Summary: What makes a game fun? Do videogame journalists do a good job at figuring that out? Alan has a three-part article trying to answer that very question. Before he answers this question, he has to review some games himself, so for today's article, Alan takes a look at the three racing games for the Xbox 360 and try to identify what makes them tick and what makes a racing game fun. Part 1 of 3.
Recently, videogame journalists have been getting a bad wrap. TwitchGuru wrote about the "Pointlessness of Current Videogame Journalism" and claimed that gaming reviewers were "mere extensions of the marketing machine" rather than critics who could "add to the industry as film and music journalists arguably did." In two days, I will take a good look at that claim and see strengths and weakness of current videogame journalism. Before I do that, I'll need to review some videogames myself. Only then can I look back at what I've done to figure things out. So, for today, I'll start by taking a look at 3 different racing games.
Project Gotham Racing 3 (Xbox 360)
Ridge Racer 6 (Xbox 360)
Need for Speed: Most Wanted (Xbox 360)
Each game represents a different style of racing and gameplay and yet all three games have gotten good reviews at FiringSquad at across the 'net. In order to provide the most accurate impressions of the game, I'll be using a stream-of-consciousness like approach. Let's start by taking look at Project Gotham Racing 3.
Project Gotham Racing 3
Developed by Bizarre Creations
Most races in PGR3 don't even have a clock, and your goal is simply to finish in first place and pull off the widest and longest drifts in order to rack up the most points (Kudos). In line with the theme of "looking good", PGR3 focuses on city based tracks: Tokyo, Vegas, New York, and London. These cities are faithfully modeled with realistic textures. Bizzare Creations has come up with tracks to fit within these cities. In addition to the urban tracks, PGR3 also features the Nurburgring Nordschleife and the F1 course at Nurburgring.
Project Gotham Racing 3 has a great selection of cars. Its 80 cars are about as eclectic of a group as the selection in Gran Turismo 4. While GT4 had more sedans and budget vehicles and famed historical cars like the SuperBird, PGR3 is focused on exotic sports cars. PGR3 doesn't simply stick to the cars everyone knows about (i.e. Ferrari F430 or the Ford GT) but they bring in the truly exotic designs such as the Koenigsegg CCR, Maserati MC12, Noble M400, Skyline GT-R Concept, and Ariel Atom. The game even has my car of choice, the Maserati GranSport. It's almost as if Bizzare Creations took a look at the best cars of Top Gear and Fifth Gear for inspiration. Adding to the experience is the fact that Bizarre Creations has modeled the interior cockpit of each vehicle.
PGR3 has almost universally been praised by the gaming press but I have to say that this is a game that I have to force myself to play (in order to review it) as opposed to a game that I want to play. The main flaw of the game is that the single player is fairly boring with generally uninspired tracks. Things look great, but the sense of speed and challenge is missing. Likewise, although the appeal is supposed to be centered collecting all of the exotic cars in the game, there are still nuances that are missing such as the airbrake of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren or the shift indicator lights of the Ariel Atom in the cockpit. With the exception of the Porsches, it's difficult to actually see the gauges of the dashboard because the geometry is off. The game is great for the first few hours but it doesn't maintain its level of excitement after three or four hours into the game. Levels don't become more difficult and there's no sense of accomplishment after each race. Driving the Nurburgring Nordschleife isn't substantially more difficult that driving the New York city tracks.
Control of the vehicles also seems off. It's not a question about realism. PGR3 simply doesn't know whether it wants to be a sim racer or an arcade racer. As a result, the vehicles feel floaty and the player doesn't get a good sense of being able to direct the car in the way that he would like to.
As the only game I can think of to feature the Maserati GranSport, I really wanted to like this game but it's no fun because it gets repetitive. So, this gives us our first clue in trying to determine what makes a game fun: variety. The variety of cars makes PGR3 interesting, but the lack of variety in actual gameplay is where it falters. Still, PGR3 gets great reviews everywhere and it is proof that graphics really do matter.
Ridge Racer 6
Developed by Namco
While PGR3 was about drifting and style, Ridge Racer's gameplay is about drifting and speed. The better your drift, the faster you can go! While this is unrealistic, Ridge Racer 6's physics allows a first-time game player to quickly pick up the drift mechanics. You can induce a drift any time you want by letting off the accelerator, turning hard into the corner and accelerating. Anyone can do ridiculous drifts but part of the fun is developing your skill to improve the drift angle the skill to keep a good race line while you drift. Once you’re good, you’ll be able to drift in-between and around your opponents during a turn. Playing online, you'll realize that while the game is easy to pick up, it's definitely possible to improve your skill with practice.
The tracks in Ridge Racer 6 are excellent. Like the "levels" of a fighting game, the tracks provide a lot of eye-candy. Importantly, because Namco was not constrained by the realities of how a city needs to look, the team was able to create tracks that are enjoyable and carry a lot of personality. The sense of vertical elevation in the game is among the best and help keep the game extremely enjoyable.
Although Ridge Racer 6 offers plenty of varied tracks, the single player campaign is very long. It can get repetitive, but my guess is that Namco felt this was necessary to avoid reviews in the magazines that complain about games being "too short." The point is that progressing through the game doesn't offer much more than playing online or a standard single-race.
