The Great Racing Debate: Simulation v Arcade / 23rd of July 2014
Stand back in wonderment readers, and watch as our two chief videogame writers lock horns, and go head to head on the topic of racing games. Whilst James expresses his love for racing simulators, Gordon tries to convince you that arcade racers are, and always have been better. If you’re still on the fence, or just enjoy hearing two fools endlessly arguing an irrelevant point, then really, you couldn’t ask for much more. So, sit back, and let the carnage commence…
Why Driving Simulators Are Better
As an old school Sega fan, my first real appreciation of driving games was born in the arcade, with the likes of Virtua Racing, Daytona USA and Sega Rally, but somewhere along the line, my attitude to the genre changed, and I began to require something more. I recall the release of Polyphony Digital’s first Gran Turismo on the Sony PlayStation, and whilst unimpressed with its handling, I was blown away by the wealth of content featured, and perhaps most of all, by the simple idea that a racing game could provide a single player experience of substance. It would prove to be a much needed evolution of the genre that, fortunately, would go on to become somewhat more commonplace, and thankfully, would eventually become supremely well executed. In short, what I’m trying to say is that I like driving games, and the more depth that they have, the better.
Now, everyone likes a game that they can just pick up and play, but they’re not cheap, so consumers like me expect to get something substantial with their purchase, and as far as driving games go, you’re not going to get that out of a shallow arcade racer. A good driving sim can offer hundreds of hours of enjoyment, possibly even more if you can really get into the customisation side, learning how to properly tune your fine selection of vehicles of creating stunning works of art to adorn their sleek metal frames with. Some of you might already be thinking it, but for the rest who haven’t guessed by now, I absolutely love the Forza Motorsport series, and I will explain why, but first, a trip down memory lane…
The first simulation driving game that was able to capture my imagination was Sega GT on the Dreamcast, which, by today’s standards, doesn’t really hold up very well at all. However, at the time of its release in 2000, Sega GT was at the bleeding edge of the genre, and managed to garner a thoroughly respectable Metacritic rating of 88% (it was successful enough to warrant an Xbox based follow up, Sega GT 2002). A key aspect of its critically acclaimed design was the sheer wealth of content, and more specifically, the range of customisation options that developers, Wow Entertainment and TOSE Software, had afforded players. With a roster of around 130 cars, Sega GT offered players the ability to personalise them, not only through performance upgrades, but with a wide array of possible aesthetic variations, and it was this, that was such a small, yet pivotal deviation from the norm. To me, the ability to build up a collection of seemingly unique high performance vehicles was a masterstroke, and a sure-fire way to create a personal connection between the gamer and the game, but it was a feature that would be taken to its logical extreme with another series of driving games.
Forza Motorsport 2 was a game that I was very excited about pre-launch, and yet, I had very little reason to do so. The original game had garnered a fairly strong following on the original Xbox console, but I was certainly not among them, its physics engine was still not refined enough to make the races themselves exciting enough for my taste. And yet, there I was, quivering in anticipation at the launch of this particular title, only for it to eventually prove that I was right to do so. Within a minute of getting on the track, I knew that Forza had become the game for me, as nothing, not even the classic Sega games that I was used to, had given me such a satisfying driving experience, and it is one, that at least thus far, has never failed to deliver, and to constantly impress. This first entry on the Xbox 360 for Turn 10 was a brilliant driving game that raked in a Metacritic average of 90%, let down by its decidedly last gen visuals, which it more than made up for with a variety of game modes, realistic damage modelling and excellent sound design. It was the blueprint for what was to follow, except what did then come from Forza’s creators, somehow managed to raise to bar to insurmountable heights.
The Forza Motorsport series evolved beautifully over the course of its next two iterations, seeing the quality of the visuals improved again and yet again, whilst a steadily increasing range of race types and courses was implemented, resulting in Forza Motorsport 4 offering the best career mode available in any driving game. The presentation on Forza 2 was perhaps a tad messy, but from Forza Motorsport 3 onwards, Turn 10 fashioned a thoroughly sleek and stylish front end for the Forza experience. The physics engine too would improve dramatically, but it was not until the series made the transition to Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox One, with the underrated, Forza 5, that racing found a more exciting edge.
Forza 5 was the flagship title for the Xbox One, it incorporated the buzzword of cloud successfully into its design, and provided ammunition for Microsoft as they faced a backlash from the resolution-gate scandal. But it wasn’t just its magnificent, 1080p/60fps visuals or its cloud powered Drivatar feature that could turn heads, truly, it was the reworked physics engine that made Forza 5 an entirely different kettle of fish from its predecessors. As a consequence of the change, players were forced to relearn how to play Forza all over again, but the experience of doing so was, unquestionably, more than worth it. Races had become less “sterile” than they had ever been before, they were now fast, exciting and thoroughly visceral experiences, white knuckle racing had merged with the simulation, and the ultimate racer was born. So whilst critics unfairly criticised the title for featuring micro-transactions, leaving the game with a Metacritic rating of just 80%, gamers themselves were impressed, with approximately one third of all Xbox One owners picking up the game with their machines, and if they just so happen to be anything like me, they will surely be more than satisfied with their purchase. If Forza Motorsport 5 had the wealth of content and sublime presentation of its predecessor, it would undoubtedly rank, for me anyway, as the greatest driving game ever released, so, roll on Forza 6!
