It appears the Project CARS franchise will take a page out of the Forza Motorsport playbook and churn out their own lighthearted alter-ego, albeit with a major licensing tie-in. German gaming website GameStar.de have reported this morning that hints left around the internet by head of Slightly Mad Studios Ian Bell, as well as publisher Bandai-Namco’s previous relationship with the films, heavily imply that the yet-to-be-announced franchise to act as an arcade alternative to their hardcore-oriented simulator will be none other than a series of Fast and Furious games for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Supposedly wrangled away from the grasps of incompetent shovelware developers and placed into the hands of a team whose entire gaming history revolves around cars, cars, and more cars, if this rumor materializes, it might be the first time we’ll actually get to see if the insanity from the silver screen translates into an enjoyable, satisfactory video game.
But while giving the reigns of the franchise to Slightly Mad Studios would guarantee the title won’t be immediately sent to the bargain bin upon release, and will pump a lot of money into the studio to help fuel their future simulation projects, I can’t help but have mixed feelings about this endeavor if I wake up in a few weeks time and see the rumors have been confirmed. Producing a mass-market arcade driving game with guns, explosions, cinematic sequences, and a compelling story that has little to do with cars would generate several major mountains to climb in quick succession for a team who until this point have specialized in nothing but pure, hardcore racing simulators, and many sim aficionados still aren’t entirely convinced the team have mastered their home genre as of yet.
Personally, I think Slightly Mad Studios would be fully capable of creating a competent, lighthearted arcade racer under the Fast and Furious banner had this partnership come about long ago, when the film series was just establishing itself as a cult classic among teenagers of the early 2000’s. The first few feature-length movies in the series centered primarily around the import tuner culture of Southern California and the accompanying narcotics trading rings, an element of the films that could be carefully removed from the virtual environment in favor of fleshing out the street racing aspect in a manner akin to Need for Speed: Underground 2.
However, the theme of the franchise has shifted radically into the realm of organized crime syndicates and bank heists rather than street racing – with the diverse cast of highly customized vehicles merely serving as an extension of the characters in the films – and I can’t imagine Universal Studios would want the video game tie-in to deviate from these themes, as the previous few games have all been mission-based driving affairs.
The problem with mission-based driving games, and even car combat games if you’d like me to go that far, is that they typically don’t do so well when finally released out into the wild. Vin Diesel’s Wheelman received only lukewarm scores, while players universally blasted Ubi-Soft’s The Crew for an intrusive, hokey, and downright annoying story – wishing it didn’t exist at all and just wanting to roam the map competing in races and upgrading their cars. Electronic Arts twice dabbled in heavy narratives and “action driving” sequences with Need for Speed: Undercover and Need for Speed: The Run, but both were panned by basically everybody who bought them; Undercover going down as the worst Need for Speed release on the Xbox 360, with The Run establishing itself as a close second. You have to go back two console generations – to Rockstar San Diego’s Smuggler’s Run franchise – to find a solid mission-based driving game, and even then, it was from a team who had at that point already created three other mission based driving games.
Major developers with decades of experience in multiple video game genres just can’t figure out how to make these types of games appealing to critics or enjoyable for the common gamer they’re marketed towards, so a team like Slightly Mad Studios – who have specialized in nothing other than hyper-obscure simulators with European sports car racing at the forefront – would have an exponentially more difficult time molding such a project into a compelling experience.
With Project CARS 2 on the horizon, and a handful of games that didn’t entirely convince myself nor the sim community that Slightly Mad Studios have mastered their “home genre” so to speak and would be fully prepared to take on a new challenge, I’m also wondering why there wasn’t more of a tangible effort to remain tight-lipped about this incoming announcement, even if GameStar’s productions are incorrect and we end up finding out the unannounced movie franchise is Mad Max. The exact licensing partnership doesn’t really change the final element of criticism SMS may receive on this front.
There are a lot of people across various sim racing forums that felt burned by Project CARS (though there seems to be a cult following around the two Need for Speed Shift games), and Slightly Mad Studios have spent the past few months reassuring them that the team are 110% focused on ensuring every last possible need of theirs will be met in Project CARS 2. That game is still many months away from release, you’re spending a lot of time carefully coddling the community into giving you another chance, and suddenly to the outside world it seems as if a portion of the team have now been allocated to a totally unrelated piece of software just as crunch time on Project CARS 2 is about to begin. I’m not a fan of the mixed messages here, nor the way information was allowed to leak out when it could actually backfire and upset the fan base of another one of your products; it gives them the impression you’re not focusing as much as you said you would.
Regardless, we’ll see how this all plays out in time. One more racing game from a large studio isn’t exactly going to hurt the genre, so long as it offers something unique and enticing compared to what else is on the market.