Sequel to The Crew Announced, But Does Anyone Care?

It started out as an ambitious project to re-capture the hidden magic of Test Drive Unlimited, but the end result was a run-of-the-mill open world racer with no compelling elements, and we’ve now learned through a message board post of all things that this sub-par package has somehow warranted a sequel. Though nobody will place a gun to your head and force you to buy The Crew 2 when it inevitably lands on store shelves for both major console gaming platforms and UbiSoft’s own uPlay service, it’s mere existence is the prime example of developers who refuse to see video games as interactive pieces of art, instead building an uninspiring experience designed solely to tick boxes of key features and distract customers from their own mundane personal lives for a few hours during the course of every evening.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I am obviously not too thrilled about The Crew 2’s existence, but it has nothing to do with blind hate for a product I don’t entirely understand; I feel UbiSoft and Ivory Tower simply aren’t capable of making The Crew as an idea for a video game, into something you’ll be racing home after work to play for hours on end. I’d prefer for them not to waste everyone’s time with a second go.

Open-world driving games, when done right, can be fantastic. Need for Speed: Underground 2 and Rockstar’s Midnight Club Series blew the doors wide open on the sub-genre with stellar releases that allowed you to explore large environments at your own free will, with other developers scurrying around to try and attain some slice of the proverbial pie thanks to just how well gamers had responded to these all-around great offerings.

But there was a science behind the reason Midnight Club and Need for Speed had succeeded in a market dominated by Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, and Mario Kart; the driving model was something that could be understood and practiced to perfection by dedicated players, the customization – even now – was unprecedented, the environments were memorable despite their comparatively smaller size due to technological limitations, and the background narrative was just that – a loose story that sort of tied it all together, but wasn’t something the player even needed to pay attention to. That is your formula for a successful open world driving game, and it’s why the offshoot Forza Horizon was able to come out swinging in 2012 and immediately establish itself as one of the greats; Turn 10 paid close attention to the groundwork laid by Need for Speed and Midnight Club, while putting their own spin on it.

Ivory Tower failed to do any of this with The Crew, essentially embarking on one poor design choice after another that indicated the team hadn’t even bothered to understand why people might be drawn open world driving games in the first place. The driving model was often described as floaty and vague by wheel and pad users alike, meaning the core gameplay was something users “put up with” as opposed to learning and mastering, and that’s kind of important when your video game is all about cross-country marathons behind the wheel. Customization and progression had been intertwined with incessantly grinding for experience points – something that driving game enthusiasts have never taken kindly to in the history of the genre – while the giant map made it impossible for the team to ensure every square mile served a purpose; long, empty highways connected select areas of interest. And though there was at least some attempt at a generic Fast & Furious rip-off narrative, the story was just so over-the-top , intrusive, and forced that it worked against the game itself; you wanted it to go away so you could focus on other areas in The Crew, and UbiSoft kept throwing it at you.

It’s just a package that indicated UbiSoft needed a token open world driving game on their roster of products and just sort of shit something out. What’s even more surprising, is that UbiSoft Reflections were once behind the stellar Driver series of the late 1990’s, as well as the phenomenal Stuntman for the PlayStation 2; both entities known quite well for their stellar vehicle physics, so a regression between then and now is quite strange.

It didn’t help that the PlayStation 4 version of The Crew failed to support Logitech’s G29 racing wheel, considering racing games are universally much better experiences when under the command of a traditional car control input method and third party wheels are skyrocketing in popularity. The bugs and shoddy servers also threw a curveball into the mix; for a game that boasted tons of seamless online integration, UbiSoft struggled to ensure a smooth experience for gamers – something that should have been priority numero uno for a game of this scope.

But in my opinion, the most prominent display of UbiSoft’s lack of dedication to ensuring The Crew would be a successful venture, was in their stunning lack of creativity. The game’s first expansion pack,Wild Run, straight up copied the theme of Forza Horizon with a fictional automotive festival taking place in the middle of a vast rural area, while the second, Calling All Units, lifted police pursuit weapons from the 2010 reboot of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.

