Colin McRae Rally: The Triggering

The Xbox 360 existed only in magazines. rFactor was over a year away from launch. And more than a decade before Twitch introduced the disastrous Formula E VISA Vegas eRace to unsuspecting Counter-Strike fans, there was the Warsaw Colin McRae Rally Tournament. Footage of the event does not exist, the personalities involved can not be found on YouTube showing off their practice sessions for thousands of hardcore admirers to study, and the game itself – Colin McRae Rally 2005 – had little in common with the franchise we now know it as today. It was both the best of times and the worst of times for the genre; sim racing was arguably in a golden age given the variety and overall quality of virtual auto racing titles coming from every direction, but the relative obscurity of PC gaming as a whole prevented objectively great driving games from attaining anything more than a niche following. You were either World of Warcraft, or you weren’t.

Yet despite massive advancements in multiplayer functionality, event organization, sim racing hardware, and the great leaps in technical prowess that we’ve seen across the gaming industry since 2005, in retrospect the Warsaw Tournament has taught us that we can always count on one variable to remain a constant; the sim racing community as a whole is extremely toxic.

Poland has a very peculiar relationship with motorsport. While next-door neighbor Germany boasts a fantastic selection of purpose-built auto racing facilities, some doubling as tourist attractions, quite the opposite is true in Poland – Tor Poznan serves as the sole major tarmac racing circuit.

Those looking for their motorized adrenaline fix are instead given choices that would be considered quite obscure across the rest of the continent. Spectators pack stadiums to the tune of fifteen thousand strong to partake in the festivities of Speedway Racing, whereas regional rally championships enjoy a strong following in comparison to other countries. It’s honestly incredible both disciplines have managed to attract such large audiences and national attention among the region, as rallying is logistically impossible to cover on live television, and there’s no way short oval dirt biking would ever gain popularity in the western hemisphere – at least not to the point where gladiatorial stadiums were constructed in its’ name.

But this precisely explains why there were enough diehards in the city of Warsaw alone to hold an on-site Colin McRae Rally championship consisting of several highly talented entrants. This was an era of gaming where just owning the niche Codemasters title in the first place put you into a very exclusive set of users, and yet here was Poland essentially offering a glimpse into the future of sim racing – both the good, and the bad.

Colin McRae Rally 2005 marked the end of an era for Codemasters, as while the game was functionally sound, many avid fans of the series felt 2005 was merely a re-hash of content from the titles released before it. Truthfully, their criticisms were not far off the mark, and this explains why a few years later the series would be re-imagined as an all-encompassing off-road title. Several stages and cars had been regurgitated all the way back from Colin McRae Rally 3, whereas the driving physics made it especially hard to recommend the 2005 iteration for steering wheel users – now a rapidly expanding demographic. This was Codemasters a few years prior to their flurry of games that established them as a key player in the evolution of driving games on the Xbox 360. Colin McRae didn’t look great and didn’t drive all that great either, but nailed enough of the true rallying experience – long stages, service areas, and a decent array of content – to have a valid spot in the library of any rally fan.

That was, if you could look past some of the obvious exploits. You could wall-ride pretty effectively, as many stages featured cliffs or concrete barriers next to the road that could be abused if hit at the correct angle. Some stages were designed in a way which allowed for pretty substantial cutting, and obviously not designed with online racing as a primary concern, Colin McRae 2005 featured relatively lax track limit detection. Lastly, the vehicle reset button could be abused, spawning the car several feet ahead of its current position once a user discovered how to cheat the system. Again, this was Codemasters before they hit it big with 2007’s DiRT.

The 2005 rendition of the championship, held at the end of February, took place within a large Warsaw cinema and was put on partially with the support of both Logitech and Intel. This was a genuinely large event; a precursor to the sim competitions we see on a regular basis today. Computers were arranged in a row at the front of the theater – allowing for easy walk-in spectating – and participants were able to liberally make use of the cinema’s concession stand. While the North American sim racing scene was still confined to private TeamSpeak servers and obscure message boards requiring registration, the Polish were living in 2017.

Details of the event, obtained in part thanks to GRY-Online, are scarce when it comes to the actual racing which took place. It is said that most drivers preferred the Citroen Xsara rally car, indicating the unlicensed all-wheel-drive entries based on cars competing in the WRC at the time were used to tackle the array of stages available.  With Colin McRae Rally 2005 including eight countries and eight stages within each region, it’s a valid theory that the three-day affair saw participants cover every last stage in the game at least once, with an additional round for the finalists on what I’d presume to be a Sunday. These guys did a lot of driving, but because this wasn’t exactly a StarCraft tournament, digging around for individual race results or rule packages won’t warrant much of anything.

What we do know for absolute certainty, was that the 2005 Polish Colin McRae Rally eSports Tournament was won by a young gentlemen named Robert Kubica.

This is unfortunately where the feel-good story about a future Formula One driver mingling with the sim community as one of their own, comes to an abrupt end. The final standings of the event ignited a tremendous firestorm on the Polish sim rally message board eRajdy.

Google Translate makes this quite a difficult read to follow, but the basic narrative is a classic underdog story not confined to any sole language. Users note that Kubica had seemingly come out of absolutely nowhere to destroy Poland’s best sim racers, with only limited time spent in the game beforehand. The former BMW Sauber driver had failed to qualify in the top ten during preliminary sessions, yet over the course of the weekend had driven just well enough to sneak through into eliminations, dethroning championship favorites such as Maja, MAdo, and Jarl during scored play. The improbability of a wildcard entry taking home a major Polish sim racing championship immediately spawned speculation of either a data entry error on part of the stewards, or outright cheating on Kubica’s part.

The majority of Polish sim racers refused to believe the best Colin McRae Rally 2005 player in the country was not one of the established leaderboard drivers, but rather a guy who didn’t even own a home computer in which to play the game, and was racing Formula Three cars in Macau just months earlier. Those who were aware of Robert’s real life racing accomplishments even attempted to argue that his real world skills would not apply in a virtual environment, and that on any day of the week a dedicated Colin McRae player should come out on top in this sort of event format. In any case, the sim racing community were not willing to allow Kubica to hold the title of champion.

As predicted, it gets ugly.

