Racing games are a fairly unique genre of interactive entertainment, as while there’s no formal “recipe” as to what constitutes a great experience, it’s sort of expected that all developers make an effort to include as many features, functionalities, and content seen in the games that came before it. And sometimes, the developers in charge of said projects we’re all told to treat as demigods across various sim racing message boards are anything but; merely pretentious artists trying to shoehorn their own wacky ideas into pieces of software that don’t always benefit from creativity in obscure places, or cutting corners in ways that will fail to accomplish anything aside from pissing off the fanbase. When this situation arises, often times it leads to a complete clusterfuck of angry customers questioning how and why certain decisions are made.
Game development is not for the weak; a sub-par product will unleash a tidal wave of criticism unlike anything actors or musicians will have to deal with, but in select instances, this overwhelming display of harsh criticism is one hundred percent justified. When developers eschew from the traditional formula and still charge full price for their creation, it can unleash a shitstorm of epic proportions.
After the explosion of Halo’s popularity on Microsoft’s original Xbox, and the industry’s increasing reliance on “Call of Duty numbers” – Blockbuster games attempting to appeal to as many potential customers as possible, sometimes as the expense of alienating hardcore fans – developers began really thinking outside of the box when it came to driving games, believing they too could have a piece of the pie by deviating from the unwritten standard formula of driving games in pursuit of a wider audience, or finding ways to extract more money from existing customers. Codemasters gave otherwise avid motorsport fans the ability to rewind time in 2007’s Race Driver: Grid, no longer requiring users to actually get good at the game, instead providing them with a literal do-over button so newcomers wouldn’t feel intimidated by an experience they probably wouldn’t care about to begin with. It was seen as sacrilegious, but thankfully could be disabled for an extra cash bonus in Career mode. Other elements, such as the ability to whip out Mommy’s credit card and unlock new cars and parts in Need for Speed: Pro Street prior to naturally attaining them via in-game progression, still exist to this day.
Small potatoes? It sure seemed that way at the time, until it was revealed that Electronic Arts had secured exclusive rights to the world-renowned Porsche brand, causing headaches for virtually every other racing game developer. Forza Motorsport suddenly shipped with matchmaking features instead of custom lobbies. The beloved Colin McRae series received a facelift infused with energy drinks, fireworks, and a flock of drivers most rally fans recognized as freestyle BMX riders, not talented professional race car drivers. Things got really weird in the genre for a while, and many felt as if the developers they once relied on to push out fantastic race car games, had all fallen off the map.
Some franchises saw these years as a temporary rough patch before restoring their former glory, while others were the subject of virtual public lashings, alienating fans and putting the future of the series into question. Today, we’re going to list the absolute lowest of the low; moments in the history of racing games where development had clearly gone awry, and bizarre, counter-intuitive ideas and gameplay mechanics that surfaced during late-night brainstorming sessions somehow made their way into the final product, nearly crippling the end user experience and/or pissing off legions of fans.
Low-hanging fruit will not be addressed in this list, so the 2015 reboot of Need for Speed requiring an online connection just to play through the single player campaign is exempt from our discussion. The deal between Porsche and Electronic Arts also doesn’t count, as both Forza and Kunos Simulazioni found ways to work around the exclusivity, with the existence of Ruf in other games serving as an acceptable band-aid for the German brand’s omission.
These are the seven worst ideas in the history of racing games.
The most anticipated racing game of 2005, Burnout Revenge was poised to set the world on fire. With a reinvigorated art style that promised a darker, grittier, in-your-face arcade racer compared to the bright, lively world of predecessor, a rocking soundtrack that still holds up to this day, and a development budget dictated by the mighty Electronic Arts – who at that point could do no wrong when it came to racing and sports games – many were chomping at the bit to tear off the plastic.
A game that proudly declared “Revenge is for Losers” on the back of the box, the last remaining element the Burnout series could have used to push it over the top – attitude – had finally been inserted into the mix. Burnout 3: Takedown was an absurdly difficult game, offering instant death around every bend and one of the most rewarding arcade racing experience of our time for those who master it, but the pop-punk production created a bit of a weird design contrast. We were told Revenge would exponentially increase the psychotic on-track activity, and compliment the action with an equally dark artistic theme.