Furthermore, The Crew continues to make use of UbiSoft’s obsessive tendency to place objective towers within the game world as a means of unlocking new tasks or events. This sort of makes sense within the context of a third person adventure game such Assassins Creed, but the fact that it has been shamelessly copy & pasted into a racing game of all things when it clearly does not pertain to the subject matter in the slightest is pure laziness.

All of these little details add up to a racing game that was designed by a team that not only fail to understand what makes an open world racer fun, they are unable to polish the product so key elements work as they should, and shamelessly rip ideas from other teams and shoe-horn in repetitive elements from in-house franchises, regardless of how well those gameplay design choices will benefit the end user experience.

So with The Crew 2  confirmed, it’s hard to be even the least bit excited at what the sequel might bring to the table. UbiSoft were simply not interested in creating a good driving game with the first iteration in the franchise, clearly neglecting to research what constitutes as an enjoyable open world racing game in favor of shitting out a hodgepodge of ideas and design choices that actively worked against each other. This is not the result of impending deadlines and rushed segments of development, but a team actively making poor choice after poor choice when it comes to the creative vision of the game, and it’s a problem that can’t be rectified overnight. Unless there is a drastic re-construction of The Crew’s fundamental makeup, you can write off The Crew 2 before we even see it in action.

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When Development Goes Awry: The Seven Biggest Mistakes Made by Racing Game Developers

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.

Burnout Revenge introduces “Traffic Checking”

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.

FFB Calibration.jpgSlightly 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.

Assetto Corsa fails to include Custom Lobbies on Consoles

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.

rFactor 2 Requires a Season Pass for Online Play

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.

Codemasters remove Cockpit View from Grid 2

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.

Need for Speed partners with Michael Bay

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.

Total Team Control marks the end of EA’s NASCAR perfection

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.

Brick Rigs Impresses with Fine Details, Yet Still Needs Captivating Environments

Last fall, we here at PRC introduced you to an obscure indie title by the name of Brick Rigs by showering it with absurd levels of praise and dubbing it our Game of the Year for 2016, a label we’re still not completely willing to admit was a farce. Combining the open-ended sandbox gameplay experience of BeamNG or Rigs of Rods with an incredibly powerful and robust vehicle creation tool that was essentially Lego without the licensing, Brick Rigs was one of those games we all ended up buying as a bit of joke, only to sink exponentially more hours into the title than any of us could have possibly imagined. Though the premise of the game is centered around a popular children’s toy, and it will undoubtedly lead to several of our readers dishing out an abundance of creative insults towards us, Brick Rigs is certainly not a kid’s game by any means once you dive into the application – dull menus give way to an empty garage far too complex for anybody within Lego’s intended age group to master, and the underlying driving physics powering the whole thing punish you for building cars that aren’t structurally sound.

It’s basically an ingenious way for sim racers to unleash their inner Adrian Newey with an infinite bucket of the world-famous plastic building blocks, without the headache of ordering expensive sets online or digging around endlessly for that one piece, though you’ll have to get over the whole “I’m a grown man playing with Lego” thing first.

Since we last covered the game in the closing stages of 2016, Brick Rigs has received a steady stream of updates – which is pretty impressive when you consider it’s just one guy fronting the whole project, and at any given time Lego could step in and take legal action that quite frankly is long overdue. However, these routine updates to the game have been a bit of a double-edged sword; like Assetto Corsa, there’s been lots of work done under the hood to Brick Rigs, and a lot of steps taken to accommodate content creators – those who pepper the Steam Workshop with their custom cars – but in terms of the gameplay, Brick Rigs still remains largely the same as it was five months ago. So from someone who has invested 45 hours into the title, our custom Lego cars are the most detailed they’ve ever been, but driving them has become a bit of a bore.

