Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Racing Like A Pro

Welcome to a small series of posts that I am going to focus on the various racing games I have been playing in recent months. I will be using this series to share my thoughts, discuss what makes them tick for me as well as where I think or would like to see the genre move forward. The genre is without a doubt my favourite, mainly due to my love of all things cars and Motorsport in real life. It begins with Simbin’s first foray into console gaming: Race Pro.

I will be honest, I had high expectations for this game, expectations that I shouldn’t have had and ones which resulted in mild disappointment once I got my hands on it. You see, due to being a racing simulator I assumed that Race Pro would replace Forza 2 as the game I would play whenever I wanted a realistic, circuit-based racer. This means that I expected to fire it up whenever I wanted to do laps around a track, test my skill and precision by setting and beating lap times or whenever I wanted to have a race or three with my friends online. For now, it provides this but once I have finished Race Pro completely I can see myself setting it aside in favour of playing Forza 2 again.

Don't get me wrong, I love Race Pro. For their first attempt at a console game, the sim experts that are Simbin (they're renowned for their games on PC) have created a decent title that gives people like me the chance to finally see what they're capable of, but being a first attempt also means that it contains a few flaws. The obvious one and something that puts many people off is the graphics: they are fairly average. They do the job, but in a generation which features stunning and beautiful games, it can be off putting. I don't have a problem with it, but most people do so it is worth mentioning here. The game's handling, while pretty damn good, also needs refinement and doesn't feel as tight as Forza 2. Unfortunately for you guys, I can't really explain the difference between the handling of both games as it's something you can only feel, and sometimes the differences are so subtle that only experience with both games (and others) would bring them to attention. Race Pro's handling seems to be inconsistent. An example could be that you go to brake for a corner at the exact same place you did on the previous lap, changing down gears like you normally would and yet you end up in the gravel trap instead of taking the corner properly. It's like the car's handling changes on you randomly and I will admit it has caused some unnecessary crashes and excursions off track. You could argue it's simulating a track's grip level as tracks in real life change and evolve over the course of a race, but if this was the case then I believe it would be obvious and would also happen in every race rather than randomly. AI is also inconsistent; I am playing it on the Professional difficulty which is the hardest and for the most part, passing and beating opponents is easy. If, for example, I choose to not qualify and therefore start in the middle of the pack, I have no problems getting to the front and once I take the lead, I usually end up being many seconds ahead of second place. Not a small distance like 5-10 seconds, but at an absurd 30-50 seconds ahead. That's how easy the AI is to beat. Yet sometimes when I go to pass them they will be extremely aggressive and will move over to block me, push me off the track or even spin me and to say it gets frustrating after such an easy time in other races is an understatement. It's like a button was switched on and suddenly they are supposed to take you out at all costs. Another inconsistency is despite being so far behind, one of the sixteen drivers can end up having faster sector and lap times than you. It puzzles me purely because if they are supposedly that fast, then why are they so far behind? It doesn't surprise me though because the game's online leaderboards (for time trials and stuff like that) are also inconsistent, perhaps even glitched. Some people have managed to set six second lap times around tracks which is clearly impossible, and my own times registered on the leaderboards have been quicker than the ones I actually set.*

Those aren't the only problems I have with the game; I have some more personal issues as well. The races in the Career mode, for example, are too short. Ranging from two-seven laps, they are fine but I enjoy longer races too and it would have been nice to see some within the career, especially in faster cars such as the F3000s. I would have also liked to see some Endurance races but their exclusion doesn’t matter too much because you can choose the amount of laps you want to do in the Championship mode. I also don't like how the game doesn't seem to use some of its features when it could, with a prime example being the weather effects. I was really happy to see weather be integrated into the experience, but throughout the career not one race has any rain. It's always sunny and therefore if you want a rainy race, you'll need to create your own via the aforementioned championship mode, or in time trials or online. That's a little disappointing and it seems like a waste of effort on Simbin's part.

Wow, quite a lot of criticisms for a game that I love. Again, don’t get me wrong, Race Pro is great and I have really enjoyed playing it. It features some tracks that aren’t usually in other games such as Brno and Zandvoort, so it has been nice to learn and master them. Despite rarely being used, features such as the weather effects are welcome as far as I am concerned and I have thoroughly enjoyed racing on a wet track, using the in-car camera view with a windscreen covered in water, wipers working in overdrive. Racing online with friends has been a blast as well, with it containing practice and qualifying events before a race (there’s an option to turn this off) -- something that isn’t usually done in other games and breaks up the pace as you go from track to track. Despite my concerns above, the handling system is a remarkable effort for a first attempt and I give full credit to Simbin for creating a game that rivals Forza 2 (the king at the moment for realistic handling on console) in that department.

In summary, Race Pro is flawed but for a first attempt I absolutely love it and fully commend Simbin for achieving so much on a platform they have had no experience with. If this is the result of their first attempt, I seriously cannot wait to see what they can do in future installments.

*Thankfully a patch was released just yesterday which eliminated these leaderboard glitches as well as fixed a few other things in the game. While it is easy to argue if patches are a good or bad thing, it is nice to see developers working on their games after release.

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