Upon finally throwing the CD into the disc drive, we instead found out Criterion had made the game significantly easier. The trademark Burnout gameplay of racing through busy metropolitan areas at breakneck speeds to acquire boost still remained, as did the highly visceral crashes and accompanying car damage, but we quickly learned the playing field would be tilted in the player’s favor. Unlike the previous three iterations of the franchise, which sent you on a white-knuckle high-speed slalom through rush hour traffic, players could now slam into vehicles traveling in the same direction, using them as gigantic impromptu pinballs to destroy opponents.
This created a situation where you could merely sit in one lane for the entire duration of the race, mindlessly slam into traffic cars, and just sort of waltz your way to victory; AI cars unable to endure an endless stream of taxi cabs being flung at them. The whole draw and challenge of the Burnout series – lightning-fast battles through dense traffic – had been removed. No longer a dance between victory and death, Burnout became boring, with further complaints surrounding the game’s lack of a single race mode littering message boards at the time of release. Unless you managed to snag an Xbox 360 copy of the game, once you completed campaign mode, that was it.
Slightly Mad Studios turn Force Feedback Configuration into literal rocket science
An entire novel could be written about the meteoric rise and subsequent fall of the original Project CARS, beginning life as a rogue crowdfunded campaign supported by a massive portion of the sim racing community before being quickly rushed out the door thanks to pressure from key investors and an impending schedule of heavy hitters that could easily steal its thunder in the fall. A visually stunning yet deeply flawed mass-market re-imaging of Race 07 for current generation consoles, Project CARS split the sim community in half; for some it was exactly what they were looking for out of a racing game, while others simply could not stop running into game-breaking glitches and elements that desperately needed more polish. Igniting a fanboy war that still rages on to this day, merely bringing up Slightly Mad Studios and/or Project CARS is asking for a message board brawl guaranteed to last several days.
Despite an abundance of supporters defending the title and aggressively lashing out against their rivals, those infuriated with the end product after years of hype scored a key point when stories of the game’s claustrophobic force feedback configuration menu began to circulate. Featuring no less than three pages of sliders and in-game written explanations that only the developers themselves understood, supporters were forced to write their own guides and upload their own presets for the PC version – as well as start a dedicated webpage for console owners – just for users to figure out how to make their plastic steering wheel rattle a certain way. Already facing an enormous wave of criticism for the unfinished nature of the game, many including myself pointed to the confusing and unnecessarily complicated force feedback menu as the proverbial cherry on top.
Though this entire section of configuration screens can be avoided – as I felt the Classic force feedback preset was more than adequate from what I wanted out of my toy steering wheel – the screens directly contradicted the studio’s mantra of by sim racers, for sim racers. Project CARS was supposed to be a game created with the direct help of the community, and no sim racing community would have openly asked for the most complicated force feedback screen in the history of sim racing, so it raised several questions about what was happening behind closed doors, and why the game was allowed to ship in such a questionable state.
A heavily discussed topic here at PRC.net, hardcore simulation nerds unable to shell out big bucks for a dedicated gaming PC were jacked to hear Assetto Corsa would be landing on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, especially after many online leagues in Project CARS and Forza Motorsport 6 were running into several issues with their software of choice and putting their championships on temporary hiatus, believing their organizations would be able to adopt Assetto Corsa as their new league platform and continue where they left off. While rumors circled that the team might end up shipping a broken mess of a game lacking key features and functionality console users were accustomed to, in the weeks leading up to launch, Kunos Simulazioni openly dismissed these rumors promised the console rendition of Assetto Corsa would be nearly identical to its PC counterpart.
Aside from crippling performance and artificial intelligence issues that made the game unplayable for a period of weeks, sim racers were horrified to discover that Kunos Simulazioni did not include any sort of custom lobby option in Assetto Corsa for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Racers were instead corralled into public rooms they had no control over – the vehicles and locations pre-determined by Kunos, sometimes omitting popular pieces of content altogether – forced to compete against random drivers.
Why might this be an issue, you might ask?