When it comes to constructing either a custom monstrosity or something inspired by a real world design, players can now set gear ratios for their engine, determine suspension stiffness, or even add text-specific blocks – handy for recreating famous race cars, such as the Bentley Speed 8 I’ve taken a screenshot of above. The list of block materials have been both expanded and fleshed out to turn car building into a bit of a science, allowing players to lighten the car by using carbon fiber blocks for the chassis, or re-create the pigfat handling characteristics of a classic American saloon car by decking key body parts such as bumpers or wheels in chrome. More engines, wheels, wings, and other vehicle-specific bricks requested by the community have been added with each passing build, meaning the stuff appearing on the Steam Workshop from some of the prominent builders is nothing short of astounding. The game started out with pretty primitive designs, but now it’s not uncommon to sign on and discover a full fleet of supercars or historic race cars faithfully recreated by someone with far too much time on their hands.

Tire model updates have made playing this game with a DualShock 4 go from merely serviceable to fairly enjoyable over the course of just a few months, but the most recent physics implementation has turned a lot of heads and thrown some of the more elaborate creators a real curveball. We’ve all speculated that Brick Rigs had some kind of simplistic aerodynamic model built into the game – as certain cars had a tendency to blow over like a Le Mans prototype on the desert map when catching air – but the April 27th build has implemented a brand new aerodynamic simulation, complete with an optional visualization element that can be toggled on and off. Simply put, Brick Rigs now has a fully dynamic aero model on-par with that of X-Plane, which passes air over the cars and generates drag, downforce, and determines an aero center based on the external surfaces of your creation, all in real time. I don’t know what timeline we’re in anymore, but this is both awesome and ridiculously hilarious. Not only does Brick Rigs handle fairly well for a sandbox driving game, and the physics engine requires you to construct vehicles that are fundamentally sound from a mechanical design standpoint, the cars also have to be created with live airflow in mind.

In terms of vehicle design, the new aero model has blown the door wide open when it comes to creating something that’s competitive in a race-like format, as the aero model is pretty unforgiving at high speeds. Most of my time spent in Brick Rigs is dedicated to creating purpose built drag racing cars, and it’s insane to see how this has fundamentally changed the way you approach straight line events in Brick Rigs. You can’t just load up a chassis with as many thrusters that will fit as if you’re playing Garry’s Mod, nor can you rely on a minimum weight skeleton car; airflow will fuck your shit up six ways to Sunday, and the designs I found to work the best were basically real cars that I tried to copy as best I could with Lego blocks.

Early creations with the new build would routinely blow over as they eclipsed the 150 mph mark, and I found myself experimenting with wing contraptions and basic aero concepts – slamming the car and sealing off the nose to the ground – just to get the car to stay on all fours. Because the aero model appears to take into account the actual design of your car, bouncing off even the tiniest of exposed angles, you could easily spend several nights just testing different aero kits and configurations to re-direct air as efficiently as possible.

The problem is, all of this depth is kind of nullified once you exit the garage area and put your creations to the test. While I’m extremely lucky to be a fan of drag racing, and Brick Rigs includes a functioning tree with quarter mile elapsed time and speed readouts prominently displayed after each valid run (which is pretty much all you need for a drag racing simulator), other areas of the game are more or less non-existent. The three maps available when the game first launched are still the only three maps users can select from, with no word on whether custom map functionality will be supported.

Provided these maps were full of things to do, this wouldn’t be an issue, but where Brick Rigs stumbles is in providing three extremely lifeless maps to explore. The exterior circuit on the race track map is barely wide enough for a single car, meaning multiplayer racing against your friends – each in their own custom creation – is virtually impossible, while the majority of the desert map is taken up by mountainous regions no vehicle can traverse. The city environment allows content creators to take pretty screenshots, and each building can be destroyed by weaponry you equip to your vehicles, but as an environment there’s really nothing to see or do.

You can build race cars, but the only track you can race them on, isn’t much of a race track. You can build off-road trucks, but there’s not much off-roading to be done aside from one dirt strand in the desert map that takes all of about thirty seconds to explore for the first time. There’s a city to mess around in, but it’s a simple 6×6 grid of generic houses surrounded by an empty patch of grass. Aside from the drag strip, which at least offers a start light and basic timing functionality, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Brick Rigs once your vehicle has been built, regardless of whether you’re playing alone or in multiplayer.