Kubica signed up for the message board under the alias “rk” and attempted to reason with the angry community members – so yes, you’re about to see a Formula One driver shit posting about sim racing with the best – only to be called “blind” and “stupid” by the community, largely unwilling to believe he’d pulled off the ultimate upset on a national stage. Yet in the face of such toxicity, Kubica doubled down and confirmed his status as a legend in the sim racing community by admitting in a short forum he did not own a computer at home and only practiced for a short time on Colin McRae Rally at a friend’s house – about forty hours total, which is really isn’t much compared to the times a dedicated Alien would spend on a game – before entering the competition.

Triggering the resident autists even further, he then takes the position of not caring about any alleged scoring issues which are the subject of debate, as in this situation he was just competing in this event for fun – it’s someone else’s job to score the event, and if they fuck up and he’s the winner, it’s not exactly his problem. He was there to enjoy himself, and as a bonus, if there was a genuine error in the standings, he’d have no problem sending the trophy to the rightful winner. At this point, Kubica expresses his disappointment in the community, whom are quick to attack an outsider for merely disrupting the established status quo of high ranking sim racers, and vows not to return.

There is much chagrin over the culprit of the upset victory, and I urge you all to dig through the full thread for the unprecedented levels of anal devastation, but eventually another user arrives to say that he was lucky enough to watch Robert drive the final competition round based on where he was sitting in the audience. Zero-soups claims there probably wasn’t any foul play or irregular scoring to begin with; Robert indeed ran an exceptionally clean set of stages – hypothesizing that the other drivers simply made too many mistakes in pushing for the national championship.

Robert of course has been chased away by the sim racing community, while the event organizers told the posters to shut the fuck up and locked the thread; the results of the championship now descending to the status of a controversial piece of trivia among members of the Polish eRally community, no longer allowed to discuss the competition in public. Was there really a scoring error on part of the stewards, or was this Kubica guy just a complete freak of nature? When the late Jim Clark first began his career in auto racing, there are stories of the 1967 Formula One champion asking why his competitors were driving so slow. Could this have been another instance of greatness taking form, albeit on a smaller level?

Fifteen months later, the posters on eRally would receive their answer on national television.

The 2005 Polish Colin McRae Rally champion and subject of intense sim racing message board debate, would make his first Formula One start filling in for the injured Jacques Villeneuve after he had complained of concussion-like symptoms following a crash in Hungary. Kubica would then earn a place in Formula One history as the winner of the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, becoming the first driver of Polish origin to win a race in the world’s most prestigious auto racing championship. Not content with a resume consisting primarily of open wheel race cars, Kubica would then experiment with a career in the World Rally Championship, though a crash in 2011 left him with extensive injuries sidelining him for a number of seasons. Kubica is currently attempting a comeback in Formula One, undergoing a successful test with Renault.

In other words, it’s more likely in hindsight that Kubica pulled off a genuine upset in a major eSports competition, than was handed the victory as a result of a steward’s error.

Sadly, this situation is all too familiar in the world of sim racing.

Shane van Gisbergen was once asked to help refine iRacing’s Ford Falcon V8 Supercar several years ago, turning it into one of the best cars available on the service. A subsequent build broke the car, angering Shane and causing him to scale back his involvement with the team to that of a casual iRacer using the service for fun. Nick McMillen was told to leave a hosted session because iRacing denoted him a “rookie” due to his lack of playtime. 2017 iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series champion Ryan Luza – also a late model track champion away from the keyboard, was once the subject of a permanent ban from iRacing for allegations of cheating – only recently being allowed back onto the service.

Those are just some of the stories we know of, because the drivers are willing to use social media to make their displeasure known to the world.

There are also some great anecdotal stories regarding the same subject matter, a portion of which I can confirm just by knowing the right people. High profile drivers tag respected sim racing modders on obscure Instagram posts that the general public would otherwise never think twice about, a discreet sign of respect for their work. But they still refuse to mingle with the community on traditional message boards, sign up for leagues among the general population, or otherwise indulge in the hobby as “one of the guys.”

A distant buddy of mine happened to meet skateboarding legend Bucky Lasek out on the West Coast over the summer. Lasek was said to be incredibly appreciative of just how many people knew who he was, but more importantly expressed a serious interest in just being a part of the local culture and hanging out with the guys. Across other hobbies, this is pretty common. NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown races radio controlled boats in his spare time, whereas CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya has a serious thing for R/C planes if you happen to follow him on Instagram. There are guys out there who know the notorious JPM as not an extremely aggressive yet talented race car driver, but as the friendly Colombian guy who fixes their scale aircraft.

But in sim racing? This is more or less absent; when it does happen, the star usually exits as quickly as they arrive. And this is because in the back of their minds, they know they’ll be another Robert Kubica if they’re not careful – chased out by the toxicity of their own admirers.

*Thanks to TW for sending this in, and bar_tosz for the story on Reddit.

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How Gran Turismo Sport Fails as a Competitive Platform

As a hardcore sim racer, I’ve found it pretty entertaining to skim through the more casual-oriented communities to monitor the reception of Gran Turismo Sport. Response to the game’s timed demo, which has been available starting this week and will end at some point tomorrow, falls into one of two very distinct categories: some have cancelled their pre-orders and pledged allegiance to a rival franchise, while others proclaim to love the new direction the franchise has taken; eschewing car collecting for ranked online racing.

I’ve found responses of the latter to be most intriguing; in my time with Gran Turismo Sport, I’ve been left with far more negative impressions than positive, and I’m a bit confused as to how people could unironically enjoy this title. There are two distinct photo modes – one of which isn’t necessary in the slightest, clunky menu systems, multiple power point presentations, and a livery editor that pales in comparison to Forza’s, while the actual driving experience is shockingly dated, lifeless, and inaccurate – Mazda’s coupes are not boats, and GT3 cars are not hovercrafts. It’s a very weird game; Gran Turismo Sport can’t decide whether to be an art project, a classic Gran Turismo game, or iRacing for consoles, so it takes the worst parts of all three and blends them together in an unholy trinity. Or just, to kill the hyperbolic statements, a mix of very bad design choices.

