Genre/Divergence: The Racing Simulator

Genre/Divergence is a new series of features that dive into niche genres of gaming, exploring their history, impact on the industry and current standing. At their core is the topic of theme and variation. What defines the genre in its simplest terms, and how games have built upon and modified the central idea. Following on from the first entry, Turn-based tactics, this feature explores the history of the racing sim. Please let us know what you think and if there is a particular genre you’d like us to tackle!

So what is a driving sim? Well in its most basic form, it’s any game that allows you to drive a car, the racing/driving genre has been a big part of gaming history and has reliably evolved through the years. A racing sim would be a game that attempts to recreate the driving experience in a realistic fashion, so while good games in their own right, there will be no mention of Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing here! (At least from this point on).

So, where did the racing sim originate? My first experience (that I remember) with a racing sim was Indianapolis 500 on the PC. This game, released in 1989 and developed by Papyrus Design Group Inc., allowed to you customise your car settings in practice before taking part in qualifying and eventually the final event, the full Indy 500. I was a little young when I got to playing this game, so my efforts proved largely unsuccessful, but it gave me enough excitement to give me a real interest in the genre. It was one of the first games where you could make changes to the car setup down to modifying the suspension, tyre pressure, down force and much more. A true racing sim should allow you to customise the car setup to suit your own driving style; a lot of enjoyment can be had fine tuning a car to get the perfect lap times.

Indianapolis 500, where it all started...
Indianapolis 500, where it all started…

Open wheel racers played a very large part in early racing sims. They really did set the standard for the genre

Following on from features Indianapolis 500 introduced, we were treated to the Grand Prix series of games from MicroProse. Again on the PC these games gave you the ability to take part in a complete Formula 1 season. While the simulations were improving greatly at this time, the input methods still largely only comprised of keyboards or digital gamepads. Grand Prix was one of the first games that started to introduce driving aids to assist the player. Steering assistance and throttle assistance helped to smooth out the digital nature of a keyboard or pad, giving the player much greater control. Imagine driving a car and only being able to either spin the wheel to full lock immediately or keep it dead straight; it wouldn’t be very driveable at all. Driving assists are prevalent in modern sims for the same reason: you simply can’t expect the amount of control you get from a steering wheel and pedals from a little joystick and some paddles.

Open wheel racers played a very large part in early racing sims. They really did set the standard for the genre, with advanced telemetry options and TV-style replays becoming more and more the standard. One big game for me was on the N64, F-1 World Grand Prix. This was a fantastic game, featuring the TV-style graphics in use at the time, with the options for taking part in a full season. This also included extra one-off challenges. I spent a lot of my time on this game. The experience of gradually turning off or lowering various assists until I was effectively racing under my own steam was extremely satisfying.

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Open wheel racers are where the racing sim began…

In 1998, Sony Computer Entertainment released the first of the Gran Turismo series developed by Polyphony Digital, effectively setting a standard for modern racing games. This game included a number of features that have become key ingredients in almost all racing games to date. The Gran Turismo mode started you off with 10,000 credits, with which you had to buy your first car. Events were restricted based on acquired racing licenses, with new racing licenses obtained by completing a series of tests. You had to balance the amount of credits you spend here, as you needed to upgrade parts on cars, and perform regular servicing to keep your cars competitive. Events also had various restrictions on car type as well, which encouraged the player to collect as many cars as possible to be able to enter all of the events. Gran Turismo offered the full package and set the standard for others to meet.

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Gran Turismo 2 followed just two years later; this improved massively on the previous release, with more cars available than any other game at the time. 650 cars and 27 tracks were available. GT2 added an extra style of racing as well, Rally or off road racing, which has been a smaller part of the game since, with each game including a number of WRC and classic rally cars with a few specific events to use them in. GT2 also had a large number of classic cars you could purchase.