Which is a shame, because the core portion of the game – the construction – is practically flawless, offering a powerful building block tool with intricate car setup adjustments that you now have to pay close attention to thanks to the shockingly detailed physics model. There’s no generic rallycross track to push the off-road cars to the limit. There’s no scenic mountain road a la Assetto Corsa’s Lake Louise to fuck around with the generic traffic cars and sports cars. There’s no Indianapolis or Daytona-like oval for players to try and construct a lightning-fast open wheel car to conquer, nor is there a proper road course that actually provides a decent arena for online racing.

And there’s also no wheel support. In a game which centers around not just building Lego cars, but driving them, and even has a complex aero model punishing you for putting a wing in the wrong place, wheel support is pretty much a must-have at this point. I’m not knocking the game’s physics, because to be honest I’ve gotten some of the cars pretty sideways on the desert map with my DualShock 4, but with the insane shit appearing on the Steam Workshop, we’re at the point where we really need the precision a wheel offers. Sure, the Volvo 240’s guys are putting up are certainly manageable with a pad, but we’re at the point where high-detailed modern Le Mans prototypes and Formula One cars are starting to pop up thanks to recent additions to the vanilla content, and I’d certainly like to drive them to the breaking point in a dedicated environment.

Provided the guy behind Brick Rigs can give us a bit more to do on the environment side of things, I think a lot of people here at PRC will go from ripping on us for showering this indie not-Lego game with praise as a joke of sorts, to understanding the sheer potential this game has as an alternative simulation platform. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves here, it’s a fucking Lego game, but the sheer level of detail packed into the building aspect, as well as the driving model, make this anything but child’s play. If we can get a few more maps thrown into the mix that are infinitely better designed than the current offerings, and possibly receive wheel support down the line, Brick Rigs has the potential to be the ultimate time waster for sim racers searching for a diversion between iRacing sessions – which isn’t that bad of an aspiration considering how small this project really is.

Great Driving Games That Were Commercial Duds

You hear it all the time within the sim racing community: sims don’t sell. Titles such as Richard Burns Rally or BAJA: Edge of Control, while absolutely phenomenal games in their own right which were praised endlessly by the niche following they’ve acquired over the years since release, in some cases were the last title developed before the company whom brought their vision to live  went six feet under. Too obscure and challenging for a mass-market audience, for every simulator that has stood the test of time, pirated by private league after private league, another marks the end of the company, or a drastic change in direction – just ask Bethesda Softworks, who before their record-breaking Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises, were just another indie developer focused on creating a line of hardcore drag racing simulators centered around a feeder series to the NHRA. Clearly, that didn’t work out.

Unlike other genres, which rely on creative, odd-ball, and sometimes extremely hardcore-oriented ideas to differentiate themselves from their competitors, racing games are simply competing for too small of a market share for a developer to take chances on an idea or concept that won’t sell, and those who do, often end up paying the price. But to the surprise of many, it’s more than just simulators that can turn into commercial duds due to an insanely steep learning curve; ideas that merely stray from current market trends and traditional premises can also fall off the map just as quickly as they landed on store shelves.

Today’s PRC article will not feature a collection of hardcore simulators from forgotten companies that once took aim at satisfying a handful of drag racing, rally, or motorcycle racing nerds, but mass-market titles that while considered to be genuinely fantastic games by all who owned them, were complete duds in the market. And though it’s not the most complete and in-depth analysis of sales figures, data providing the underlying premise for this article has been collected from vgChartz.com.