Leagues and private racing communities exist because the average online gamer in a public lobby knows jack shit about clean, competitive driving in a hardcore racing simulator. Unable to filter out little kids, trolls, and talentless hacks, online racing in Assetto Corsa reportedly became a cesspool of idiocy and frustration, with most owners opting to outright return the game, or take it out of their gaming rotation indefinitely. Leagues which planned to use Assetto Corsa as their new platform promptly went back to their previous game of choice, while those that stuck around eventually grew tired of the car selection and made their way to the official forums to demand more vehicles and tracks to be thrown into the rotation. Most of the time, Kunos refused to adhere to these demands for several weeks at a time, leading to situations where entire downloadable content packs would be released, only to be inaccessible in online events for those who were content with open lobby races.
When asked why custom lobbies did not make their way into the retail release, 505 Games responded with a generic “our priority is to release a stable game” statement.
No shit your priority should be to release a stable game. This is EVERY developer’s priority!
Those who voiced their frustrations on the official Assetto Corsa forum were promptly attacked by hordes of PC version owners for buying the objectively inferior version of the product, acting as if the console release was a sick joke played on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 owners, which long-time Assetto Corsa forum members were made aware of in advance. Console owners were also locked out of viewing certain PC-oriented forum sections, as if Kunos were actively trying to prevent console owners from discovering their version of the game was a half-assed cash grab to secure financial stability for the company. As of this writing, Kunos have still failed to implement custom lobbies into the game, a whopping nine months after release. Fanboys continue to demand frustrated console version owners to “be patient”, as if waiting nine months for a developer to add in a feature seen in all console driving games dating back to 2001 is a completely normal, rational thing to do.
Though this has since been rectified, there’s a reason rFactor 2 remained in stasis for several years, an obscure sequel failing to achieve even a tenth of the recognition as its older brother. While the original rFactor was a flexible modding paradise, helping to launch the careers of talented indie teams such as Reiza Studios while providing a killer, be-all end-all for online road racing, rFactor 2 was a disaster before the game exited the open beta stage. A poor selection of content, dated graphics, and woeful optimization saw one guinea pig from each online community purchase the title out of curiosity, only to run back to their respective gaming cliques and instruct their friends to stay well away from the pinnacle of eternal science projects.
Part of the reason so many sim racers refused to touch rFactor 2 with a ten foot pole was due to Image Space Incorporated willing to implement a Season Pass concept when it came to the game’s online servers.
At the time, EA Sports had devised a clever strategy to make money off of used game sales, which they felt had been biting into potential profits considering how many people were picking up Madden and FIFA second-hand with each passing year. EA Sports locked the online capabilities of each title behind a paywall for about fifteen dollars, though all new games would come bundled with a code on the back of the game manual allowing the first owner of the game to access online components for free. Upon returning the title to GameStop, and another individual purchasing the same exact game disc, EA Sports would eventually receive about $15 from that second purchase when the user inevitably wanted to play online against their friends.
It was a genius move by Electronic Arts, but considering you can’t walk into GameStop and see an entire shelf littered with second-hand rFactor 2 boxes, it didn’t make much sense in the context of a hardcore racing simulator that didn’t even offer a traditional boxed copy. Furthermore, those who did take a leap of faith and purchased the online subscription for rFactor 2 (offered in two formats; yearly and lifetime), discovered their cash merely went towards accessing the same server browser screen they once could open as part of the vanilla rFactor experience, although this time it was full of completely empty servers because not many were willing to adopt rFactor 2 as their software of choice. There was no online stat tracking, no populated dedicated servers, and no organized races like you’d see on iRacing – ISI charged extra to access a screen that you could previously enter and use as part of the base game.
It took five years and a change in developer to completely eradicate this bogus move. Had Image Space Incorporated not moved rFactor 2 to Valve’s Steam platform and offered discount after discount as an incentive for curious sim racers to at least give rFactor 2 a shot, we’d be talking about this game in the past tense.
While I began this countdown by implying Codemasters implementing the rewind functionality into Race Driver: Grid was a bad development call, the reality is that the rest of the game was a phenomenal simplistic take on the world of motorsports; just enough reality had been injected into a largely fictional world to provide something for everyone; the artificial intelligence put up a captivating fight against the player car – meaning experienced sim racers put off by the exaggerated driving model could at least be entertained by challenging duels, while the lighthearted team management aspect gave everybody an incentive to play through a large chunk of the game to see what would await at the very top. However, as waves of Codemasters fans grew excited over a surely impending sequel, they were instead given multiple off-road games, a licensed Formula One series, and a spin-off title centered around fireworks, crashing, and nitro boost.
