My most sincere apologies to the readers of PRC.net for taking a weekend-long break from updating the website. Usually prior to a race weekend, I’ll prepare a few pieces ahead of time and set them to publish on a schedule, but we just never got that far this time – and I couldn’t be bothered to use my buddy’s laptop like we did for the Ian Bell interview a few weeks back.
Stagnance. It’s a problem that has plagued the world of sim racing since the ISI Motor engine became the go-to resource for many major players within this genre, and the frequency in which developers use this engine – all the while expecting drastically different commercial results than the products before – falls under the literal definition of insanity. In short, we have been purchasing and playing a variation of ISI’s own rFactor since the popular modding platform’s release in 2006. Except, it hasn’t always been called rFactor. It’s shown up on the Xbox 360 as NASCAR 09 or Race Pro. It’s appeared on the PlayStation 4 under the name of Project CARS. You’ve most likely got it sitting in your Steam library as well, with the alternative title of Race 07, Automobilista, or Race Room Racing Experience. Each time we’d been presented with the initial previews of these titles, long before their release, their respective developers promised us something more than just another run-of-the-mill racing simulator. However, upon the actual exchange of cash taking place, many of us realized we’d merely ended up buying rFactor again – down to the exact same formula:
Here are some tracks from around the world, but many of your favorites are missing due to obvious budget constraints, so you’ll have to visit a whole bunch of sites like RaceDepartment to download the same old conversions for your new game, all over again. And here’s a rather diverse list of cars that seem to cover every discipline you can think of, though you’ll really only be captivated by two or three of them. You’re welcome to just sort of do whatever in the game world we’ve provided, but beware that the AI is retarded and there’s almost nobody online.
And for the most part, that’s okay. I have no problem admitting the physical driving experience provided by the ISI Motor engine is top-notch. As a hardcore sim racer, there is still much fun to be had by developing setups in the presence of AI bots, joining a league that has a schedule meeting your needs, and partaking in the shenanigans of a virtual auto racing community during your spare time. But the sting of how little these games have evolved in the past decade is a shocking revaluation once you venture over to other titles away from the spectrum of sim racing. During rain delays, my buddy and I will fire up the newest iteration of Madden on his Xbox One, and the number of modes, features, and options is simply overwhelming. We basically can’t run out of shit to do, whereas in titles like Automobilista or Project CARS, you can see everything there is to see within a night, maybe less.
I know there are going to be people who bitch at me for using sports games with multi-million dollar development budgets as examples, so I’ll take things back into familiar territory. Grid Autosport, while not the most realistic pretend auto racing endeavor, is packed with shit to do. Dustin and I have been running private lobby races over the past few months, filling the field with maximum strength AI cars, and we’ve seen only about 15% of what the online portion of the game has to offer – something that makes up for the lack of fidelity in the driving model. Project Gotham Racing 4, a title that won’t win any awards for how complex Bizarre Creations could make their tire model calculations, had something like two or three distinct single player campaign modes alone, and that was before you mention all the crazy shit like how you could drive a 50’s Grand Prix car in the snow. Formula One has a career mode that is supposed to be getting a major overhaul this year. The NASCAR Thunder games of yesteryear let you micromanage the research and development aspects of your individual Speedway/Short Track/Road Course-specific car builds. All of these games were crammed with shit to do.
And then you fire up stuff like Automobilista, Race Room Racing Experience, rFactor 2, or even Assetto Corsa as of late, and there’s just fuck all to spend your time on. The offline experience is lackluster, there’s no doubt about that. And the player count online? Your local grocery store has more activity, and one of the little shits wheeling a shopping cart high out of his fucking mind can probably put on a better race with you than the clowns in public lobbies. Lifeless menus and generic instrumental tunes give way to an experience rooted deeply in 2006, while the rest of the video game industry sets their sights on 2017. It sucks to buy a brand new racing simulator such as Automobilista, after months of hype and promises from rabid fanboys that this would give the genre a much needed shake-up, and instead be able to count the number of times I’ve been in an online race on one hand. RaceRoom has fared slightly better with their player count, though arriving home after work at 3PM local time, there’s no way in hell I’m able to find people to race with.
What ends up happening, is I boot up one of the many racing sims I’ve got installed on my PC, click around for five minutes, realize I have no incentive to do anything within the game, see that nobody’s online, and promptly switch to a different game, where the same exact thing happens.
It’s nothing short of insanity. You’d think in a decade, developers would see the decreasing sales, the abysmal steam numbers, and think “oh shit guys, we need to do something more than just release rFactor again,” but it seems nobody has clued in yet. Even the Flight Simulator guys, back in 2006, made an effort to build a game around a robust engine, and for the most part it paid off – people are still fucking playing this game. Yeah, you could be a hardcore virtual aviation nerd and fly your favorite Delta Airlines route from Atlanta to Minneapolis in the game’s Free Flight mode, but Microsoft physically went out and built a game around Flight Simulator X because it gave people shit to do. You could earn stupid little certificates, find Easter Eggs, complete a basic virtual flight school, watch a shitload of tutorial videos… It was a complete experience rather than a bland sandbox for an exclusive set of computer nerds. And in 2016, there’s no need for yet another empty sandbox to over saturate the market.
Which brings me to the major example I wanted to present during this article. Sim racing developers as a whole are clueless as to how to progress the genre in a meaningful direction, and nothing demonstrates this better than Reiza Studios’ New ECU Model. Automobilista technically isn’t released yet, but every month Reiza are continuing to cram more and more stuff into Bland Racing Sim Sandbox 2016, and I think this reworked ECU system should win some kind of award for the most redundant feature ever to show up in a racing simulator.
Let’s not pull any punches here. Nobody is playing this game. The numbers presented on Steam Charts for Automobilista are quite frankly, embarrassing. Of the sim racers who do own Automobilista, only a fraction of a fraction will be able to notice a slight change in the throttle response of one or two cars in the entire game. Here you have an immensely talented team pushing out a product that is a commercial failure and has already landed them in hot water with Formula One Management, and rather than doing everything in their power to make the game appealing to more than just 120 sim racers, are slaving over refining an element of the driving physics that three people in the entire world will notice.
Can we have a basic career mode? No. Can we have custom championship season? No. Can we have an online lobby that isn’t straight out of Counter-Strike? No. Can we have an in-game livery editor as seen across practically every arcade racer since the early 2000’s? No. Why does the new heads up display cause the game to freeze? Because it’s actually a third party mod they bought from the community. Are there plans for racing in the rain? No. Are there any cool rewards for beating a preset fastest lap? No. Any driving school or tutorial mode for new sim racers? No. How does the damage model look? Straight out of 2006.
But they have a new ECU model that will supposedly improve throttle management on a few cars!
Loading screens for RaceRoom talk about a new transmission model that replicates drivetrain flex, but online lobbies are empty. rFactor 2’s real road technology was supposed to be a game changer, but the outdated online pass means basically nobody has bothered to touch rFactor 2 aside from the few diehards unwilling to part with an ISI product. Assetto Corsa is on their eighth tire model in three years despite the cries of fans wanting basic racing features like safety cars, caution laps, and timed races. Slightly Mad Studios threw around acronyms like SETA with a completely straight face, as if this useless technobabble was a genuine selling point. And now with Reiza bragging about this New ECU Model, it feels like we’re splitting hairs with no tangible benefit. 99% of the people who own these games won’t even notice these additions or refinements, but they’ll certainly notice there was more shit to do in their outdated and archaic PS2 titles than these supposedly advanced racing simulators, where forum users demand they spend hundreds of dollars on equipment to play them “properly.”