Which is why it’s very awkward for me to catch wind of positive reception in regards to the online portion of Gran Turismo Sport. Truthfully I’ve seen comments such as “that event sold me on the game” and “today’s event is 10/10,” yet the ranked online racing is objectively the worst aspect of Gran Turismo Sport – in fact the game utterly fails as a competitive platform, which is pretty insane when you consider for what purpose this game was built in the first place.

Yet instead of using these people as examples of how retarded the average racing game enthusiast happens to be, let me explain why Polyphony are utterly clueless when it comes to creating an online racing ecosystem.

Poor Track Design

Though there will be a handful of real-world circuits available in the retail copy of Gran Turismo Sport, an overwhelmingly large portion of the track roster is confirmed to be populated by scratch-built facilities crafted by the team at Polyphony Digital. While the surrounding landscapes indeed give a nice sense of variety, and obviously help to demonstrate the graphical prowess of Sony’s new-ish PlayStation 4 Pro, there is a downside to treating asphalt playing fields as art pieces first, and a competitive environment second. Unlike real-world auto racing facilities, which have been constructed by professional engineers and refined over decades to ensure the on-track product is captivating enough to put spectators in the grandstands, Gran Turismo Sport’s first major problem is that many of its’ tracks do the opposite; they look nice, but aren’t fun to drive or race on.

The worst offender of the bunch happens to be the Tokyo Expressway environment, which has been a mainstay of the franchise dating back to the original iteration in 1998, and has obviously been tossed into the lineup as a nod to longtime Gran Turismo enthusiasts. Regardless of the layout you’re racing on, the Tokyo Expressway circuits commonly force you into claustrophobic ribbons of tarmac just two lanes wide, with massive concrete walls on either side.

Unlike the Monaco Grand Prix, which features several heavy braking zones allowing drivers to build and close natural gaps to help string the pack out, the gentle corners and high speeds of Tokyo ensure the pack of cars for the most part remains incredibly bunched up. While talented drivers won’t really have a problem with giving each other a bit of room, overtaking is where the problems really start. You cannot launch an overtaking maneuver on a human opponent in good faith, because there is so little room to work with you’ll probably run them into the wall on corner exit whether you’re intending to or not. And when contact between two vehicles breeds something more disastrous, unlike the Long Beach Grand Prix, drivers approaching the chaos have zero extra tarmac to work with – they will plow right into the wreck.

Provided the pack does get strung out into a single file conga line, the ideal racing trajectory for Tokyo circuits requires drivers to remain in dangerously close proximity to the wall for an extended period of time. Failing to run the absolute precise racing line and accidentally scraping the wall scrubs off so much speed, any trailing vehicle is prone to slamming into the back of you. Factor in the insane drafting effects Gran Turismo as a series has been notorious for and has still failed to rectify in Sport, and you’ve essentially got a chain of circuits that have almost been genetically engineered to breed chaos. In a normal Gran Turismo game, these tracks would merely fall out of rotation among the playerbase, and primarily be used for fancy screenshot competitions on sites GT Planet. Sport not only forces you to race on them as part of the game’s primary mode of play, it also punishes you quite severely for incidents that are largely the fault of poor track design.

What’s frustrating is that any idiot and his friends can run a quick pickup race here in private, and come away with the conclusion to never race in Tokyo again. How Polyphony did not play test these circuits internally and determine “our target audience will become frustrated with this very quickly” is beyond me.

This lack of foresight on the part of Polyphony extends to the game’s oval tracks, which I will refer to by their real world counterparts as I have not been dedicated enough to memorize all of their in-game pseudonyms. Bristol, Pocono, and Trenton – yes, that crazy Trenton from the 1960’s – visually all look great, but that’s where the positive remarks cease. Even as a stock car guy, these ovals are a chore to run and arguably the worst tracks in the game because Polyphony have failed to do their homework and understand why American oval racing works as a form of auto racing. Yes, there is some method to the madness.

Here is the crash course in NASCAR history; NASCAR tracks rarely if ever feature a racing surface that’s smooth as glass; most eat tires and require a bit of throttle management over the course of a lap because concrete is a dynamic entity unable to hold a consistent shape. Irregularities in the paving or mending process – bumps, dips, and imperfect transitions – all further assist in giving each location their individual character.  The Gran Turismo team have ignored this vital element of oval racing and instead modeled all three of their oval circuits as pristine facilities featuring progressive banking, which essentially takes throttle management and strategic line choice completely out of the equation. There is no threat of losing traction or being punished for your line choice over the duration of a lap, creating a situation where the only way you can legitimately pass people is by hoping they blatantly choke or get taken out by a lapped car. This isn’t racing.

The average Gran Turismo player in my experience seems to be pretty shitty at the game, so the initial days of GT Sport will see some okay-ish races take place at the three primary oval tracks. As the talent level increases and a tangible field of competent drivers establish themselves within the community, these races will quickly turn into frustrating affairs based more on luck than on skill. So not only are the Tokyo circuits extremely poor for competitive online racing, you now have three ovals where even in a field of good drivers, there isn’t much racing to be had; just an automotive procession in which the first person to mess up kills everybody behind him, and genuine overtaking maneuvers are difficult to manifest.

Again, this is all something Polyphony could have discovered internally during light play tests around the office, but seemingly didn’t.

As for the remaining array of fictional tarmac circuits, they too adopt at lot of the same problems as the ovals. They are too pristine, too perfect, and too well-maintained to be enjoyable in a competitive environment. Rumble strips are gigantic, run-off areas can be conveniently exploited by leaderboard drivers such as myself, the surface itself is usually immaculate (which as you learned, means no throttle control), and the width of these tracks are roughly 30% larger than what you’d expect from a real world racing circuit. These work in tandem to generate artificially high speeds and insanely wide, sweeping racing lines that abuse the simplistic engine powering Gran Turismo Sport.

And the more you’re full-throttle with a mostly-straight steering wheel, the more it’s less about the driver and more about the car, which leads to…

Unbalanced Cars

I’m not going to give everyone a complete breakdown as to what vehicle classes are available in Gran Turismo Sport, but it loosely follows the classification of real-world sports car racing. You do have various classes of street cars, as seen in games like Project Gotham Racing, but then the purpose-built race cars come in four different flavors; Rally, GT4, GT3, and P1. Personally I think Polyphony did a fine job of implementing the right number of classes in Gran Turismo Sport, as there’s usually a very robust list of cars to select from within that class, but the problem is that none of them are equal.

