’s nary a cutscene till the very end, in-engine or otherwise, which was the wise choice. There are games where a degree of WHY CAN’T I MOVE?! is acceptable, but in a driving game it would be especially unseemly. All the story takes place in interstitial diary entries, that pop up before and after each plot-related mission, and there’s not that many of those. Each entry is brief and to the point, often in delightfully garbled babelfished English…and yet, accomplish more with their economy of word count than many games do with hours of rendered video. Less can be more, especially when you’re dealing with anything not involving running over zombies.

Speaking of running over zombies:

The first thing anyone does in Atom-city is run through a quick tutorial mission, which will educate the player in the most important lesson Clutch has to teach: if there are problems, the only real solution is to hit them with your car. Anything else is merely a stopgap measure at best. In my welcome mission, the problem is that Max–someone who is apparently my employer–needs someone to save another of his “Hunters,” who’s got herself into a bit of a pickle. Her problem is that their car is stationary somewhere in the city, and zombies are beating on it for the obvious reasons of trying to get at chewy center in crunchy shell.

And there she is. She’s parked, which teaches a secondary lesson: never park out in the street. If your car is parked, you can’t rightly hit the problem with it, can you? Of course you can’t. That’s why you need someone else to hit it with their car. In this case, as in most cases: me. It’s a matter of a just a well-timed handbrake slide to kill Aurora’s problem, whereupon she drives off. The mission’s completed, I get another piece of story officially welcoming me into the Hunters. What follows is the first act of our hero’s journey–learning how the world works.

Coming next: Hunter, or, Learning How the World Works.

Gary Achenbach posts as Drastic pretty much everywhere that he does, which makes it a lousy disguise.