Let me play: 7 issues with racing games
Recently I’ve been taking a crash course in the racing game genre. I’ve gone through over half a dozen titles from the current generation already. I understand that the genre can be a niche, especially with some of the hard core driving sims or the F1 games, so some of these games aren’t made for people like me, but there are some things that are inexcusable.
Luckily, the two games I’ve just finished playing are perfect examples of things racing games get wrong. Both Need for Speed: Shift and Grand Turismo 5 start out with serious problems, get better and even fun and then devolve back into serious problems. There might be more good stuff after that, but quite frankly after 15 hours of this shit I just don’t care to find out. Both games are essentially car porn, ( you only have to look at Gran Turismo’s opening movie to understand that) so I can understand a certain amount of obtuseness and the oppressive amount of choices within, but having these things and conveying them to your audience are two different things. So in no particular order:
1. If you’re going to rip off RPGs, rip off the stuff you need.
Both driving games have RPG elements incorporated into your profile, by which I mean they have experience points, progress bars and levels with no actual role play or stats. They take the laziest approach to unlockables and tie them into your current level. It doesn’t encourage expansion into different races or even improving your ability to drive in the games. The progress bar has no correlation to your ability and can easily be circumvented by grinding the same track over and over.
Instead I would have liked if both games had taken something else RPGs had perfected some time ago: their menu systems. Both games have labyrinthine menus and tabs that have no consistent logic or reason to them. Need for Speed: Shift has three different systems for moving through different options and making choices. You have scrolling slideshow menu within a dropdown menu that lead to a large spreadsheet with multiple tabs that you can only navigate once you’ve chosen a tab. Everything is poorly labeled and I was never sure what I was choosing. Grand Turismo 5 does it one better by not labeling their campaign mode at all and instead sticking it in what I assumed was the social networking and real life race watching part of the game. It turned out it was all three, but led me to something that looked like a cross between Windows 8 and a Lynch fever dream. The boxes were all different colors and sizes for no reason. That kind of design was made for a touch screen, not for a controller. And the tabs within tabs when trying to choose a car were unwieldy. A little less time on car fidelity and a little more on basic menu structure would have gone a long way.
2. Make your text readable.
I don’t think I need to elaborate on what I mean by this. In both games the text was tiny and did everything it could to blend into the background with poor color contrasts. Gran Turismo 5 at least recognized this was a problem and gave me a zoom function. Instead of making the text bigger, they gave me a button so I could zoom in to read it. I’m already struggling to figure out what the stats on the car mean: I don’t need eye straining unreadable text to hinder the process further.
3. It took hours to start the disc, now let me play the game right away.
Again I’m not sure either of these games wanted me to play them. The 12 hour patch download and disc download time was bad enough from Gran Turismo, but then it puts further hurdles in the way of playing the game. Both games do this. I had to buy a car. Usually not a problem, except I couldn’t afford most of them and I ended up looking through the want ads trying to find an affordable used car in Grand Turismo 5. In Need for Speed: Shift I took the first one I could afford and went from there. Both cars drove like shit. In the case of GT5 the car accelerated at the rate of 1 mph per second. My 15-year-old Mustang does better than that.
Plus, if there is one thing that will inhibit action, it is the tyranny of choice. Gran Turismo is a series known for this. You have no information about the cars. You haven’t driven them, so you don’t know how they feel or what their capabilities are. This means that you will be punished for making a poor choice, which freezes the playing even further. We don’t want to make a bad choice, especially one that will poorly affect our ability to play, especially when we have no real information on which to base such a choice.Really any car sim is known for this, but it’s supposed to happen later in the game after we’ve learned about the different cars by trying them out. Here the problem is the first thing you experience in the game and you have to make your choice based off of nothing.
Both the phenomenal Burnout: Paradise and the mediocre Motorstorm: Apocalypse gave me a vehicle to start with. It allowed me to get right into the driving and then build up a larger garage of cars bit by bit as I learned more and got better at the game.
4. Tell me what the stats mean.
Both Gran Turismo 5 and Need for Speed: Shift have numerous stats, bars, and numbers that detail what the car is about and I had no idea what any of it was. Shift’s cars were broken down into four stat bars with the bars filled in to represent how good that stat was with the car. They are top speed, acceleration, braking and handling. The first two make perfect sense though being an abstract bar I have no idea what either the top speed or acceleration rate were. As for braking and handling, I can guess what they are, but after tinkering with my car in the tuning shop and more than doubling the handling I still could not detect any difference it made in the race as it kept spinning out at every sharp turn. So I don’t know what changing those stats actually did. And braking, does that govern how fast they take effect? Because again increasing that stat showed no effect within the actual races.