The overwhelming leaderboard consensus is that the Bugatti VGT prototype is by far the quickest vehicle in the P1 category, with the actual prototypes racing alongside it almost six seconds per lap slower. I was awarded a Toyota TS050 for completing my “daily workout” of driving a handful of practice laps, but unless I want to have my anal cavity penetrated by upwards of twenty other people online, I’m best off saving up for the leaderboard car. Now in other games, like the aforementioned Project Gotham Racing, you could select, say, a McLaren F1 LM and still hang with the Ferrari F50GT’s online provided you kept your stick skills up. This sadly is not possible in Gran Turismo Sport; the leaderboard cars are in their own zip code.

Currently, the P1 class has been dealt the most damage out of all categories when it comes to Polyphony’s unwillingness to balance out the vehicles. Highly unrealistic Vision Gran Turismo concept cars are allowed to compete alongside Le Mans prototypes without any regard to the obvious differences between experimental concepts, and WEC competition entries built to rigid specifications, so as a result the WEC cars get absolutely murdered out on the racing surface.

However, lopsided performance figures exist in slower classes as well. The all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X is heads and tails above its’ street-legal contemporaries thanks to the drivetrain alone, as the other vehicles the car is allowed to compete against are all front-wheel-drive shitboxes that can’t turn and continuously spin the tires under power. And as mentioned in several articles already, the GT4-spec Nissan GTR is virtually unstoppable in the hands of a competent driver; two seconds per lap quicker than cars that have found success in real-world GT4 racing. Buddies of mine have speculated that this may be due to Nissan’s working relationship with Polyphony Digital as the major driving force behind GT Academy, and they want a Nissan GTR to be at the front of the pack to keep the financial stream flowing, but based on our races together, it just seems like Polyphony – like Turn 10 many years ago with Forza Motorsport 4 – cannot figure out how to prevent AWD domination from occurring.

Regardless of which specific class we’re talking about when it comes to the topic of vehicle balance, this poses a serious problem for the longevity of Gran Turismo Sport. In a game with somewhere around 150 cars that users are encouraged to purchase, tune, and personalize using in-game credits, you’ve created an ecosystem in which only five of these cars are worth obtaining if you want to actually enjoy the competitive elements of the game – which is the entire focus of this Gran Turismo iteration. The car-collecting meta-game and challenge of setup-building both cease to exist if the primary task is to purchase a Nissan GTR or Bugatti VGT, not carry the flag of your favorite automaker into battle as was intended.

Yes, in real-world auto racing, there are dominant cars. Toyota has destroyed NASCAR this season, Mercedes and Red Bull made Formula One almost unwatchable for a better part of the decade, and Audi practically owned Le Mans save for one Peugeot victory to split up their dynasty. The whole point of an eSports competition however is to rule out the real-world variables and put things in the hands of the drivers. One car lapping two to six seconds faster than any of the others in its’ class doesn’t accomplish that; it instead pisses people off who in the spirit of the game acquired a car they wanted to drive, and promptly got their shit pushed in because they chose poorly.

The worst part of all this is that upon booting up a race in the demo, Polyphony have not allowed users to tweak their own car setups save for the ability to adjust traction control and brake bias, instead informing users the game has applied some sort of Balance of Power formula to all of the vehicles in the field. Obviously, it’s not working, and that’s not good to see less than a week from launch. This is something that should have been fully sorted out in the closed beta over the summer, and for whatever reason, it wasn’t.

Questionable Event Organization

We didn’t even know there was a 125cc shifter kart in the game, but yesterday Polyphony believed they would be a perfect candidate for a ranked race at the simplest Kyoto Driving Park layout. Both races myself and Ian participated in were nothing short of disastrous despite being in the highest ranking North America room and surrounded by opponents the game deemed to be “safe.”

The karts were highly unstable, meaning drivers would side-swipe you at a moments’ notice because only a portion of the room could figure out how to turn consistent laps without wrecking. Those who did maintain control ran in giant Daytona-like packs, as the game’s draft model was so absurdly over-done, the pole lap of a 43.206 set by Ian was obliterated both in practice and race sessions just by hanging out behind someone for a bit and only marginally adhering to the preferred line. The track layout lent itself to full throttle affair save for a gentle lift in one corner, adding to the chaotic environment.

Like the oval races mentioned earlier, no talent was required to partake in these events, which goes against the entire point of an eSports competition. There were, however, a lot of massive wrecks, and a lot of people pissed off that they’d lost precious safety rating for some idiot sitting in the draft, running into the back of them, and then receiving a penalty for contact that they weren’t even aware was coming. This was NASCAR at Daytona, with extremely twitchy go-karts, which of course is great when the vast majority of your customers are playing with a DualShock 4.

A day earlier, Polyphony had sent the game’s rally cars to Suzuka East, which is a fantastic abbreviated layout of an iconic Japanese racing facility. However, Polyphony locked car setups to the default configurations in the name of “fairness”, meaning a field of rally cars competing for safety and skill points were forced to use off-road tires on a tarmac circuit. Posters on Reddit began warning others not to participate in this event, which is of course exactly what you want as a company – users telling other users to adhere from playing a time-limited demo. Check the guy’s rear-view mirror in the above YouTube video; they don’t even make it through turn one.

As an online racing organizer you have a duty not just to provide server infrastructure, but to ensure your competitors will actually have fun behind the wheel. Wrecking the shit out of each other in turn one because the cars aren’t adequately prepared for the track isn’t fun. It’s shitty.