My biggest complaint about Forza 5? It doesn’t support the multi-screen set-up option from the previous entries, though granted, the cost of three Xbox One consoles and three copies of the game would be inordinately expensive, but the level of immersion that playing the game in this way is simply unparalleled. The way that corners and undulations in the track seem to be greatly exaggerated, it’s an entirely different experience from the standard way of playing it, adding further depth and longevity as the player must relearn how to attack corners, every course feels completely different. It is truly the only means that a videogame can use to make the player actually feel as though they are the driver behind the wheel of an ultra-fast supercar. And it is an experience that an arcade racer could not even dream of offering.
By being able to marry deeper levels of customisation and personalisation with top tier physics engines and pristine visuals, the simulation side of the driving genre has everything that its arcade based cousin can offer and a lot more besides. It is the only choice for anyone looking for depth, longevity and an almost certain connection with their virtual driving career and car collections. The console driving simulation, soon to be supplemented by the anxiously anticipated, Kickstarter funded Project: CARS from Slightly Mad Studios (developers of the less than impressive, Need for Speed: Shift), is alive and well, and surely the only sensible choice for anyone looking to do a tad more than just dip their toe into the genre.
Why Arcade Races Are Better
James will tell you that driving simulators are the very best kind of racing games. He’ll wax lyrically about graphical fidelity, realism, of the sophistication of the career mode and all its in-depth features. But he’s wrong, sorry fella. Arcade racers are the superior breed, without question. The sub-genre is far more fun, far less sterile, and isn’t constrained by the miserable shackles of realism. The likes of Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport pale in comparison to a quality of arcade racers such as Rally Sport Challenge or Dirt.
Admittedly I’m not very good at racing games, so if I do happen to pick one up I’m inclined to prefer the more ‘pick up and play’ orientated arcade racers. With driving simulators my concentration wanes when I have to spend the first ten hours ambling round race tracks in rubbish cars, getting to grips with how the game plays, while the Ferraris, Lamborghinis and the like are all tantalisingly out of reach. It’s something I understand from a development perspective, they want to create a sense of progression as players get increasingly better cars and modifications, while simultaneously acting as an extended tutorial. But for me it’s just a slog through the mundane. I’ve heard so many people defend games like Final Fantasy XIII with phrases such as; “it gets good after the first twenty hours, trust me”, and I’m sure you have as well. But if, like me you explain to those idiots - which they are - how you shouldn’t have to invest that amount of time in a game for it to stop being bad, then I don’t see why the same logic doesn’t apply to the likes of Gran Turismo 5. As I say, I understand the reasoning behind it with racing simulators, but when that’s stopping me enjoying the game then I’m inclined to go looking for an alternative solution.
That’s where games such as Codemasters excellent Race Driver: Grid come into their own. Released in 2008 Grid managed to do something its more established rivals failed to achieve. Namely to create a racing game that feels fast and fun straight off the bat, without being madly frustrating. Codemasters achieved this by creating the innovative flashback system, allowing players to rewind a short distance after a crash, learn exactly what they did wrong on a particular corner and try it again. With this simple and elegant solution I could now jump in a stupidly fast car in the first race and tear round corners like a driving god. If I, however unlikely, happen to have overestimated my ability to drive round hairpin corners at 150mph, then I can hit rewind and all is forgotten. It’s a system that’s proved so effective it’s since been appropriated by driving simulators like Forza and the fact that arcade racers though of if first proves that they’re better games.
Now if you’re of the opinion that being able to rewind is not realistic and therefore has no place in a driving simulator, then you’re probably the same sort that spends an unordinary long time adjusting break balances before a race and opts to drive with a manual gearbox. There’s a name for this affliction, it’s called being a ‘petrol head’. If you want hyper realism then I’m sure there’s little I can say to convince you that, even in a racing game, fun is more important. After all ‘petrol heads’ derive pleasure from discussing things like torque ratios and by their own admission are bunch of boring gits. If realism is so vital then go outside, take your car to a race track and see how fond of realism you are when you’re buried six feet deep in a concrete barrier. I’ll stick to having a good time going unrealistically fast, in a car I could never afford, and power-sliding round corners in my game. It’s fun, and I won’t die doing it.
Series such as Grid or Dirt have expanded in recent years to include career modes in the same general mould as their simulation focussed counterparts. Admittedly Gran Turismo, developed by Polyphony Studios in 1998, was the first racing game to properly implement an all-encompassing career mode. With focus on gaining racing licences, building a collection of cars and performance upgrades, it allowed players to invest themselves in a racing game in a way that had never been done before. It’s a format that has been steadily built upon in subsequent iterations, but for me it’s never really changed. Sure they’ve added more tracks, more categories with an excessive variety of cars to choose from, but they’ve never managed to evolve the concept.
If you’re seeking recent innovation then you have to turn again to the arcade racers. Colin McRae: Dirt 2 for example, managed to do a far better job than say Forza Motorsport 4 at mixing up the career mode and keeping things feeling fresh from race to race. By mixing disciplines to include rally and hill climbs, as well as creating special game types such as Gate Crashing and Last Man Standing, Dirt 2 managed to be far more entertaining throughout the course of its career mode than Forza 4 ever did. All Forza managed to do was incorporate ‘Top Gear’ mode from the popular BBC motoring show and continue to add to its roster of available cars. The Autovista feature amounted to nothing more than to effectively create ‘car porn’ and failed to advance the formula in any meaningful way.
By now I hope to have convinced you of the simple, undeniable truth, arcade racers are in every way superior to driving simulators. They were the very first kind of racing game, they created innovative ways to keep the genre accessible and evolved the formula when it began to stagnate. What’s more, the people who play them are don’t include irritating, nasal voiced bores prone to droning on and on about the inner workings of engines. Arcade racers are the past, the present and will be the future of the very best racing games.