Grid Autosport (170,000 units sold on PS3)
Race Driver: Grid (1.1 million units sold on PS3)

The original Race Driver: Grid, first released in 2007, was seen as fantastic first step from Codemasters into the tarmac racing scene, re-inventing the Pro Race Driver series for a new generation of gamers by significantly dumbing down the driving experience while fleshing out the world with a living, breathing ecosystem. Allowing users to create their own branding, hire AI opponents as teammates, and progress through the ranks in a very elaborate offline career that treated the auto racing world as an evolving, dynamic entity, most looked past the admittedly simplistic driving model to experience what was a very compelling campaign mode. Yet when talk of a sequel began a few years later, a sequel never surfaced – Codemasters instead took to furthering the Colin McRae franchise (now under the name of DiRT), while also landing the official Formula One license. We would later learn Grid 2 was stuck in development hell, arriving in the spring of 2013 as a half-baked sequel no amount of marketing or licensed series tie-in’s could hide. The game was a disaster.

Codemasters took heed to the complaints of many, and in less than a year, re-built what should have been released in place of the tragedy that was Grid 2, calling their 2014 package Grid Autosport.

Bundling a surprisingly large number of tracks and locations with the largest, most diverse roster of vehicles seen across the previous two Grid games, as well as the three ToCA Race Driver release for the PlayStation 2, Autosport was a much more focused, coherent game than the one which relied on half-assed ESPN cutscenes to fuel the campaign mode a year earlier. Though the team management elements still didn’t exist in Autosport’s offline campaign – replaced with a generic driver for hire concept where you could focus entirely on one type of racing if you wanted to – online functionality had been designed to implement the team management elements into the core progression system, meaning as you’d race your friends and random shitheads in public lobbies, you’d sign sponsors, buy & repair cars, and move up into faster classes and machinery based on the amount you’d earn from each race. The core experience was also tied together with a much more realistic driving model, which while still sitting firmly in the simcade spectrum, drove reasonably close to what a race car felt like compared to the other Grid releases, rewarding drivers who drove properly as opposed to executing enormous drifts, and even introduced elements such as tire wear into endurance races.

For a franchise that had established itself as an “action driving” package on real world race tracks, Autosport succeeded in striking a happy medium that catered to both crowds equally. Unfortunately, both the sales numbers and online activity for the title are embarassing, with Codemasters announcing financial troubles shortly thereafter, and their tarmac racing projects not involving Formula One permanently shelved. However, the title is still recommended by pretty much anyone on Reddit’s sim racing message board when asked about lighthearted simcade games. Autosport was great, it was just too little, too late.

4×4 Evolution 2 (240,000 Units Sold on Xbox)
Monster Truck Madness 64 (300,000 Units sold on N64)

The late 1990’s and early 2000’s were a period in the history of video games where developers tried all sorts of shit just to see if it would work. Coming off the success of the Monster Truck Madness series, which saw a team by the name of Terminal Reality pair up with the Monster Truck Racing Association and the Penda Points Series to produce a pair of officially licensed Monster Truck titles under Microsoft’s Madness umbrella, TRI then set their sights on becoming the Gran Turismo of the off-road world. Acquiring licenses from all major auto makers and crafting an excellent career mode that allowed users to upgrade their vehicles and progress through championships with increasingly larger cash prizes – not to mention out-of-the-box support for modding & third party content – 4×4 Evolution was basically Gran Turismo for the PC, with trucks, sport utility vehicles, and massive jumps instead of Nissan Skylines.

The problem wasn’t that 4×4 Evolution wasn’t a good game, it was that nobody really wanted it. Originally calling on the help of the Monster Truck Madness 2 fan site vales.com to test the game – spearheaded by the site’s namesake KC Vale – most members were uninterested in an off-road Gran Turismo and wanted another monster truck game, as Monster Truck racing’s popularity was beginning to skyrocket in North America thanks to Clear Channel Entertainment and Monster Jam refining their events into a spectacle of destruction you could watch every weekend on cable TV. Many beta testers and long-time community members were simply not excited at the subject matter changing.

