Late last night, I stumbled across the above compilation of quotes from various gaming sites who were tasked with giving a critical shakedown to Codemasters’ excellent surprise 2015 release, DiRT Rally – a no-nonsense rally simulator which made zero effort to appeal to the mainstream gaming audience. Developed by a passionate group of off-road racing fans based out of the United Kingdom, and drawing inspiration from SCI’s Richard Burns Rally rather than treating the software as one giant advert for energy drinks and sneakers, the gaming press struggled to get a handle on what DiRT Rally had to offer, with several review sites blatantly copying each other’s articles by deeming it to be the Dark Souls of racing games due to its alleged relentless difficulty.
We’ve known for a while now that the social justice warriors and agenda-pushing man-children churning out articles for major gaming sites on a weekly basis typically struggle with skill-based video games, but the collection of DiRT Rally reviews on display above really drills home how prevalent this problem is, as least when it relates to racing games in particular. Mainstream reviewers are having such a difficult time coming to grips with modern racing games, they’re basically just regurgitating critical pieces from one primary source and adding bits and pieces of their own commentary to pass it off as theirs, most likely in an effort to hide that they were unable to become proficient with the game, and therefore couldn’t properly evaluate the software.
So my question today is, with it becoming increasingly apparent that major outlets lack the driving skills necessary to properly inform their audience about each new release: should mainstream gaming sites give up on covering racing games altogether?
I’ve owned DiRT Rally since it first launched in the spring of 2015, and have watched the package develop from just three environments and a handful of cars, into a multi-platform release that saw the game repackaged and reconfigured for Sony’s PlayStation VR headset. Throughout my 64 hours of play on the PC version alone, as well as my time spent mucking about with the PS4 rendition for a giggle (above), not once will you see me saying DiRT Rally is a difficult racing game. Listen to your pacenotes, drive at 80% attack, and keep the car balanced – this means not sliding dead sideways in sixth gear at a third gear corner – and it’s fairly easy to complete a stage with no damage to your vehicle whatsoever. Yes, some of the Group B cars are a bit sketchy, and the highest difficulty level requires you to maintain a moderately quick pace throughout the stages in order to attain a podium finish, but unless you’re stuck in 2002 and mindlessly throwing the car at each bend as if you’re playing V-Rally, DiRT Rally is hardly the nightmare the big journalists imply it to be.
In fact, while the mainstream outlets are claiming DiRT Rally to be the automotive version of a notoriously difficult Action/RPG series, those who actually play DiRT Rally have complained the cars have too much grip, and the AI is too easy. I still appreciate the game for what it is, but even our own readers have discovered the cars generate so much downforce and sideforce, you can curve them like a baseball in mid-air.
This major discrepancy between the big gaming sites making DiRT Rally out to be one of the hardest racing games ever released, versus actual racing game fans believing it to be too easy, raises a pretty substantial red flag when it comes to how these games are viewed and consumed by the general public. Like it or not, sites such as RaceDepartment, VirtualR, TeamVVV, InsideSimRacing, and, well, ourselves, don’t have a lot of viewers compared to GamesRadar, GameSpot, IGN, and Kotaku. Regardless of how the niche sim racing sites critically assess a video game, developers and publishers both know that it’s how the title is received on the major outlets that matters, because that’s where the most eyes are. So if these outlets are absurdly incompetent at breaking down the game in the first place, you’re looking at an entire sub-ecosystem that can be rocked because John Smith’s only knowledge of racing games dates back to Mario Kart: Double Dash, and he certainly hasn’t had much practice since then.
Incentives, bonuses, and long-term deals for developers are determined not by what John Sabol of InsideSimRacing thinks of a racing simulator, but the aggregate score on Metacritic – and when those aggregate scores are determined in part by people who can’t complete a lap at speed; either regurgitating other’s opinions or just flat out roasting the game because they suck, an entire developer is at the whim of people who basically didn’t even give the game an honest review. This almost happened with Sega’s Football Manager series, when an American sports fan who didn’t know the subgenre of management games was a thing that a lot of people enjoyed, blasted what is now one of the most popular games ever on Steam.
