It wasn’t too long ago that racing games firmly divided themselves into two very separate camps. There were two very different breeds within the genre, and it was easy to tell them apart.
On the one side of the fence were the Need For Speed Undergrounds, the Midnight Clubs and the Tokyo Xtreme Racers, holding it down for the arcade racing fans. These games had no real pretense of being realistic, despite having licensed real-world cars and sometimes even real-world locations. They were happy to exist in a world where cars were indestructible, and walls were bouncy. There was certainly a market for them, too; without any obligation to be realistic, they could focus on simply being fun, exciting games.
On the flip side, we had Polyphony Digital and their Gran Turismo franchise, staying true to their mission of making a “driving simulator.” These games were fun in an entirely different way. Gran Turismo tried – and for the most part succeeded – in being an accurate representation of auto racing, right down to the tuning and part-swapping aspects of the sport. For car nerds, this was a dream come true, and these games had their own sizeable market, quite separate from the Need For Speed market.
But then, in the mid 2000s, this dichotomy began to disappear. Franchises like Need For Speed, which had always been extremely arcade-style, tried their hands at a more realistic style of game. To compound the effect, new franchises cropped up that tried to take the realism route, but without fully committing to being simulation racers: the most notable among these being Codemasters’ DIRT and GRID.
In some ways, these hybridized arcade/sim racers took on the worst traits of both styles of game. The consequences for missing a turn or colliding with an opponent became much greater, due to the exclusion of bouncy walls and the addition of simulated mechanical damage. But at the same time, the lack of truly accurate simulation physics prevented the behaviour of vehicles in these games from being predictable to an experienced sim racer.
These racing games of half-measures became increasingly irrelevant with the rise of the Forza Motorsport franchise. Here was a series of brilliantly executed simulation racers, with excellent physics and tuning options for the serious sim enthusiast. However, unlike the steep learning curve of the Gran Turismo franchise, Forza offered enough assists and difficulty scaling to entice even casual fans and arcade racers into the fold.
Recently, it seems that maybe we’re heading back to a more firm division between the two types of racers. Recent Need For Speed titles have attempted the return to their arcade-style street racing shtick, and even the most recent DIRT title seems deliberately cartoonish compared to its predecessors.
History has proven that there’s room in the market for a hugely divergent range of racing games, and I’m more than happy to see the return of a more expansive divide between the arcade and the simulator. Both these game types can be enormously entertaining in completely different ways, and I’m not sure there was ever a good reason to try to squash them both into the same package.
Here’s to arcade racers staying arcade-y as hell, and sim racers doing their thing to the greatest extent current technology allows. For now, I’m off to play some Forza 4.