And then there are the oval races. Oval racing works in real life and provides a captivating on-track product for both fans and drivers to appreciate because most purpose-built oval track cars are on the edge of control; high horsepower with minimal downforce and rudimentary mechanical grip that can’t fully be realized, even when nailing the setup. This is more or less how stock car racing works, and it’s how IndyCar works as well – albeit to a lesser extent. A lack of aero grip, a difference in car setups, and a track with unique surface characteristics all contribute to a racing discipline where plenty of passing opportunities arise each lap and generally make things really exciting in comparison to road racing

High downforce GT cars on ultra-smooth fantasy ovals do not allow any of these unique elements of oval racing to occur, meaning that anytime Polyphony send their fleet of GT3 cars to one of the game’s three oval tracks, it’s a complete chore for all involved. Provided the field of drivers are at least somewhat talented, you basically sit in a conga line for the duration of the event as pictured above. No driving skill is required, as the car is literally sucked to the track thanks to thousands of pounds of downforce providing all the grip you’ll ever need, and this means the act of passing someone because you’re a better driver than them just doesn’t happen. The enjoyable parts of oval racing, running down drivers using alternate lines or pushing the car beyond its means for a few laps just don’t happen. Foot to the floor, turn left, and hope you don’t die while passing the people who do. That’s not racing, and certainly not a good basis for a competitive eSports platform.

For whatever reason, Polyphony continue to schedule these events in abundance.

Poor track design. Unbalanced cars. Questionable event organization. These are just some of Polyphony’s problems with Gran Turismo Sport, and it more or less confirms what a lot of us feared but were dismissed as pessimists or shills upon vocalizing. Polyphony dove head first into the deep end of the eSports pool by turning Gran Turismo into this massive online racing platform, only to have precisely no idea what the fuck they were doing. Though the game does feature highly questionable vehicle physics, Gran Turismo Sport would be a lot of fun if the races were still something to look forward to at the end of the day. Instead, for a variety of very amateurish reasons, they aren’t.

I understand there’s a reason to have a fictional circuit like the Tokyo Expressway in place of Spa or Le Mans – you’ve got to show off the processing capabilities of Sony’s new PlayStation 4 model. But at the end of the day, people are eventually not going to care about the cluster trees in the distance, and they’ll want to race. Ultimately, Spa puts on a better show than Tokyo.

And I acknowledge that the Vision GT cars give vehicle designers a way to express their artistic side without the traditional restrictions a major manufacturer will undoubtedly impose on them for production models. But when the Bugatti or McLaren VGT concepts are six seconds quicker than Porsche’s Le Mans entry, and they’re in the same class competing directly against each other while the game still uses the tagline of “The Real Driving Simulator,” maybe it’s time for a second look at how the vehicles are balanced.

Lastly, flat-out shifter karts or GT cars on an oval may sound interesting on paper, but forcing people to partake in events that breed chaos while also telling them to be mindful of contact and to race cleanly is borderline retarded. Yes, nobody can die in a virtual world, so we can be free to try some stupid shit if the opportunity arises. But there are also combinations that just outright don’t work because different types of race cars work better on some tracks than others, and Polyphony of all people should know this given their involvement in real-world racing. Some of us sat out today because the list of races were so horrible, and that’s something as a developer you don’t want to do; give people an incentive to not play your game. Because you never know if during that period of time, they’ll just go and find something else.

Gran Turismo Sport was an interesting concept on paper, but Polyphony’s incompetence at understanding how virtual auto racing works will prevent it from turning the genre upside-down and being anything more than an awkward off-shoot of a beloved franchise.

Bjork Makes Her Solo Debut: The Gran Turismo Sport Demo

It turns out that the near-unanimous meltdown over Forza Motorsport 7 was just the pre-game show for Gran Turismo Sport. Once held as the bastion of virtual auto racing over multiple console generations, Polyphony Digital are sure to have a complete mess on their hands once fans of the series pay the $60 asking price and are confronted with a very harsh reality. If the demo is any indication of what’s to come later this month, Gran Turismo Sport was an idea that should have been left on the drawing board. A lot of people are going to be very mad, and some already are.

Part pretentious art project, and part awkward foray into the world of eSports, Gran Turismo Sport is nothing short of a colossal failure. Under the guidance of supreme leader Kazunori Yamauchi, the team at Polyphony Digital have crafted an experience that under any other team would be laughed out of the room. The racing is woefully unbalanced while allowing atrocious circuit boundary violations in what is supposed to be a worldwide eSports competition, the game has been stuffed full of avant garde bullshit that quite simply doesn’t belong in a racing game and has clearly diverted the attention of the developers away from more pressing issues, and so far the ability for the servers to handle any sort of load from the userbase is questionable at best. This is an actual disaster, and that’s before we even get to the on-track experience – for a team with near-infinite resources and worldwide prestige, there are amateur rFactor mods with better force feedback and tire behavior. Seriously, what are these guys doing?

Gran Turismo Sport wanted me to race against people from around the world in a competitive setting, but rarely would the servers be strong enough to actually place me in a room when it was time to get going. Sport would then ask me to waste a bunch of time taking still pictures of my race car in a ridiculously expansive photography section for what is supposed to be a hardcore racing simulator, or read up about Bjork’s solo career while simultaneously giving me almost no useful controller options whatsoever. Don’t like the default force feedback settings or want to adjust your throttle sensitivity? Ignore that, come take fake action shots of your car at the Nurburgring or learn about how our first game came out at around the same time as Harry Potter.

Oh, what’s that? The online servers are undergoing maintenance just hours after launch? No, there’s not a simple solution to this problem. Polyphony won’t let you continue to make progress through the single player Driving School, they won’t let you partake in hot lap challenges, nor will they let you blast through the racing missions. You also won’t be able to casually paint liveries to pass the time while waiting for the maintenance to be completed, purchase cars, acquire new driving suits, or play the game at all.

Gran Turismo Sport both requires an online connection, and requires the GT Sport servers to be functional to do anything aside from sit at the main menu with all of the options greyed out. Most of my playtime in Gran Turismo Sport was spent in the wee hours of Monday morning, as the moment the normies began invading the servers, GT Sport more or less fell apart. I couldn’t play the game at all for a large part of Monday afternoon, and when service was restored, online matchmaking failed to place me in any room whatsoever. It would just sit there.

Despite exponentially larger infrastructure and budget constraints, Gran Turismo Sport suffers show-stopping outages on par with iRacing, the entire in-game ecosystem grinding to a halt at once to the point you’re forced to just play something else in the meantime. This is, of course, exactly what hundreds of thousands of casual car guys will have no problem putting up with when the game launches a week from now.