Regardless of the viewpoints held by the hardcore supporters of TRI’s previous work, 4×4 Evolution, and its sequel 4×4 Evo 2, were shipped across a multitude of platforms – the results of which varied drastically. Console ports were regarded as shoddy by mainstream video game sites, the game clearly designed for the PC first and foremost, while customers weren’t flocking to the PC version because it didn’t have the stellar add-on community surrounding it like Monster Truck Madness 2 did, and the quirkiness that came with launching Bigfoot or Grave Digger into cows or volcanoes wasn’t replicated in 4×4 Evolution. To make matters worse, the game’s sequel did not include Ford as a manufacturer, which made 4×4 Evo 2 a hard sell to fans who wanted a well-rounded roster of cars to select from; the leading pickup truck in North America, the game’s primary market, was suspiciously absent.

It also didn’t help that Microsoft was no longer publishing their work, meaning TRI would not have the luxury of an advert of their game being placed on every single Windows operating system promotional disc. As a result, even the Nintendo 64 version of Monster Truck Madness, developed by a rogue team known as Rockstar games, managed to outsell 4×4 Evolution 2 – and significantly less people overall owned home consoles back then.

The thing is, 4×4 Evolution, as well as the sequel, were both significantly better than Monster Truck Madness; sporting better graphics, better track design, a lengthy career mode, and the ability to upgrade your vehicles, on paper 4×4 Evolution was in retrospect a very good game. It just wasn’t what people wanted at the time, and would be the last racing game TRI would ever make.

Blur (590,000 units Sold on Xbox 360)
Project Gotham Racing 4 (2.1 Million Units Sold on Xbox 360)

The beta for Bizarre Creations’ Blur was a beautiful thing. Originally handing out codes on Kotaku and other gaming sites to drum up interest in the title before opening it up to everybody with an Xbox Live Gold membership, I can vividly recall jumping on the pile of codes for both myself and some of my buddies the moment they were posted before dedicating several nights to endless loops around the same two or three tracks, with the same handful of cars. I’ve never seen a racing game this goddamn popular during what was for a period of time a closed beta.

Mixing the basic weaponized auto racing gameplay of Mario Kart with licensed cars, tight controls, and gorgeous visuals, Blur was set to take the genre by storm. We would sign on after school to full lobbies of absolute chaos, and pretty much everybody in the room agreed this was going to be big. The driving portion was easy enough for the casuals to get into yet intricate enough for dedicated racing game fans to pull ahead of the pack with, the progression element stole several pages from the Call of Duty franchise with experience points, levels, and unlocks, while the weapons seemed just as natural as the items we’ve all come to know and love from the Mario Kart franchise.

Yet when Blur finally landed on store shelves, the sales figures did not match the euphoric beta period. Nobody bought it. The National Purchase Diary claim just 31,000 units were sold in the first five days of the game’s appearance on store shelves in the United States, and though that particular data may be cherry-picked – the game released near the end of the month – Activision shut down Bizarre Creations not long after.

Was it because titles with similar premises, ModNation Racers and Split Second, had been released within the same month? Possibly. Was it because the Call of Duty craze was at an all-time high, and just one more Gamebattles match in Modern Warfare 2 got in the way of people experimenting with other genres? Sure, that may play a role.

But in my opinion, I think the answer boils down to the opening paragraph: the beta of Blur gave away too much of the final game. Once the exclusivity had been taken off, gamers flocked to the servers and played the absolute shit out of it as if it were a full retail game, with the beta lasting far longer than a simple long weekend of Friday/Saturday/Sunday. We’re talking a solid two weeks of people ripping around the same three tracks with the same five cars. By the time the full retail product was on store shelves, people really didn’t care; they had already seen everything the game had to offer, because to Bizarre’s credit, the beta had a lot of shit to see and unlock for what was a free, limited-time sample of a game.

Burnout (1.17 Million Units Sold across three platforms)
Burnout 3: Takedown (3.99 Million Units Sold across two platforms)

How do you start a war on PRC, or any driving game community for that manner? You imply that the very first game in a beloved franchise most of us have played to full completion, was somehow a flop. That’s what I’m looking to establish here with Acclaim’s Burnout, as the series that would eventually get picked up by Electronic Arts had what was a very rocky start on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube. Like the other three titles mentioned in this article, Burnout wasn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but a lot of people didn’t buy it.