Around this time Codemasters had released a couple of games centred on the Rally profession. Colin McRae Rally allowed you to take part in a full World Rally Championship style season. The emphasis here was to log competitive times on the long point 2 point stages, while keeping your car raceworthy. With any repair time taken off your final recorded times for each event, you are compelled to try to race cautiously. Colin McRae 2.0 in particular was huge fun for me; with a really clean interface, plenty of difficulty options and long events to keep you busy, this was a real game changer for the rally racing genre. While sharing a lot of features of the racing sims of the time, you were only given some basic options when it came to car setup. The racing style is also very different to standard circuit racing with loose surfaces and powerful 4WD cars.

With a new generation of consoles came a lot more potential for the driving enthusiast. In the early 2000s the racing genre was in full swing, with many different spinoffs. Criterion Games released the first of its Burnout games, which were set apart by being accessible and dynamic arcade racers, with emphasis on destruction and all advanced elements of racing stripped back. EA Games continued to improve their already established Need for Speed series. Polyphony Digital created two Gran Turismo games during the lifecycle of the PS2, both improving every aspect of the previous iteration including graphics, physics and the sheer amount of content unmatched by any other game.

With a new generation of consoles came a lot more potential for the driving enthusiast. In the early 2000s the racing genre was in full swing

2005 was a big year for racing sims. Not only was there the release of Gran Turismo 4, we also got the first of the Forza games from Turn10 Studios. This offered a large number of features over the PlayStation exclusive. The biggest of these was that the game took advantage of the relatively young Xbox Live service to make the game online enabled. While staying true to the core roots of a racing sim, Forza Motorsport expanded on the core features and made the game much more accessible to gamers new to racers with some impressive assists.

In 2005, on the PC we also got the release of the first GTR game from SimBin, this offered a much more advanced take on the racing sim. So unlike the console variants, you simply chose to take part in the championship, very much more a traditional simulation of official events. GTR features an official FIA GT Championship License, so this includes real cars and tracks from the event. This title makes the most of being developed on the PC, with up to 60 cars in a race and the ability to mod the game. GTR had a lot of options and quickly built a large community of racers and modders that are still active to this day.

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Outside of the leading racing sims for each console, there have been a few attempts from developers to come out with a racer with sim style aspects. The Need for Speed series has two SHIFT entries. While the handling is a little looser than most sims, it does simulate various racing events and has something called helmet cam, which does a good job of immersing you into the game. The camera will look towards the apex of corners and shake violently upon any kind of collision. Codemasters also has the GRID series of games, a very similar racing style to that of SHIFT and this sees you taking part in various events around the world in a number of different cars. Codemasters implemented the rewind feature in a large number of their games, which does take a bit from the excitement for me, but also makes the game accessible for newcomers to racers. Both these games attempt to bridge the gap and are a good stepping stone on the way to a full sim.

Platform Rivalry

Historically, the high end racing sims have only been available for one platform. Typically this rivalry is greatest between the consoles from Microsoft and Sony, and between Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo. While both great racers in their own right, they do things slightly differently. So how do we compare the two and how have they both evolved in recent years?

racingsims05Starting with the Xbox 360 Turn 10 Studios released their game Forza Motorsport 2, which built on the foundation of excellent online features and customisation options. Turn 10 Studios were well on to their way to becoming a well-established racing sim studio by this point, and their turnaround of producing new games hasn’t slowed down at all. They released Forza Motorsport 3 before Gran Turismo had a full release on the PS3. Forza Motorsport 3 again had massive improvements over the previous entry. With a huge overhaul on graphics and physics, and the inclusion of impressive online features such as being able to have your own storefront to sell or share tuning setups, creating a very connected experience.

After two entries in the Forza series on the Xbox 360, Gran Turismo 5 was released, the first full entry on the PS3. This included the same as we’ve come to expect from the series, a huge number of cars to drive and a large number of tracks. While some of the cars have been taken straight from GT4 and are as such a lower quality, there are a large number of high quality, or premium tracks to choose from. GT5 also implemented the first of its online enabled features, as the first online Sony console out of the box. It came across as kind of a social web site, you have your GT home page and can customise it as such. Other players can write on your wall and see your recent activity, or send you gifts. This was no doubt due to the massive rise in social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the game attempts to replicate these kind of interactions. While this was a very social oriented experience, online races were limited to private rooms, nothing like the online matchmaking of Forza Motorsport.