In this instance, there was justified outrage because it was clear the writer did not understand the purpose of the software, but in the case of a racing game, we’re at the point where legitimate issues might slip under the rug entirely undetected, or people needlessly slam the game for being difficult. In this case, publishers, who are merely looking for a tangible review score to determine whether to keep the team around for a sequel or unrelated second project, might otherwise chase away talented teams who built a compelling product – the guy reviewing it just happened to be an assclown.
The best example of this happening in the world of racing games would be Rainbow Studios’ excellent off-road racer, Baja: Edge of Control. Packing a dizzying array of classes, environments, and race types onto a single disc, reviewers instead slammed the title for being “maddeningly difficult” and “unforgiving.” Thanks to an abundance of reviews that were basically unwilling to even give the game a shot, or writers that had trouble keeping their truck pointed in a straight line, Edge of Control sits at an average score of 61 (or 65 depending on the platform) on Metacritic, when it’s actually a hidden gem. Rather than progress into the uncharted realm of desert racing, THQ promptly went back to making motocross games that relied on a heavy dose of DLC until the company ran into financial trouble a few years later.
We are lucky that Baja: Edge of Control will see a high definition remaster for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but it’s just that – a quick remaster that I suspect will receive the same critical lashing as the original did, for the very same reasons, and restart the cycle anew. Publishers see the scores that Edge of Control reeled in from mainstream sites, think “wow, obscure off-road truck games aren’t worth the risk”, and encourage developers to push out yet another generic arcade racer.
And that’s a shame, because unique ideas are what push the genre forward – Gran Turismo’s existence is the direct result of Polyphony Digital telling Sony to go fuck themselves after Sony had said that a realistic racing game wouldn’t sell, and that kart racers were in style. That endeavor may have been possible back then, but with the astronomical costs of video game development in 2017, if a publisher isn’t willing to play ball because reviews from people who don’t even like racing games trashed a similar product, you’re shit out of luck.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Kotaku’s review of Project CARS. During a time when Kotaku was an insanely popular gaming outlet – before their unfortunate run-in with Hulk Hogan and subsequent legal troubles – Luke Plunkett published a review of Project CARS in which he gave the game a fairly glowing review while completely ignoring the setup adjustments screen of the racing simulator, basically laughing off that he didn’t know what any of it meant, but hey, it’s in there, so good on the developers, right?
In reality, sim racing communities – the very people Project CARS had been built for and with the help of – were set ablaze with criticisms of Project CARS, as users had found out that bizarre aerodynamic, tire compound, and camber settings generated massive on-track advantages that for a period of time turned the world of competitive online racing completely upside down. While the game continued to receive highly positive reviews from mainstream critics who were ignoring a fairly large portion of the game altogether – the tweaking and adjusting of your race car – those who did know their way around the garage menu were discovering all sorts of fun stuff to exploit.
I’m not saying borked setup adjustments would warrant a massive 50-point drop in the title’s overall score from Kotaku, but if reviewers are laughing off entire parts of the game, and customers are eventually discovering that this overlooked area is affecting the game’s online ecosystem in a pretty prominent way, should publishers really be taking scores like Plunkett’s into account as well, even if they’re positive?
The solution, at least in my mind, is pretty simple. Thanks to the internet being what it is today – where any Tom, Dick, or Harry can start a website – you now have a shitload of independent entities that specialize in just one genre of video game. For sim racing alone, there’s like six or seven publications that all have their own flashy homepage and YouTube channel, not to mention an endless stream of guys willing to meticulously analyze these games far beyond what mainstream critics are capable of doing because they lack that sort of borderline-obsessive interest in the subject matter. Sorry to break it to you, not everybody likes race cars.
So when a “hardcore” title comes across the horizon, as DiRT 4, F1 2017, or Project CARS 2 will later this year, instead of getting a guy who literally has no idea how to configure his wheel to review the game – where he’s more likely to slap an 8 out of 10 on it and regurgitate what his buddy at another website said – outsource the review to one of the independent websites who specialize in these types of games. Call them Guest Critics, and say off the bat “we don’t have anyone on the staff who can display any sort of racing game prowess, so we got Alan B. of the dedicated race car game site Team VVV to give our readers the best possible shakedown of the game, so you can make an informed decision.”
Is that really so hard?