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Can We Bring Back The Racing Game?

Posted by on May 14, 2012 at 8:03 am

A quickly vanishing sight in gaming, from Project Gotham Racing 4. PHOTO CREDIT: Garratose at GameTrailers forums

There it lies: a smoldering husk of a car spun off the tarmac into the weeds. Maybe the wheels can still spin, maybe the engine can still pump, but it seems like a lost cause at this point. Racing is a genre that you’d assume would have more heft than, say, snowboarding – which had a renaissance last generation and then quickly vanished with little trace – and yet here we are. Before I bought my first console, my experience with racing games was limited to Mario Kart and Papyrus’ relatively hardcore NASCAR Racing for the PC, but exchanging my keyboard and joystick for a controller was the best way to satiate my need for speed. But what happened? Why did these games disappear?

Quantum Redshift, sci-fi racer and first-year Xbox exclusive, sold less than 200,000 units

It goes without saying that economics play a heavy hand here. If racing games sold like gangbusters, there’d still be a million of them. They simply stopped selling in a lot of cases. But how? Well, look at a variety of reasons how they were successful in the first place:

  • Relevance. The Need for Speed franchise had been a series of quality arcade-style games, but as soon as they aped the Fast & The Furious movies with their Underground games, it soared to new climates in terms of sales. As those films’ relevance died off, so did Need for Speed’s popularity. An earnest attempt to reinvent the series with newer entries like Shift and Hot Pursuit have only achieved a fraction of those games’ success. Mario Kart finds itself in an exclusive situation because it’s always relevant to whatever new platform it’s on.
  • Realism trumps fantasy. Let’s face it, people would rather race with cars that are available today than ones that are exotic, or simply don’t exist. Science-fiction racers like Wipeout can only exist in the downloadable arena. Even on the Xbox with first-party support and promotion, Need for Speed and Midnight Club outsold supercar-equipped series Project Gotham Racing on a regular basis.
  • Launch status. If your title was out near the launch of a console, particularly first-party exclusives, you’re gonna get a bump. MotorStorm for PlayStation 3, Gran Turismo 3 for PlayStation 2, and Project Gotham Racing for Xbox all got boosts by merely being there on shelves for new owners to pick off. Their successors didn’t receive quite the same fame.

So where does that leave us? Gran Turismo, Forza, and Need For Speed are the only reliable large names left in the genre, but all are off series’ highs. To be frank, these games bore me. The more realistic these games get, the less fun they are. Even with concessions to more casual modes, like Kinect play or NASCAR, they’re still far less exciting than games that work so hard to reproduce every calculation that can happen on a car at any moment. So what titles can restart the genre? We need games that are expansive, fun, and vibrant. We need…

A crazy industrial city to race in, like this one from 1998's Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit? I'm game.

Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit III

No, I’m not talking about the new Hot Pursuit, whose open swaths of rural terrain were a drag to race down after loving the original’s tighter, imaginative courses. Bring those back with a more clever art direction and I think we’ve got a recipe for success!

Project Gotham Racing V

I don’t know why Microsoft decided that Forza should be the only racing star in their stable, but leaving this ride in the garage is one of the stupidest mistakes that Phil Spencer can make. I’ve fawned over my love for the games (the second one head and shoulders above the others) and I know that the world needs a new way to rack up Kudos by driving stylishly in exotic cars.

Yummy.

Motorstorm: Pacific Rift 2

The PlayStation 3 has always been a sort of adopted home for me, its idiosyncrasies can irritate me to no end, but after the rather dull and dusty Motorstorm failed to impress, it caught me that much further off-guard when Pacific Rift turned out to one of the most vibrant racing games I’d ever played. With a plethora of varied, over-saturated courses mixed with the same loose physics that made the original game appealing. Its only sin in my eyes was the incredible ramp in difficulty half-way through the tour. Follow-up Motorstorm: Apocalypse shed all of this for a dull, destroyed environment and, blech, motion comic cutscenes. It can only go up from there.

Midtown Madness 4

I don’t know why Microsoft didn’t just buy DICE last generation. Between Midtown Madness 3 and the pair of Rallisport Challenge games DICE made for them, the Xbox featured some of the best racing games last generation. EA then purchased them and turned them into The Battlefield Company as predicted, which is a tragedy. Midtown Madness featured a super cheesy single-player campaign that sent you through Paris and Washington D.C., both loaded with tons of pedestrians, moving traffic, and other garbage to plow through. But where the game shone was in the multiplayer modes, which contained your classic racing modes and capture the gold and various tag-based games as well. In many cases, it turned your car into a pinball and the cities into obstacles as you sought the next goal. This is the only game in memory that allowed you to completely demolish a Koenigsegg.

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