Racing Games – Why am I always first or last?

August 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

I hate racing games.

Racing games have always made me angry. Ever since the original ‘Hard Drivin’’ on my old Spectrum, I’ve had an irritation with the genre I’ve never been able to scratch. I’ve played them all – Sega Rally, Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo, and TOCA to name but a few, and while enjoying them all, there was always something that niggled. Something that spoiled the mood on some level; it was always either too easy, or bastard-hard.

This is hardly a fair criticism to make, I’ll grant, they tend to be as difficult as you want them to be. Most racing games these days are built with the newcomer in mind – stability control, a magic racing line that changes colour when you’re going to fast, even auto-braking for corners. Of course, none of this is mandatory; most racers allow you to manipulate these assists to your heart’s content, making it as hard or as easy going as you want. But my question is this – if, in a game like Starcraft 2, you had a little button labeled “win” on the screen as you played, could you stop yourself from using it? Every time? Even when that git you’re playing against Zealot rushes you? Really? Well, you are a better man than I.

Seems like a strange thing to whine about, I know. But when you play a long, gruelling ten-or-more lap race, and some AI chappie misses a apex and slaps you into a wall at 80 miles an hour, only for you to have to restart the race as you simply need a podium finish to progress… those assists start to look awfully handy. Which completely misses the point of playing a racing game. Who needs to get better when you can have a car that basically drives itself? And when the walls of your patience crumble, you suddenly find yourself barging into first place inside the first 5 seconds of a race, and stay there for the remainder – it makes the game lose all meaning (unless you enjoy winning without trying, in which case, may I suggest taking up stealing sweets from kids. You’ll LOVE that).

Okay, I’m being dickish now. But it is an issue that drove me (ha!) away from racing games for quite a while… Until about a fortnight ago, my loving girlfriend bought me a steering wheel for my birthday. A steering wheel? I’ve never been able to get the hang of these things…

I can drive. I passed my test in January this year, and I’ve been having a ball zipping around in my old (new for me) Toyota Starlet. Seriously, it feels like a go-kart sometimes, it seats you so low, 30 MPH feels like 60 when you give it a bit of welly and it growls like a pissed-off panther. I love my car. So if I can drive a real car, why can’t I drive a pretend one like I’m driving the real one?

First test run – I try Dirt 3. The lack of g-force and feedback from the wheel disorients me immediately, and I make fast friends with a tree and a few track-side tyres… this happens a few more times before I decide a rally game is probably not the best place to start this experiment for a number of reasons – reason one: I can’t drive a rally stage in real life, and reason two: I suck at rally games even with a pad. So much for that idea…

For my next attempt, I buy a slightly newer racer from our local Gamestation – Need for Speed: Shift 2. Promising a realistic racing experience and a revolutionary handling system that caters for all levels, I’m thinking this might be perfect for my needs. Unfortunately, I had neglected my usual internet-research before buying, and discovered the hard way that, despite being a pleasant mix of arcade handling and realistic settings, there is a horrible lack of sensitivity with small wheel turns. Wheel lag, it seems, is bad.

After messing with the steering wheel settings, and turning the handling model of the game up a notch (do not try to play this game with a wheel on any setting under ‘Normal’, trust me), things levelled out and I could successfully finish a race with more than three wheels left on the car. A few more practise runs and my club-like treatment of the accelerator pedal was easing off and I was gaining confidence. Yeah, this is what a racing game should feel like. Now, lets try an actual race…

Oh hell…

The inclusion of other cars on the track was amusing at first, I was able to put my new found precision-driving skills to the test and was dodging Fords and Volkswagens like a pro. A pro golfer, I’ll admit, but hey, I was having fun. A few corners into the race, a revelation suddenly struck me – I simply couldn’t go around corners as fast as I had with my control pad. Ordinarily, when playing with a pad, once I was in front, I stayed there. The difficulty never seemed to make any difference; the AI cars always slowed down more than they had to at corners, allowing cheeky overtaking on the outside. However, using a wheel myself, I realised, when a bend requires a full turn of the wheel, you simply have to slow down to give your hands time to take it, or you end up skidding off the track or hitting a wall.

No longer could I bully my way into the front and simply disappear into the distance like before, I had to think. Skidding was suddenly a hazard, where as before, a flick of my thumb could fix it. Now, it caused me to lose so much control and speed I might as well have stopped dead and pushed the car around the corner. The AI chaps seemed more aggressive now too, any and all contact was suddenly unwelcome to me, but they didn’t seem to grasp this concept – giving my bumper a solid shove at every turn, or sidling up beside me as I came to a bend and restricting my manoeuvring room… it was torture.

But, I wasn’t itchy. I kept on at it, coming in second or even third was a cause for celebration. Before the wheel, I was either first or last. The difference was immense – just driving the car, learning its quirks and its weaknesses was as part of the game as getting to the the head of the pack and staying there. The number of times I led a race for lap after lap, only to lose traction on the second last corner and end up fifth or worse… it was frustrating, but it never felt unjust. The game has opened up, becoming far more than simply taking turns and avoiding other cars. You have to use your head, brake when you should, instead of where you have to. Just driving these cars is a game in itself, and a fun one at that. Soon, I even intend to have a crack at playing with the gears on manual, simply to see if I can manage.

I don’t think I could ever go back to a control pad now. The sheer thrill of guiding a 400 horse-power monster around a track at 150-plus miles per hour, dodging, crashing into and occasionally leading ten other fuel-fed beasts as you claw at the finish line… and knowing, somewhere in my heart that I’m doing it just like the real guys, with just a wheel and a few pedals, and nothing but grit and determination between us and first place…

I love racing games.


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