Grid 2 was obviously stuck in development hell for an extended period of time, but upon the game’s inevitable reveal in the fall of 2012, most wished it would have remained behind closed doors for good. One of the first bits of information relating to Grid 2 revolved around the game’s omission of cockpit view, with Codemasters promising a casualized “action driving” experience. This obviously didn’t sit well with the target audience, as what idiot releases a racing game in the modern gaming era without an in-car camera, though what Codemasters did next shocked a lot of people.
Codemasters attempted to justify the removal of cockpit view by claiming only 5% of their fanbase used the traditional in-car vantage point, which led to pretty much all of us wondering what the hell they were smoking because this was the most retarded thing a racing game developer could say at that exact point in time. Supposedly, their own telemetry data had told them so few of their customers were making use of the in-car view that it wouldn’t be worth the extra development time to create for every car, but message board discussions quickly pointed to a different explanation; the new iteration of the Codemasters EGO engine, first seen in 2012’s DiRT Showdown, did not included standard high-detail cockpit view functionality. Not only had Codemasters totally lost the plot, many believed they were openly lying to their customers and saving face for accidentally failing to encode dedicated support for cockpit view into their new game engine.
As predicted, the sudden paradigm shift and loss of focus spread to other, more prominent areas of the game; Grid 2 tanked hard, and Codemasters recycled the assets in just under a year for Grid: Autosport, which sold even less despite being the objectively better product and bringing cockpit camera back into the mix.
Enlisting the help of Criterion Games saw Need for Speed return to the forefront in 2010 after several dismal years experimenting with radical changes in direction, though the revival of the Hot Pursuit name and the use of the Burnout engine did little in the long run to prevent the ship from sinking; a once-storied franchise was clearly on its way out. However, while Need for Speed was dropping cylinders left and right, Electronic Arts as a company was literally rolling in cash, and as a bizarre attempt to re-invent their flagship arcade racing franchise for a fifth time, award-winning movie director Michael Bay was brought on as a design consultant for what would become Need for Speed: The Run, released in the fall of 2011.
Playing through The Run a few weeks ago, a task that can be completed from start to finish in a matter of about three hours, there are two distinct elements working against each other from the time you start the application, until the precise moment you exit the game for the final time and delete the pirated Mr. DJ copy from your hard drive. Remove one of those elements completely – and you can obviously guess which one from the subtitle of this section – and it’s easy to see the potential this game had.
On paper, The Run is an extremely cool concept. Bringing the point-to-point stages of the very first Need for Speed into the 21st century, The Run is essentially a cannonball run simulator with a spectacular list of cars only Electronic Arts would be able to afford the licenses to. There’s something hilarious yet completely awesome about ripping through the gorgeous Yosemite national park in a 2011 BMW GT3 entry; your avatar stopping every so often to pump his own gas at a Shell station while a small crowd gathers, confused yet awestruck at what is unfolding in front of them. Blasting past traffic at 300 km/h on a rural North Dakota road as a summer storm lurks over the horizon and gradually approaches with each passing stage, hauling ass out of Las Vegas and into a pitch black desert, or dueling with rivals on the Chicago freeway – which actually feels as expansive and bland as a suburban freeway would – there are moments in The Run that are just flat-out cool, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But then the narrative elements take over. You aren’t a nameless, faceless driver trying to win races, earn cash, and customize your unique library of cars. You’re some asshole named Jack, the girl that locked you in the friendzone you thinks it’s funny to call you on Skype while you’re three wide for the lead, and the mob is after you because… reasons… Just as you’re starting to have fun with the raw driving element and take in the sights of the United States as seen through the Frostbyte engine, suddenly you’re subjected to on-foot quick time events that quite frankly have no place in any racing game, or being anally ravaged by a group of Porsche SUV’s scripted to destroy you – which turn into private helicopters later in the campaign. There are“boss characters”, but they’re in your rear-view mirror almost as quickly as you’re introduced to them, one asshole is constantly trying to get you killed – but we never find out why – and the final stage in the game is one long scripted sequence continuously wrestling control away from you.