Forza Motorsport 4 was released between the release of GT5 and GT6 and featured a massively overhauled graphics engine. With improved lighting, higher quality car models. The game even featured an autovista mode that allowed to fully explore a select few cars, commentated by Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, you got to see some of these cars in the most precise detail. Again including the ever-popular storefront from Forza 3, we were treated to all the usual and expected features of games from Turn10 Studios, including leader boards for everything you can imagine and the ability to share anything you can think to create in a racing game.

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Recently we were also treated to an open world game in the series, Forza Horizons, in which we were given the experience of driving some of the world’s most famous sports cars around a massive open world and taking part in a very different set of events to Forza‘s standard circuit racing. While not considered a ‘full’ Forza game (it wasn’t Forza 5), it was an enjoyable experience and a project that will likely be getting a sequel in the near future.

Gran Turismo 6 was a relatively recent release and my personal experience with it thus far is that it appears to be almost like a Gran Turismo compendium, with all the best bits from the Gran Turismo series. There is no B-Spec racing mode here at all, and every single car in the game is available in the dealership from the off, if you have the credits.

Gran Turismo always has to have something a little bit quirky, hence the inclusion of the moon buggy mode: here you get a few challenges, on the moon, in a rover moon buggy. It’s a bit of a strange inclusion, but quite a fun one: the lack of any substantial gravity makes traction very low and successful navigation of even the smallest rocks proves tricky.

We’ve already had the release of Forza Motorsport 5 on the Xbox ONE. Another recent release, this builds again on the strengths of the series. It also includes some very nice features, one of which is your Drivatar. The game records your performance and racing style and then this is translated into other people’s games as opponents. It’s quite a satisfying feature, which really makes the traditional A.I. a bit more interesting to race against.

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It’s a pretty common thing to compare the two games to each other; as the leading racing sim on each platform it’s a subject of often heated debate. So what’s my take on it all? Forza Motorsport does certain things better, for sure: it has better online features, with leader boards for everything, and better online modes with matchmaking. It also has greater customisation of cars with their advanced paint tool. Forza also gets regular paid DLC made available on a frequent basis. On top of that collision physics and damage is much better in the Forza series. For sheer quantity of content, however, Gran Turismo is hard to beat, with more cars than ever before; but it does lack in the multiplayer side of things. With no matchmaking and no multiplayer events other than time trials, it’s not a hugely “social” game. Although Polyphony Digital aren’t shy of releasing major updates that make significant changes to their games, so this may change through the current game’s life cycle. Personally, I think the difficulty of Gran Turismo is at a higher level than that of Forza. This can be looked at in one of two ways, if you prefer the extra challenge of Gran Turismo or if you prefer the extra assists and difficulty options with Forza Motorsport. I think it’s really a personal preference, I play Forza when I want to be sociable and Gran Turismo when I want a more personal challenge. They are both excellent racing sims in their own right.

Blending with Reality

Gran Turismo hosts an annual event called GT Academy, if you manage to win this event, you get yourself signed to a real racing team

Such is the quality of the modern day racing sim, it’s often compared to real life; a popular telly show has compared lap times in a particular car in game and in real life a handful of times. With a good steering wheel setup, there’s nothing different to the amount of control you have, so it’s no surprise that it can be simulated very well. Generally, however, racers are able to get quicker times in game than in real life. This is normally associated with the ‘fear effect’ or lack thereof: in real life if you decide not to brake like you should for a corner, you’ll likely crash out, ruin a car and risk injury. The same can’t be said for taking the same risk in a game. Without the fear of broken legs and insurance claims the theory is that you won’t hold back at all, resulting in faster lap times.