The sad state of affairs continues out on the race track; if you think Gran Turismo Sport handles anything like a real race car at competition speeds, you are mistaken. I think this would be forgivable for a smaller team, but given the magnitude of who we’re dealing with here, it’s just outright sad. For starters, the game’s force feedback is far too heavy and invasive even at the lowest of settings – the wheel constantly wandering around based on slight undulations in the track geometry. If my steering wheel at any point felt like this in a real car, I’d instantly pull into the pits believing my power steering rack had seized completely – as usually this same sensation is usually accompanied by a massive puff of smoke under the hood. Polyphony Digital genuinely believe this is what all cars feel like out of the box, from a 2017 Mazda MX-5, to a six-figure Nissan GT4 entry. How the almighty Gran Turismo can be this far off the mark is utterly mind-blowing.

So then we get into how the physical cars handle. The Mazda MX-5, at least in the laps I’ve been able to turn in it, has the precision and grace of a late 60’s Muscle Car. In reality these are nimble little trackday warriors, yet Gran Turismo believes they’re a modern re-incarnation of an AMC Javelin. Moving up the ladder, stuff like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X – which I actually found enjoyable in the game’s beta phase – now suffers from enormous weight transfer and body roll issues. Both of these cars should be solid entry-level training vehicles that generally go where you tell them to, and yet they will instead probably frustrate a large portion of the userbase. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Anything listed as a race car is downright comical, and only seven days from launch I can’t imagine a situation in which this is all magically rectified for release. I have to go all the way to the freeware game GeneRally to find something to compare the race cars in GT Sport to. Straight up, they remind me of the 2006 Formula One cars in Jerac’s Grand Prix history pack; mega downforce, mega grip, and mega braking capabilities – they are point and shoot in every sense of the word. Grid Autosport at least lets you hang the ass end out and get up on the sidewalls in most cars.

Purpose-built racing vehicles in GT Sport by comparison are utterly glued to the racing surface. It’s downright silly to witness; they are hovercrafts magnetized to the road, and I’ll attach a video of a lap of mine that was fourth in the world to show how simple they are at maximum attack. The cars don’t dance, wiggle, or have any sort of unique personality to them. They’re either exaggerated dump trucks, or lifeless hovercrafts.

It pains me to talk in detail about the rally cars. You cannot steer them with a rearward brake bias as you should be able to, and turning your steering wheel more generates more grip and acceleration in corners. Throw out everything you’ve learned in other rally simulators before playing GT Sport; it’s like these guys have never once watched rally on-boards and thought to themselves “why isn’t our game like that, but the other ones are?”

Car balance is also an issue that comes up, which should have been rectified during the beta phase but for whatever reason, wasn’t. The Nissan GTR, which absolutely murdered people in GT4 races for the month or so that the GT Sport beta was active, is still far above the rest when it comes to sheer performance. I chopped off two whole seconds from my previous personal best of a 2:10 just by switching from the Ferrari 458 to the Nissan GTR. This is of course, fantastic to see given Polyphony’s goal of using GT Sport as a competitive platform.

It’s also “great” to see track limits being considered an afterthought at best by Polyphony. From what I’ve been able to deduce, Gran Turismo Sport only requires you to have one wheel on a piece of the racing surface or adjacent rumble strip to be considered “in bounds.” As you can see above, I’m basically on the grass in some corners or just taking a complete random nonsensical line, and the game really doesn’t seem to give a shit about my actions. You really have to experiment just to trigger a cut track penalty. Again, this is awesome in a global competition in which real prize money is awarded; not only will you have to figure out how to drive hovercrafts with broken power steering, and use your technical wizardry to create setups that abuse these lackluster physics, you’ll be forced to liberally interpret the racing line as well.

This is exactly what the masses have wanted from the king of racing games eschewing their traditional series format, and building an off-shoot product focused around some sort of high-stakes online championship.

If you couldn’t detect the sarcasm, it’s obviously not what they wanted at all. Gran Turismo fans are struggling with this title, as they’re being forced to play their favorite franchise in a way that’s totally foreign to them.

Even with private lobbies that have ideally separated serious drivers from those wanting to mess around with mates, the ranked races in Gran Turismo Sport’s demo are full of atrocious drivers who are in some cases thirty eight seconds off pace, and it’s really hard to blame them. For years, decades even, Gran Turismo has been an automotive sandbox; it didn’t matter how talented of a driver you are, as long as you found a path through the game that worked for you. Polyphony have now turned everything upside down on these same people, and the races clearly demonstrate why this approach is not going to work long-term.

In a field of twenty cars, maybe three drivers can complete a lap without spinning around or venturing through the grass. You can visibly see that these people aren’t giving a shit because they aren’t having fun, and they probably won’t stick around for long.This results in both a drastically small playerbase compared to what was expected, not to mention enormous backlash because surprise, hardcore users are a minority compared to casual users. Gee, who would have thought that?

Gran Turismo Sport assumes you’re a good driver, and therein lies the problem; the game is only an enjoyable experience when congratulating you on a new lap record or an increase in your skill rating. The majority of people who pick up this game just aren’t anywhere near competent enough to make use of the ecosystem Polyphony have built. It’s like giving a professional-grade treadmill with built-in workout routine and dynamic GUI to someone who expressed only a passing interest in jogging three years ago.

Polyphony could have thrown a bone to those wanting a more traditional Gran Turismo experience, but they didn’t. Instead they bundled Gran Turismo with weird, useless shit. The Scapes mode, which allows you to take pictures of your car in front a static background to simulate a picture of a real car, is absurdly detailed and has nothing to do with anything else in the entire game; it is a photography simulator in a hardcore racing game, when a standard photo mode (which is already included) was more than enough.

There are museums for each individual car manufacturer, as well as for Gran Turismo itself (and TAG Heuer), which showcase the history of each brand in the form of a photo album. Why were these needed? They’re just so pretentious and unnecessary, adding precisely nothing to the core game experience. They are pointless diversions that a large majority of customers will never use, and their existence is infuriating especially when other, useful areas of the game could use some much-needed polish.

