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.


  1. Andrew McDonald

    One of your problem was that you played Shift, one of the weakest games in NFS history. Later NFS games (as far as I know) deal with 5 and 7. 1 is there so that people who can’t actually beat the game can instead unlock better cars first. Also, your suggestion of trying different race types is just the thing: most people do not enjoy every mode available. 2 is probably you playing on a standard television for a game designed for HD. 3 is a combination of you buying a game that has been out a while and has patches combined with a mechanic that acts as a tutorial for later purchases. 4 is something that varies depending on the game in the series.

    6 is an utter pain. At least in Hot Pursuit you can skip a portion of it. In fact, all of these things are annoying. But it isn’t something the developers have not considered. They have their reasons.

    I have no comment on Gran Turismo. N4S4L

    On to the speed of your vehicle compared to how fast it should be going. From what I understand this is to keep the game from becoming too fast at the end game. The part where you are going 240 mph. The game moves too fast for all but the best players to handle if the car actually goes that fast. So instead a false sense of speed is applied.

    • As Shift is the only sim in the entire franchise and has a slightly different focus, I can easily believe that their sense of speed and sound mixing are easier to get along with. As for 1, you seemed to miss my real complaint. Yes, the leveling up makes no sense, but before they did that I wish they had got their menus to be even slightly intuitive.

      As for 2, no I was playing on a full HD rear projection screen. The problem is, and this is also true for non racing games like Gears of War 2 and Resident Evil 5, developers don’t change the ratio of the object on screen to math the new output. Like text for instance. The text ends up at a standard size that doesn’t scale and the screen stretches instead by leaving blank space on the sides. The effect is that the text actually compresses. Polyphony knew this enough to have to incorporate a zoom button instead of actually fixing the text so it was readable. Oh and the zoom button is only usable in certain menus and not others. Shift didn’t even have a zoom button for any of its menus.

      3. I didn’t complain about install times. I used them to highlight an issue. After 15 hours, which was for Gran Turismo not Shift (Shift was done in about 20 minutes), I expect to be able to play right away. The game said no, I have to make a number of uneducated guesses with limited resources before I could play. It didn’t help that it took so much time to figure out their menus for the above reasons. They are a mess and it took forever before I could find where the actual races were. Please read my actual complaint. And there was no tutorial. Everything was trial and error. There wasn’t even a option in the pause menu so I could see what the buttons did. This is basic stuff.

      4. For two games that bill themselves on being sims, not having something that tell me what the stats mean is a little off. I can understand an arcade racer being a little more loose with them and far more basic in their info dumping as it were, but these are sims with every little detail modeled.

      On your last point. The other writers and I had a debate about this and it turns out none of us thought there was a false sense of speed. In fact I was told by bigger racing fans than I that sim drivers are so insistent on correct speed for the instant replay value. It was understood that these cars were working at the correct speeds and that they would give the correct sense, but only in the correct viewpoint. Shift was the driver seat I believe and Grand Turismo was the bumper cam. Neither of which I could function in without it turning into a horror game. My friends were terrified on the couch next to me. I’m not sure what the developers did now.

  2. J

    Forza 4 is without these problems. It is a game that is to define the racing genre for years to come. It’s difficulty settings allow you to change it from a casual racer, to a full-blown sim. When upgrading the car, you can either add a ‘twin screw supercharger’ because you know what it is, or read its corresponding description if you don’t.

    • That sounds awesome, it seems it doesn’t fall into any of the traps I listed above. I didn’t even think of difficulty setting as a way to change the design of the driving. Pity I can’t play it, I’m on PS3 only.

  3. Patch

    1. Agree entirely.

    In fact I’m writing this whole extended message because I;’m so pleased that someone else mentions the menus. They are so ugly, the usablility is so low, its a genuine nightmare having to navigate round the game. Especially in career mode. Its put me off playing it. I cannot describe the frustration I feel when I sit in fron tof that game.

    2. No idea what you are talking about? I played this on a 42″ HD screen though so perhaps I’m at an advantage. I can see if might be a problem if I was to play it on my smaller monitor.

    3. GT5 has ‘arcade mode’ where you can jump straight in.

    I can understand your argument but for me (played GT 2 onwards) choosing the car and so on is fun.

    4. Errr – GT5 has hugely detailed explanations of what all the settings and so on mean. Go to the tuning menu and have a look at al lthe options there.

    In the end though, none of that shit matters. Higher horsepower is faster, a lighter car will be more manuverable but ‘handling’ is less tangible and, to a degree, personal.

    5. Speed seems fine to me?
    as for :
    “You could tell me in some subtle way that I’m going too fast”… in GT5 (you may have guessed I haven’t played Shift so I can’t comment) there is a little flashing indicator as you approach a corner that tells you the gear you should be in for hte up coming corner, if you are going flat out in 5th and it says ‘3’, you’re going to find yourself getting very friendly with a barrier.

    Also you can enable driving aids if you don’t know what you are doing, remember that this is a sim and that learning is pretty important to the whole process.

    7. Turn the volume down?