*Due to a glitch, this article is credited to the wrong individual below. Aidan O’Dwyer is the correct author of this piece*
People often like to talk about the game that got them into gaming. Whilst I had consoles from a very early age, the game that got me hooked came when I was eight years old. With my freshly unwrapped Sega Saturn, I immediately fell in love with Sega Rally Championship 1995, a port of the popular arcade game that still haunts the dusty corners of Brighton amusements to this day. With just four tracks and three cars, I set about for nigh on a year perfecting my craft. I was an expert; the dirt was my slave, the car my instrument of war against time itself. If there were world records for lap times being maintained, my name would inevitably appear somewhere. The day I learnt to use manual transmission was my gaming equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah; Sega Rally made a man out of me.
Well, not really, but at the time, it was a massive deal to gloat about whilst my friends with their PlayStation’s struggled round the various courses of Gran Turismo 1 & 2 in AT. This aside, Sega Rally will always maintain a special pedestal within the grand exhibition which is my gaming history. It cemented my love of a genre which we as gaming enthusiasts rarely talk about. I have often been surprised at this; Gran Turismo, the Forza series and the Colin McRae series (with its DiRT series offspring) are rarely written about beyond the odd preview and the obligatory review, and yet remain series which boast impressive sales numbers and colossal install bases. These are games that, like many first-person shooters, will attain dedicated followings of people who devote themselves to online competition, time attack modes, and even livery editing facilities within the game. It really didn’t take too long for me to crack this chestnut. There’s nothing to bloody write about!
When reviewing a racing game, the reviewer will inevitably focus on handling, gameplay modes, online functionality and visuals, as well as tracks and available cars. That’s it. That’s all there is to focus on. Take two examples that I have just in the last week completed. DiRT: Showdown is essentially a collection of car-based mini games and the odd race which fails to hit the high standards that the previous games of the DiRT series. Additionally, Forza Motorsport 4 was a long, soulless grind of race after race in a campaign that long overstayed its welcome with this humble racing fan, despite a plethora of tracks and cars to vary the experience.
My main issue with the modern racing game is simple; they’re soulless. They lack attitude. It almost feels like the developers deliver these technically brilliant racing experiences the way a world-class chef would bring his most famous creation to you, only to drop it in your lap with a grunt of indifference.
It also often feels like all I’m racing is a bunch of coded car shaped things! Many games make it far too obvious that you’re merely racing against pre-coded opponents with no apparent personality. Some games, like Forza, actually contain AI behaviour modifiers which means your opponents can make mistakes, or even try and ram you out of their way. This is amazing work, but it still feels like my opponents may as well be inanimate objects. I often imagine something as dull as a small potted apple tree has spun out in front of me, whilst the pumpkin behind me in the Ferrari Enzo is desperatly trying to T-Bone me into submission.
Sure, there are signs that some people on those development teams really care; Forza 4 had plenty of nice little touches for your average car fanatic. But I’m not a car fanatic, I’m a game fanatic. In real life, I could barely tell the difference between a Lamborghini and a telephone box with wheels full of sick. I care very little about who won the Forumla 1, the WRC, the Touring Car Championships or the Nascar (especially not the Nascar!) What I love is the racing itself. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in an F1 car, a supercar, a go-kart being driven by a villainous turtle, or even a futuristic anti-gravity vehicle from the year 2048. As long at the mechanics are sound and the thrills are there, I’ll probably play it.
But that extra layer of attitude and of immersion into the world these races occupy boosts the experience to new levels. Even Sega Rally was memorable for the cheekily sung “GAME OVER YEAAAAAAAAAH!” as was Sega’s later effort with Daytona USA’s memorable soundtrack and “ROLLLLLLIIIN’ STAAAAAAAAAAAAAART!” I can give only three great examples of racing games that go the extra mile in this way from, which I personally have played.
Firstly, Wipeout 2048 on the PS Vita, which achieves this extra mile through slickly designed menus, awesome music, and even the smallest most negligible detail; the opening video. The video shows how racing evolves over time, from classic racing cars right up to the anti-gravity monstrosities you’ll be using in game. Having played past Wipeout games, this video made Wipeout 2048 all the more compelling, as it finally felt like it might just be tied to our own reality.
Secondly, another entry in an existing series, MotorStorm: Apocalypse does very well in creating a narrative for its racers. The plot isn’t very good, even by game story telling terms, but it works just enough to set the tone for the races, and to provide even more motive to play what was already a very sound racing title.
But finally, my favourite racing game of this generation is inarguably Colin McRae DiRT 2; a game which did everything as well as one can expect. Menu systems which replicate the experience of living out of a trailer as you tour the world? Check! A wide array of contemporary music to set the tone of the events you’ll be attending, such as the XGames? Check! Rival drivers communicating with you, making you feel as if you’re actually racing against people as opposed to inanimate objects (such as a pumpkin, or a small potted apple tree)? Check! A surprisingly affectionate tribute race to the late Colin McRae within the game, followed by an emotional video tribute as the pre-mentioned real life racers pay tribute to their fallen rival? Check!
And whilst the racing itself was somewhat improved in DiRT 3, with a larger focus on rally events and the obligatory improved visuals, Codemasters seem to have lost that spark of attitude which made DiRT 2 so great. Sure, some of their design decisions can be seen replicated in their F1 series, but again, this is a series which lacks the balls-out ‘tude of DiRT 2. But perhaps the biggest feather in DiRT 2’s cap is the fact that, whenever I was playing it, I felt like I wasn’t just some guy eating bread from the bag, wearing a scruffy hoody I bought when I was sixteen with a controller in my hand. DiRT 2 near convinced me that it was actually me behind the wheel of that car, or living in that trailer with all the people outside listening to Queens of the Stone Age. It achieved what even some of the most pretentious and narrative-driven videogames fail to do so- escapism.