And of course, these diversions function perfectly in the demo. The options menu, on the other hand, a pretty integral part of any piece of software, is prone to crashing the game. We are a week from launch. Remember how Gran Turismo fans used to obsess over Polyphony’s perfectionism when it came to Gran Turismo 4? Where is this workmanship?

I suggest buying popcorn for the release of Gran Turismo Sport. Not for actually playing the game, no, hardcore sim racers will have a seizure at just how far the once-beloved franchise has fallen. Instead, I’m predicting there will be a firestorm of ex-Gran Turismo fans wondering why Kazunori Yamauchi has seemingly turned into sim racing’s Yoko Ono. Gran Turismo Sport, at least what I’ve played from both the demo and the beta earlier this year, is a pretentious art piece with zero regard for the customers who have helped turn Gran Turismo into what it is today.

The eSports elements have been sloppily implemented, and the software features an abundance of downright retarded design choices – get ready for the atrocious main menu – and useless features that have little if anything to do with virtual racing. The hundreds of thousands around the planet who once called Gran Turismo one of their favorite games are going to be absolutely furious, and it’ll be hilarious to watch.

Download the demo for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Beginning of the End: Forza Prize Crate Videos Have Arrived

According to Turn 10 Studios, the future of sim racing features no racing at all. Since the Ultimate Edition of Forza Motorsport 7 landed in the hands of the general public a few short weeks ago, the prize crate controversy has caused a substantial mutiny among longtime fans of the franchise. While the introduction of virtual gambling elements has at least given those plowing through career mode an alternative avenue in which to spend their in-game currency, Forza 7’s over-reliance on the feature adds nothing but frustration to the overall package, as players are essentially forced to perpetuate a needless cycle of money just to continue progressing through what Forza 7 has to offer. For six iterations and three spin-off titles spanning over a decade, Forza as a series managed just fine without an in-game slot machine, becoming Microsoft’s biggest racing game and a genuine system seller, so fans are understandably choked that a favorite game of theirs has been built from the ground up to capitalize on micro-transactions and the addictive nature in human beings.

Yet fourteen thousand people beg to differ, and that number is only set to climb. Eclipsing the number of people who tuned in live to Formula E’s VISA Vegas eRace earlier this year, not to mention exponentially blowing out the live audience count of any iRacing world championship broadcast over the past five years, would be YouTube personality SlapTrain opening fifteen different prize crates within Forza Motorsport 7 – valued at around three million in-game credits. Clocking in at just under fifteen minutes, the video features zero driving or setup tuning whatsoever (in contrast to his other uploads), but instead remains solely in Forza 7’s front end repeatedly completing a remedial task – opening boxes.

This article isn’t to rip on SlapTrain; instead I’m merely pointing out how he is now one of several YouTube accounts to begin uploading lengthy prize crate videos that essentially glorify virtual gambling in Forza Motorsport 7. Despite launching just over a week ago for those that did not pre-order the Ultimate Edition, searching “Forza 7 Prize Crates” on YouTube now generates 2,500 results of people just sitting at the menu, opening countless boxes that in most cases don’t add anything useful to the actual core game. These people are obsessing over collecting fire suits they’ll rarely see on the track, or acquiring optional profile badges – little icons that appear next to your name in certain screens.

In other words, not playing the game.

Is this the beginning of the end, at least in regards to Forza? Unfortunately, yes it is.

Turn 10 have now succeed in conditioning the average player to believe the on-track experience is secondary in Forza Motorsport 7, instead encouraging them to sit around in a menu blowing their in-game currency on largely meaningless transactions. The allure of buying a Forza Motorsport title and hoping to receive a somewhat robust automotive sandbox that you can mess around in at your leisure has been replaced by a meta-game that just barely skirts the line of what many people will deem to be gambling. Driving, racing, and exploring the history of auto racing as a mad-scientist in a virtual environment is no longer the primary motivation for those who play Forza Motorsport as a franchise; it’s instead just a means to an end – a way to acquire money so you can keep buying more prize crates to open on your shitty YouTube channel.

Short-term, there will still be a handful of people who dig past the atrocious gambling elements and swear up and down that beyond the shady surface, there’s a decent racing game with a lot to offer. But at the moment we’re at a period in the history of auto racing where attendance and overall support of the world’s biggest racing championships are collectively at an all-time low. The future generation of auto racing fans, who would otherwise discover series like IMSA, NASCAR, V8 Supercars, the World Endurance Championship, or Formula One through Forza, will now be given an incentive to skip or dismiss everything Forza is trying to teach them. Enjoying the diverse world of auto racing has taken a back seat to blasting through career mode, trying to amass credits as quickly as possible for just one more prize crate.

Just as it was in Madden, FIFA, and NHL, these prize crate videos will become monetized and expand into their own little ecosystem. Turn 10 will provide prominent personalities with complimentary prize crates to open as a way to artificially train their userbase to value not playing the game; zombies of a virtual casino. Other developers within our genre will begin wanting their piece of the pie and promptly implement them into their own games, no matter how inappropriate their inclusion may be.

Somewhere in the madness, the actual joys of ripping around a track will be lost. And it will come sooner, rather than later.

Off Into the Sunset: DiRT 4’s Demise

Despite autumn bringing with it much cooler weather which entices people to stay inside, and franchises such as Forza Motorsport or Project CARS renewing people’s interest in virtual race cars by releasing their latest iterations in rapid succession, the most technically competent off-road racer in recent memory boasts just a few hundred active users on a cozy Friday evening. Codemasters may have struck gold by complete accident with their niche offering known as DiRT Rally in the spring of 2015, but a refined mass-market variant pushed out a few years later has already descended to the ranks of obscurity just a handful months after launch.  DiRT 4 received stellar reviews from mainstream gaming publications, and visually is the closest a third-party team will come to recreating the overall graphical fidelity seen in something like Forza, yet the masses eager to try it out have now totally lost interest, and Codemasters have seemingly jumped ship from the project as well.

