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The Sorry State of the Racing Genre

If you've read my posts in these blogs before, you'll probably know I'm a big fan of racing games. Outside of gaming I'm a bit of a car guy too, so I love being able to indulge in both of these hobbies in one place. But as I've been looking at the state of the racing game genre recently, things have been looking pretty grim, and not very encouraging for the future either.

Although things have only been looking bad for the past year or so, this downturn in the genre actually first started quite a while ago, at the start of the 7th generation of consoles. At that time the Need for Speed series was at its peak. It had exploded in popularity several years earlier when it reinvented itself with Underground. With the sequel to that game it cemented its position as among the greatest in the genre. Then they did it again with the next iteration in the series, the original Most Wanted, which stands as just as much of a classic now. This was also the first NFS games on the 7th gen. machines.

Then after that things started to go sour very fast. The next game in the series after Most Wanted, Carbon, was still a good game, but one that had obvious flaws. Tell-tale signs of the stress the series was under and an omen of the direction it was heading. After that the series saw its worst iterations, and the developer was changed several times to try and bring back the quality of the series. Yet each new entry still felt rushed and half-baked, often hampered by poor controls. Since then there hasn't been a single entry anywhere near the quality of those which made NFS a series to pay attention to. Even though some entries do seem to show potential, none of them have been able to fulfil it, and the series is pretty much dead at this point in terms of quality.

Not a terrible game, but a harbinger of things to come.

The death of another of the best franchises in the genre, and one of the best developers in the industry, could arguably be attributed to this too. That being the death of Burnout and Criterion. Things seemed to start off well in the last generation for the series. Although it took a while to arrive, Burnout Paradise still stands as one of the best games of the generation, regardless of genre. But then EA put Criterion on NFS after the previous developer, Black Box, was taken off. They also failed to bring the series back to its former glory, and  in the process were completely gutted. They were cut down to a skeleton crew, and the founders of the studio left at the start of this year. With that I think it's fair to say that we probably won't be getting another Burnout again for a long time, if at all. And if we do get one, it will probably only be “Burnout” in name.

There have been a number of notable disappointing releases in the genre more recently too. Both of the latest entries in the big console exclusive simulation franchises have been less than encouraging. Now, I'm a big Forza fan. I adore the series, and it was hugely influential in how I played games in general over the past generation. Both Forza 3 and 4 were towering achievements, and Horizon, which saw out the 360, was a very successful blending of the unparalleled driving mechanics of the series with an open world structure and generally more casual tone.

Forza 5 though, was a big misstep for the series, and one I'm not particularly confident it will be able to recover from. While the physics engine and driving mechanics became much more sophisticated, and the graphics saw a leap, the game lacked an enormous amount of content and features from previous games in the series, and contained incredibly aggressive microtransactions and DLC implementation as an insult to add to the injury. While overall the game isn't exactly bad per se, it feels like a massive step down in terms of scope, while at the same time feeling like it's trying to antagonise the player.

This is from a game released in 2013.

Gran Turismo 6 is in a similar position, but for reasons that are opposite of Forza 5 in many ways. Again, it's not exactly a bad game, it has much improved physics too, but it feels like the result of a broken development process. Most of the car models look like PS2 models (a criticism I do not make lightly), shadows are often hideous, and the audio of the game is equally poor. Many of the features of the game feel like they were thrown in for the sake of it, without a plan for how it would all fit together or proper quality control. Like they were added in because they had all the assets lying around and felt they were obligated to include them, but there's so much of it that there just wasn't enough time or resources to make sure any of it was really up to proper standards.

The events that lead to both of these games becoming what they are are reminiscent of what the NFS series went through, which is why I'm worried that these series may not be able to reclaim their past greatness either. It's all the result of a series failing to make the transition to a new generation and the increase in effort needed to bring them up to the level expected from the new hardware. That being the 7th gen. for GT, and the 8th for Forza, both with their 5th iterations. This forced both Forza and GT to make compromises. To choose between quality and quantity, while before they could afford both. Forza went for quality, and GT went for quantity. Putting these series on tight development schedules exacerbates the problem too. It becomes a cycle of always having to play catch-up to make up for what was lacking last time.