There’s another link to real racing. Gran Turismo hosts an annual event called GT Academy. If you manage to win this event, you get yourself signed to a real racing team. This is a series of time trial events, each of which you have to best in order to get a chance to take part in the next stage. The winner of the first GT Academy event was Lucas Ordóñez, who has become a successful professional racer in his own right since. You only need a copy of Gran Turismo in order to take part. As of this writing GT Academy 2014 has already begun, the first stage has you setting your best time around the Brands Hatch Indy Circuit in a Nissan Leaf. It’s an event I always take part in, and my time for the first stage is currently sitting at a rather poor 1:05.106… I won’t be changing my career anytime soon, but it’s a good stepping stone for gamers who are truly gifted to get a chance at a racing career.

The Future

So where is the racing game heading? Upcoming console racers seem to be favouring the adoption of social features for a lot of their racing games. With Forza Motorsport 5 and its excellent collection of online modes and with the upcoming releases of Drive Club and The Crew, it seems that the racing game of the future is going have us interacting with each other more and more, which is a good thing. And it’s also an indication of how everything we do is more and more connected and shared. With the ever increasing effect that social media has on our everyday life, this is a reflection of that growth.

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The future is connected…

On the PC, where the driving sim was born, things aren’t looking quite as bright. The free to play model has been adopted by a lot of racing games. With games like simraceway, you get the client for free, but there is no local network play, no real multiplayer at all. And you will need to invest in one of the many ‘packs’ to get access to any extra content. That seems to be a regular thing across the board at the moment. There are games like iRacing, which offer a premium racing experience for a subscription. There are a lot of very impressive looking indie racers out there as well, but unfortunately there is no alternative to Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo for the PC, so PC gamers don’t really have the best choices for racing sims right now.

It can be safely said that the racing sim you play is determined by the platform you play on, with most racing sims being developed for only one platform, you have to be very fortunate to experience all of them. Upcoming racer Project CARS looks like it might get around that stepping stone. Being available on all next gen platforms, that includes PC, Wii U, PS4 and XBOX ONE, this is looking like a racer everyone will be able to play. It also has the potential to shake up the genre a little, promising a customised racing career along the path you choose. Whether you want to stick to open wheel racing and get to Formula 1 stage, or stick with touring cars, or get onto LMP1-style custom built race machines. The game also promises a plethora of supercars. It sounds like this is racing at its very core; you can choose the path you want to take and choose the type of racing you want to compete in. Project CARS looks to have a solid physics engine and looks set to be an important entry in the genre. It’s not due to be released until November however, so you’ll have to wait a little while for this one. This is absolutely my one to watch for the foreseeable future.

5 to try

Gran Turismo 6

The current Gran Turismo very much feels like a compendium of all the previous games. Includes all the best bits that we’ve come to expect with various challenges and license tests, along with hundreds of cars available. Not only that, but if you prove yourself enough on this game, you have a chance of becoming a racing driver for real.

Forza Motorsport 5

The latest Forza Motorsport contains all the online-enabled features we’ve come to expect, along with so much more. The first of the next gen console racers takes advantage of all the extra power the new console has to offer, and also includes plenty of options for driving assists to help newcomers to the racing genre.

Race 07 (And Add-Ons)

A PC racer so this gets all the advantages that come with the platform. A really strong community, with plenty of mods and updates available. It’s very easy to ‘plug in’ new tracks / cars and to set up multiplayer lobbies. While based on a slightly older engine, the fact that we are always getting new user created content makes this a unique experience.

Formula 1 2013

While most recent Codemasters games are very much arcade racers, their open wheel racers still retain the level of authenticity and challenge that was present in the early open wheel racers. Events are simulated accurately, so you have the option of taking part in qualifying building up to the main event.

Shift 2

Bridging the gap between arcade racers and sims, this is a great stepping stone for people looking to get into racing sims. Typically the handling is a little over the top, you can to expect to slide around a bit more than usual, but offers a great challenge and really pushes the boundaries of immersing the player into the game, making you feel like you’re being thrown around inside this steel box.


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