Gran Turismo 5’s stats, beside the fact that I couldn’t read them without zooming in, are never explained and I couldn’t tell what they meant. Some I recognized from real life such as RPM, but I had no idea what functional application that would have in the races. Likewise, the other stats were just as obtuse. They definitely didn’t help me choosing one car over another. I couldn’t tell if a slightly higher RPM was worth less BMI for an extra $5,000. I understand that this is a game for car nerds and I’m not demanding it be altered for plebeians such as myself, but is an explanation or summary of the car’s effectiveness or even just a glossary too much to ask? Throw me a bone here.
5. Have the car move on screen at what the speed feels like.
I eventually understood why I kept spinning out when I was in position to win the race and ending up near the bottom of the rankings as a result. I was taking the turns too fast and/or wasn’t drifting properly. I take responsibility for that. (Though this happened far more often and with worse consequences in Need for Speed: Shift than Gran Turismo 5.) But you have to meet me halfway game. You could tell me in some subtle way that I’m going too fast. And I’m not saying to put an interface thing to blatantly tell me that and I understand the speedometer is in the lower right hand corner to tell me the mph. Here’s the thing: it’s a high speed race, so my eyes are front and center watching out for other cars and the contours of the road. I take my eyes off of that for too long and I go splatsy or, in the case of a turn, react too late and end up spinning out. My solution: do what other driving games do and actually give a sense of speed to the driving. I understand that it’s a sim and wants to be as accurate as possible, but that’s the thing. I don’t believe it is. A car going 30 mph is barely moving on the track. Barriers and spectators on the sidelines aren’t passing by the car appropriately. So unless these people are enormous and the sense of scale is off, I’m not moving 30 miles per hour. It gets even worse at higher speeds, because until around 130 mph or so it doesn’t feel like I’m moving that fast. The car feels more like a toy than a real car. I don’t feel any weight in the response to my inputs. I don’t feel the sense of speed, and I don’t want to keep looking in the corner of the screen to find out. Show, don’t tell.
6. Start the races when I choose them.
I understand loading up the track. I can wait for that. Although after 12 + hours of downloading/installing patches and ripping info off the disc directly to the HDD it could have been a little faster. No, what I’m talking about is the 20-40 seconds of lovingly caressing the cars as they move into position with the camera. Also, that super annoying announcer in Shift telling me what not to do and to finish in the top 3 every single time I started the race was doing the game no favors. Why am I watching the cars drive around part of the track for so much time before being given control to race? Why is there a camera on a crane moving about the cars at the starting line and incidentally showing off “car babes” holding up signs on the track? Isn’t that a dangerous place to stand? What I’m saying is, when it’s loaded up, count down 3,2,1 and then let me blast around a circle at 100+ mph. Don’t make me wait through the same bullshit every single time. I understand the developers love cars and are making these games for people who love cars as well, but that love shouldn’t be in the form of ogling them when you have the option of driving them. At least give me an option in some menu.
7. Do something about your sound mixing.
I have never heard cars so loud and so obnoxiously distracting that it got in the way of driving them. In both games I had to turn off the sound completely to be anywhere near competent at driving. At first it was just to shut up your spotter on the radio, but soon I found that listening to gaming podcasts was a much more productive use of my ears. My driving skill increased five fold at least. Again, this comes down to these games being car porn. They want to get everything so exact, so realistic and authentic that they forget it’s about the driving. The different roars and rumbles may be accurate to a T for every single car, but if it is so loud that I’d rather turn them off than listen to them you may want to turn the mix down. Other racing games utilized sound to help facilitate driving. Burnout: Paradise, Wipeout HD, even the driving portions of Brutal Legend used sound to help you drive rather than divert attention from it. I know it isn’t the car roars themselves, because Burnout and Motorstorm had them. It is how they are mixed in with the rest of the game. As noted above it disturbs the sense of speed. The engine is really loud given the impression of super sonic speeds, but is also dissonant with the feel of the car which itself is dissonant with what the speed looks like to the player. It might have been better if the volume had matched the speed, at least then I could get into the game’s particular grove audibly if not visually.
Now I can’t repeat enough times that I am no driving game expert. And while I’m sure one or two of the complaints above smacks of a little bit of inexperience or unfamiliarity with the genre, some of this is just basic design. There is no reason to make me wait for hours on end only to then not let me play right away. There is no reason to ignore basic menu design, something every other game company mastered long ago. There is no reason not to make the words on the screen legible. There is no reason to stop the player from actually experiencing your game. I know you love cars and presumably so do your players. That’s why they come to your games. They want to drive the cars they otherwise couldn’t. Let them.