Another notable disappointment from recent times has been GRID 2. The first game is another of my favourites of the generation, but the sequel fell flat. Again, it's not exactly a bad game, but it felt very uninspired and soulless. It also seemed confused in what it wanted to be. It presented itself as being a somewhat realistic depiction of professional racing, yet most of the vehicles in the game are road cars.

The VW Golf just screams "global level motorsport".

So that brings us up to now. A time where all of the biggest and best names in the racing genre are dead, or are in serious danger of following their fallen comrades. And when we look to the future, there doesn't seem to be much there waiting to take their place.

Because of the misgivings I've had about Forza 5, I've been looking for another game that could potentially scratch my simulation itch in the future, and I'm not seeing anything that fits the bill. Most upcoming games in the genre are PC only, something which isn't really an option for me, or much more limited in scope than Forza, as games in this genre usually are.

Right now the best candidate seems to be Project Cars, from Slightly Mad Studios, the creators of the Shift games from the NFS franchise. Those games are examples from the series that could have been good if they had more time in development to realise their potential. They were attempting to be simulators, like Forza, but they had an interesting character to them. They took on the more modern style of performance-focused tuning that you might be familiar with if you are aware of the car culture blog Speedhunters. In fact, there was quite a lot of cross-promotion between the blog and the games at the time.

Could have been so much more than it was.

From what we've seen of Project Cars, it seems that the DNA of the Shift games have bled over in to it. The driving model looks similar, but far more evolved. The graphics look to also be a refinement of that style. But it seems to be lacking that modern tuner aesthetic to it, being a very strict simulation, that at this point seems to lack scope. It's apparently going to change and grow as time goes on, even post-release, but at this point I'm not expecting it to be able to even come close to what I'm looking for. It's a shame in a way. I would be really excited to play a version of Shift 2 that was fully fleshed out and much more polished in terms of controls.

If we turn away from the simulation focus, and look at what the future hold for more arcade style games, things seem worrying to me there as well. Right now the two big games in this space are DriveClub and The Crew.

When DriveClub was first announced, it looked pretty interesting to me. A next gen. open world racer with a lot of social/multiplayer features. But as time went on I began getting more and more deflated about the idea of the game. Gameplay looked very dull and uninteresting, and then the game got delayed several times. My interest in the game was completely killed from what they showed, and now the game seems like it may be stuck in development hell. Although I suppose there is a chance that when they show the game next it might reinvigorate my interest, seeing as how they said the reason for the delay was that they wanted to “go back to the drawing board”. Only time can tell though, and at this point, I'm not too keen on the idea of the game.

"Coming... eventually... maybe."

The Crew on the other hand, has been continuing to impress me since the initial reveal. It seems like it'll take a lot of what I loved about the old NFS games when they were still good, but taking it to a whole new level. And then on top of that they're putting it in a Test Drive Unlimited style open world that'll dwarf anything that's come before. It sounded like I had found a new obsession.

But then a few days ago we started seeing the first previews of the game since the début at E3 last year, and there were some things that really worried me. Firstly, it turns out the game will require a constant online connection, even when you're playing single player. Any time your connection cuts out, you'll be instantly booted to the start screen, no matter what you were doing. But what offended me more was the revelation that the game will feature microtransactions. Not even just to buy cars and accelerate your progression like in Forza 5, but for the ability to unlock performance parts. Basically paying to unlock better stuff in the game instead of actually progressing like everyone else. Buying power, in other words. I don't think I need to tell you how disgusting that is, especially in a full priced game.

"Zynga and EA have the right idea!"

I'm still interested and optimistic about the game, but this is such an exasperating and infuriating turn of events. Ubisoft must have known that those would be some very unpopular decisions, yet they did them anyway.

It just leaves me feeling hopeless for the future of the genre. Is this what we have to look forward to now? Sims that can't afford to be anything other than the most specialised thing for small, niche audiences, or games which are nothing more than a farce designed to get you to cough up more cash? Things are looking really grim, and I don't see anything on the horizon that can save the genre.
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About Scrustleone of us since 2:06 PM on 04.27.2012

Hello all, I'm Scrustle. I've had a strong love for games for most of my life. The original Pokemon games and Zelda: Majora's Mask are what first got me in to gaming, but I didn't branch out much beyond that until the generation after.

Favourite genres are action adventure games in the vein of Zelda, racing games, RPGs, and action games like DMC etc., but I enjoy plenty of other genres from time to time as well.