What makes Ridge Racer 6 fun is that it's a very social game. It's a game you can bring out where everyone is going to have fun, even if they finish in last place. It has the ability to be a game where novices can enjoy the thrill of the drift while experienced players can enjoy linking nitrous boosts together. It's easy to pick up and play and has a smooth increasing progression in difficulty. You get better at the game the more you play, but it's never frustrating. A simple survey of RR6 reviews from our colleagues at 1UP.com and Gamespot show that they've complained about graphics not looking "next-gen" enough, the lack of "user customization," and the repetitive announcer. These flaws of Ridge Racer 6 are exactly the features we talked about in the previous page: variety and graphics.
Developer EA Canada
With Need for Speed: Most Wanted, EA has taken a huge leap forward. It's the best single-player racing game on the Xbox 360 and easily one of the best non-sim racers ever made. To understand why the game has improved, you only need to look at the man at the helm: Michael Mann. Prior to his work as producer on NFS:MW, he was the producer for Metroid Prime for the GameCube. The producer definitely plays a big role in the development of a game because he's ultimately responsible for the budget and schedule. If a developer wants to develop feature x or y, it's ultimately up to Michael Mann to decide whether it's worth the time and money to work on that game feature.
Like PGR3, NFS:MW offers a great selection of cars. Instead of going toward the high-end exotics, NFS Most Wanted brings in a lot of affordable sports cars such as the RX-8, WRX STi, Mustang, and EVO VIII. Of course, being an EA game, you get real Porsches including the Cayman S and the Carrera GT as opposed to RUF tuned machines only. These cars are exceptionally detailed and because Need For Speed: Most Wanted was developed with the PC platform in mind, the Xbox 360 also benefits from the higher-resolution design. The resolution in NFS:MW is visibly better than that from Project Gotham Racing 3.
Unique to the other two racers, NFS:MW has a storyline that drives the game forward and gives you incentive to keep going. Although I think I can already predict the direction of the storyline about a third of the way in, it's still an effective way for encouraging the gamer to play. Essentially, the game starts off with you losing the pink slip to your BMW M3 GTR in a race. Your goal is to try to win the car back, but in order to do that, you have to start from the bottom of the "blacklist" and work your way up until you have enough street cred to challenge the top racers. This process involves racing in various challenges. The racers use typical rubber-band style AI meaning that you end up catching up when you probably shouldn't and the computer can also catch up to you when you really should be able to hold the lead longer. The best way to think about the AI is that it's like the TV show Family Feud. There may be 3 stages, but the game is always decided in the very last stage. In Need for Speed: Most Wanted for most of the races, the winner is determined in the later part of the race.
What makes the game fun is that because you're racing in the city, you'll have to worry about traffic and the cops. Some areas of the city have more cops than others, and if you drive recklessly and start crashing into other cars or destroy property like fire hydrants or tollbooths, the bystanders will call the cops. Eluding the cops is one of the best elements of the game. This is because the game ends when you escape or when you're boxed in -- not when the cops catch up to you. Since the city is free roaming, this can make for some exciting races where you really feel the pressure.
Whereas PGR3 made it too easy to get the cars you wanted and provided no new challenges after a few hours into the game, and Ridge Racer 6's cars handle virtually identically with all of the tracks being available for single-races, NFS:MW has a system where there is a progressive increase in difficulty that keeps the challenge up. Through the story-driven gameplay and the police chases, NFS:MW provides good incentive to keep playing.
In a similar style to Amped 3, you are meant to drive through the city in a free roam mode using your GPS to reach different parts of the city where racers are setting up a race. This is the best way to play because traveling through the city will help you learn the map of the city (and learn the tracks) and will be exceptionally useful later during a high-speed police chance. Likewise, it also increases the challenge of the game because the more time you spend on the road driving dangerously, the higher the chance of people calling the cops. For the impatient, it is possible to "teleport" to the race events directly instead of driving there, but this takes a lot away from the experience.
The core gameplay dynamics are solid, and in Need For Speed: Most Wanted the driving itself is fun. The physics between each car feels good, and although it's not a sim racer where you need to really think about race lines and carefully feather the throttle, you do feel like you're in full control of your car at all times. I would compare the interaction as that of a good fighter like Street Fighter II or a platformer like Super Mario World. It's not about realism, but that everything works in the way you expect it to. The retail version of the game seems has better framerates than the downloadable Xbox 360 demo.
Compared to PGR3 and Ridge Racer 6, Need for Speed: Most Wanted brings the graphics of PGR3, with the pick-up and play feel of Ridge Racer 6. The level design is exceptional and the variety of cars available is also very good. Although racing makes up a substantial part of the game, the unpredictable cop chase sequences add incredible variety to the game. Although I'm only about a third of the way into the game, I can't help but to feel that long blacklist is intended to prevent reviews from complaining that a game is too short. I much rather have had the game events cut in half, but require that gamers drive from one event to the next. There probably would have been similar total gameplay time but presented in a more organic manner. Surprisingly, one of the complaints about the game is that NFS:MW looks too similar between the Xbox 360 and Xbox version. While the overall feel is similar, the lighting is definitely superior on the 360 version and the game is rendered at a true 720p rather than PGR3’s slightly downscaled output. The online support is weak as there's no traffic and no opportunity to play as a police offer – still, I look forward to the day that we get a MMORPG based around NFS:MW, a Motor City Online done right.
Although all three games bring something unique to the Xbox 360, if I had to choose between the three racing games currently available on the Xbox 360, NFS: Most Wanted would definitely be my recommendation. It's fun, it looks great, and it offers good long-term replayability through the police chases. Come back tomorrow and we'll take a look at Dead or Alive 4.
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