The story is just too intrusive; I dig the concept of ripping from San Francisco to New York in this lucrative illegal street race, because the track design is both extremely creative and exceptionally diverse, the car selection is phenomenal, and I guess the driving physics are sort of okay for what we’re doing. However, the game takes a total nose dive when your avatar is rolling around on the streets of Las Vegas, karate-kicking police officers because you pressed the X button at the right moment, or trying to smash out windows of an busted police cruiser that just so happens to be sitting in the path of an oncoming freight train. The actual gameplay of The Run is a really cool throwback to the very first Need for Speed, but it’s like you’ve given your little brother the remote control to the television, and at random points he keeps flipping television inputs to some shitty early 2000’s action movie just to fuck with you.
Unfortunately, with these non-driving narrative/action sequences so intertwined to the core experience, The Run turns into this bipolar mess of a video game; dragging down what could have been a genuinely intriguing concept into something you torrent, finish, and remove from your hard drive in a single sitting.
Long-time PRC.net readers have most likely grown sick of my love for the officially licensed NASCAR titles of the early 2000’s. A series so good, a majority of the developers were eventually sent to work on the Madden NFL franchise, the EA Sports NASCAR games were ahead of their time, offering tons of unlockable goodies, alternate liveries, immensely detailed career modes, driving schools, bonus tracks, and basically an entire second game’s worth of shit to explore on top of a pretty decent on-track experience that still eclipses anything released over the past decade. After NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup implemented the Craftsman Truck, Busch Grand National, and Featherlite Modified touring series into the game – allowing NASCAR fans to basically climb the ranks from local tracks to the big leagues – expectations were through the roof for NASCAR 06: Total Team Control. We had no idea how EA would manage to improve on what was basically a perfect NASCAR game.
The short answer is that they didn’t; Total Team Control was a distinct regression. At the forefront of the ’06 rendition were the heavily advertised teammate controls, which you can see at the bottom right of the screenshot inserted above. The right analog stick was now a mobile command center, allowing you to issue legitimate team orders to your on-track teammates – which was sort of banned in NASCAR after it was exploited to the extremes in 2013 – and was intended to create a dynamic racing environment in which there was actually a purpose to having teammates, whether it be in the game’s extensive career mode, or just in traditional single event play while competing as your favorite driver.
The biggest problem was that unlike the exact same functionality in Need for Speed: Carbon a year later, it didn’t actually work. You could ask your teammates to block for you, but it never appeared to warrant any defensive driving on their behalf. You could ask them to draft with you at tracks such as Daytona or Talladega, but they would always get held up by cars in their immediate vicinity, and you were better off scooting around them. You could demand for them to move out of the way upon approaching them, or follow you through the pack of cars into clean air, but again, they weren’t actually capable of doing so. Sometimes, the game would actually notify you that your teammate was currently unable to follow your instructions, kind of nullifying any perceived reliance on team orders to begin with. So there was basically this whole major feature in the game that just sort of occupied a quarter of the screen and wasn’t functional in the slightest.
What you could do with this feature, was use it to swap over to your teammates, and drive their cars for an unlimited period of time, allowing you to start the race as Dale Earnhardt Jr., warp over to Martin Truex Jr., crash into everybody, swap back to Dale Earnhardt Jr., and win the race uncontested. There were no penalties for doing so regardless of what mode you were playing, and tutorials subtly encouraged you to do this, turning NASCAR 06 into this bizarre out-of-body spiritual possession simulator akin to Driver: San Francisco. Keep in mind, this was the number one new feature fans were supposed to look forward to, and we’re not talking about a story driven arcade racer, but a major officially licensed release centering around America’s most popular auto racing series. People were fucking livid at the time of release, and within four years, Electronic Arts lost the NASCAR license due to continuously declining sales.
Are there other titles and features I’ve forgotten? Probably. For every mainstream racing game that had mountains of spaghetti fall from its pockets in front a worldwide audience, there are ten others that have been lost to the sands of time, with bone-headed design choices chasing away all but the most rabid and apologetic of fanboys. However, the seven titles I’ve outlined above are what I feel are the most absurd displays of developer incompetence and poor decision making I’ve ever witnessed when just trying to hang out and enjoy an evening of virtual race cars.
Pray nobody tries to take it a step further.