DiRT 4 wasn’t a bad piece of software by any means, it just wasn’t the massive all-encompassing off-road experience that was advertised in pre-release promotional material, leading to a situation where the fourth game in the franchise which once proudly donned the namesake of Scotland’s finest rally driver couldn’t be listed as a tangible improvement over the former three iterations. The roster of vehicles didn’t shrink or expand, it merely substituted some cars for others. We revisited locations fans of the series were already quite familiar with, while swapping out unique stage layouts for bland & repetitive procedural generation functionality. The game’s semi-fictional take on hill-climb racing was scrapped, with rally racing split into two distinct disciplines (historic & modern) to fill the gap, whereas rallycross racing mostly regurgitated the same selection of content from DiRT Rally, and short course off-road truck racing was an afterthought at best; three tracks, all of which look about the same and sport an identical horseshoe layout.

It was a sidegrade, not an upgrade.

Yet for all it gets right – as a lack of content does not necessarily mean the core game is inherently broken or unsatisfactory – a close friend of mine states he can still find unopened copies of DiRT 4’s Day One edition, now heavily discounted, at his local supermarket. And though it technically has still out-performed Kylotonn’s officially licensed rally offering by a ratio of 3 to 1 and numerically has become the go-to rally game, DiRT 4’s active player-base explains why Codemasters have more or less ended this chapter prematurely. There was a period of time in which Race Driver: Grid was in the household of everyone with even a passing interest in race cars on the Xbox 360, and those are the kinds of games Codemasters specialize in maintaining. Their company did not aspire to build a game that three hundred people will play sporadically, and as a result they clearly have moved on from DiRT 4.

The series’ official subreddit features discussion almost exclusively centering around DiRT Rally, which has been out on store shelves for over two and a half years. A rogue post has noticed that community updates straight from Codemasters ceased in early August, and we’re now getting into the thick of October without any word regarding the future of DiRT 4. The game’s lone piece of downloadable content – something it desperately needs in abundance considering no one series within the package can boast a robust array of content – is instead just a pre-order bonus car that was eventually made available for everybody to purchase.

While I’m normally not one to advocate for downloadable content – I’m a loser who bitches and moans about the lack of PlayStation 2-era “feature complete” – DiRT 4 features just five rally locations and three short course off-road tracks; Codemasters would be forgiven if more appeared as additional purchases. This has not been openly discussed nor hinted at. By comparison, DiRT 3 featured such a plethora of downloadable content post-release, it ended up justifying a re-release of the entire game with this content on the disc by default, and dollar-for-dollar it’s still one of the best racing games money can buy.

Patches to fix nagging in-game problems have also been for the most part absent. There are still bugs with how the game calculates your prize winnings; you can finish an entire championship in career mode without ever leaving the track, only for a sponsor to pull a random vehicle reset number out of their ass and claim you’ve failed their bonus objective. Mechanical wear and tear, even in longer events, is for the most part non-existent; you can get away with a skeleton crew running your operation as you approach the final championships in all four of the game’s career arcs. Call it a reward for clean driving and keeping your nose out of trouble, but it’s possible to complete entire rallies without once making use of your crew members to enact repairs on your vehicle; strange given DiRT Rally a few years prior forced you to really think about how you allocated your time in the service area.

There’s also the highly controversial topic of DiRT 4’s “hidden steering assist”, which fans noted at launch felt like a hand of God was constantly generating understeer and preventing the cars from getting too out of control for the average user. While I do agree something has been done behind the scenes in order to make DiRT 4 more approachable to a wider audience, in my own recent travels my buddy and I have discovered that the game’s toe values are actually inverted. By merely setting a rear-ward brake bias and using positive toe values in place of negative values (and vice versa), I was able to salvage and actually have a lot of fun with a couple of cars I’d once deemed to be broken. The problem here is that the average DiRT 4 owner will not once touch the garage menu during the complete duration of their time spent within the game, meaning for every person like myself who can experiment with solutions to unwanted handling characteristics, there will be ten more who promptly ask for a refund on Steam.

I am unsure why Codemasters were unable to sit down and push out a brief default setup update across all three platforms to free up the cars and generate handling characteristics more in line with that of a traditional rally game, as this would have gone a long way to preventing a lot of the backlash against from the community. Yet for what is an adjustment that would take a Codemasters employee anywhere between two and four hours to implement across all 45 cars or so in the game, this option was not explored. Instead they have perpetuated the trope of racing simulator developers bundling their cars with atrocious preset configurations that no sane person would ever hit the track with.

A buddy of mine recently acquired his first decent PC steering wheel, and DiRT 4 is what we’ve been slugging it out in over the past few days, which is partially what inspired me to write this piece. Upon playing through the title a second time, Codemasters actually did build a really good rally game in DiRT 4, or at least one that was good at launch. But instead of fleshing out the game world with free updates that added more events to career mode, pelting the userbase with a stream of downloadable content to enhance the vehicle classes and racing disciplines already in the package, or just tidying up loose ends after their loyal community went out of their way to report any problems that came up, the DiRT 4 you played in July of this year is virtually unchanged four or five months later. I’ve not seen a company drop a game this hard in years; even the shitty Eutechnyx NASCAR games had some sort of comprehensive post-release plan that kept you at least partially engaged in the title’s evolution.

That isn’t to say DiRT 4 is inherently a bad game. For a discounted price, you can generally buy it and have a lot of fun with it, especially compared to Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo and WRC 7, both of which have been plagued by technical issues and the general sloppiness you’d expect from inferior teams. It just seems like structurally, Codemasters built a very good core experience to later expand upon, but then for whatever reason didn’t enact any sort of post-release support and immediately shifted their focus to Formula One. That’s great for Formula One fans, as F1 2017 is objectively one of the greatest racing simulators ever released, but this simultaneously means a whole bunch of rally fans have been stiffed for merely being interested in the wrong kind of racing game.

I would love to be proven wrong, and wake up to news of a DiRT 4: Rally Hysteria expansion or some shit, but there have been zero indicators any sort of thing will happen. Codemasters have recruited a lot of talent from the now defunct Evolution Studios – makers of DriveClub if you’re a bit out of the loop – but these guys were said to have begun work on a new intellectual property, something that DiRT most certainly isn’t. I clicked the “New Post” button on WordPress at around 8:30 PM local time, and saw Steamcharts tell me that just over one hundred people were playing DiRT 4 on PC. This is a dead game in every sense of the phrase, and it’s something Codemasters could have easily prevented, but for whatever reason, didn’t bother to.