I pop the disk in the middle of the tray and pull down the lid on my Sony Playstation. With excitement I watch as 'Sony Computer Entertainment Europe' appears on the screen, hoping for the Playstation logo to appear next rather than the dreaded memory card manager telling me my disk isn't working.
I'm thirteen years old and my parents have likely ripped off a catalogue of some kind to afford me a happy christmas. And what a christmas it was: A Sony Playstation with a whole three games: Actua Soccer, Alien Trilogy and Rage Racer.
Rage Racer intoduced me to the idea of progression-based racing games.
'Lady's and gentleman, start your engines, and lets, get it on!'
So many times I heard that introduction and yet it never irritated or bored me. It could be the simplicity of the sound assets, or the way I was challenged to make the game varied for myself, but Rage Racer was the game that made me want to play racing games. You're given a car, there is a clear linear progression in the improving cars, and the variety comes from what colours you want your car to be, and a basic bitmap badge editor.
I went back to the game today to see if nostalgia was rearing its oh-so-familar head, and what I found was surprising. The game, with it's extremely outdated graphics, clearly aimed for one objective: To be fun.
Six hours earlier
: Performing first time set up. The magic of playing a new game for the first time is gone as I approach 30 years old of course; however; as much as I can appreciate the convenience and quality placed in the Steam store, I can't help but be a little saddened that I'm watching an exe file launching rather than listening to the disk and sitting in wonder, with controller in hand, prepared to be amazed.
GRID 2 is the modern day version of the Rage Racer style arcade racer.
And so GRID 2 launches. I didn't particularly enjoy the first, with the robotic voice attempting to say my name at every corner in some wierd attempt to get my attention, but it wasn't particulary bad either, giving me enough hope for the second. Now I have no intention to review the game, but what I found in my first few minutes was a deja-vu of not having fun.
But why? The game is everything I should find 'fun' in a racer. The action is fast paced, the graphics are flashy and sharp with nice damage physics, there's an array of cars and even a solid online mode for me to indulge in. So where did it go wrong? Or did it go wrong? I had to question my commitment to the genre.
And so I looked at what I've enjoyed in the past, and what's changed to make me lose this in the present. Throughout the years I've given more time than one person should to games like Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo, Destruction Derby, Forza/Forza 2, Formula 1, Midnight Club and rally games like Colin McRae.
Midnight Club tried to shake up the genre with exteme levels of customisation combined with the Fast and Furious style of street racing.
Then I looked at what I don't like, later Forza games, GRID, Need for Speed etc. and I found there are a few things that put me off the genre today.
Firstly, there's this idea that the game has to start fast. In early games, the fun and challenge was keeping ahead of the curve whilst using faster and faster vehicles. In almost every game I play now, the idea seems to be focus tested that you need to introduce the game in an amazingly fast car to show what you can achieve, then kick you back to the start. This is not fun to me. If I can play a game in the fastest car possible without having ever picked up the controller, then there is something fundamentally wrong. Not to mention it's like giving a drug addict crack, then once they've had a taste moving them on to Ibuprofen.
Forza leaderboards try to give the player reasons to play. But does it help them WANT to?
Next we have the appearence of online. On paper this should be the saviour of racing games. Challenging people from across the globe in my modified car of choice was but a pipe dream as a child. What we have however is an anonymous world of people looking to drive the wrong way around the track, car limitations to mae the game 'fair' and 'balanced', anti cheat systems that interfere and yet rarely work and what you're left with is a shell of what could be.
And so I come to my final concern for the present, and future, of racing games. Is there enough variety to sustain the genre anymore? To be fair they are trying: Drift Modes, Drag Races, Street Races and so on. But when it comes down to it are you really doing enough different? With games like Grand Theft Auto 5 around the corner, are we now in a world where racing is better incorporated into other games rather than a genre in itself? Will it be the 2D platformer of this generation, becoming a niché that other games take from but don't commit to?
Grand Theft Auto 5 promises Midnight Club level racing along with a fully living world with sports, shooting and much more.
For me online needs to offer a better solution for the genre to survive, freeing the players rather than limiting them. It's my hope that someone goes back to the drawing board with the genre and starts fresh with a new perspective.
That and Destruction Derby's bowl online. read