Operating on a shoe-string budget that would inevitably sink the original publisher of the franchise a few years later, Burnout was backed by virtually zero promotional material and was far too difficult for the average gamer in 2001 or 2002 to become proficient at. Acclaim also weren’t entirely sure how to market the game, as though Burnout featured these highly detailed crash effects, the point of the game wasn’t to crash, a bit of a design oxymoron if you will. The race timer had been set so low, just getting from checkpoint to checkpoint was a challenge most gamers couldn’t complete, while the art style was far too generic and bland for the eyes, leading to major gaming outlets giving Burnout lukewarm scores at best, and thus scaring off potential customers even further.

But those who did get their hands on a copy realized there was much more to the game than reviewers and the lack of marketing indicated; Burnout was a punishing arcade racer whose visceral thrills were only limited by the technology. The challenging gameplay mechanics that required you to be perfect, coupled with ruthless stages in the final third of the game that linked several environments together for stupidly long lap times, combined to form a sort of hardcore-oriented version of Sega’s arcade classic Outrun. It also looked cool when you crashed.

According to vgChartz, neither the original Burnout, nor Burnout 2: Point of Impact, sold all that well, and publisher Acclaim would struggle with financial problems almost immediately after the release of Burnout 2 – problems they attributed to poor game sales – that would see the company officially file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in September of 2004. You could stretch the story into saying Burnout sold so poorly it helped tank the publisher for good, but in reality Acclaim had made many hilarious errors up to that point regarding other franchises, such as their insistence on pushing out low quality officially licensed NFL and MLB games during a period of time when EA Sports dominated the market.

A solid creative vision on the part of Criterion Games would allow the company to pair with Electronic Arts in the future, and create some of the greatest arcade racers of all time.

What Made Underground 2 So Special

There’s something about putting on that horrid remix of Riders on the Storm featuring west coast hip hop legend Snoop Dogg that can make an entire workplace stop in their tracks. Released in the fall of 2004 to capitalize on the sudden popularity of a brand new movie franchise (that has since become synonymous with tuner culture), Need for Speed Underground 2 was an arcade racer so close to perfection, even people who didn’t care for street racing or cars in general still sometimes cite it as one of their favorite video games of all time.

Selling an absurd amount of copies even by today’s standards, and receiving unanimously positive critical reception – in some cases better than the movies which inspired the software – Underground 2 is an unforgettable product from the glory days of Electronic Arts. While many gamers nowadays see Electronic Arts as an evil empire which swallows independent companies whole, spitting out horrid, bastardized remakes of once-classic franchises in the process, Underground 2 is the ultimate proof that Electronic Arts at least deserved every last sale which allowed it to turn into the cold, corporate entity it is today.

However, despite Need for Speed: Underground 2 laying out the perfect blueprint for rival developers to improve upon when creating a rival street racing title, in the years following the 2004 smash hit, companies were only able to push out cheap imitators that never quite captured the magic of the game that brought the cheesy import tuner culture into the spotlight. Officially licensed Fast & Furious titles were seen as little more than elaborate pieces of shovelware, while Acclaim’s Juiced was deemed too bland for the type of illegal racing it chose to depict. Rockstar’s own Midnight Club series made a valiant attempt at stealing some of Underground 2’s thunder, but a giant leap in difficulty and superhuman vehicle physics made it a tough sell for those unable to grasp the bizarre driving style needed. Oddly enough, even Electronic Arts themselves struggled with re-capturing the magic of Underground 2, as despite their subsequent success in 2005 with Need for Speed: Most Wanted, the quality of their yearly releases took a nosedive soon after. Need for Speed Carbon was seen as a generic rehash, Need for Speed Undercover was considered a bad joke, and the 2015 reboot, which was supposedly heavily inspired by the Underground games, was almost universally panned by critics and fans alike.

So what exactly was the blueprint that Electronic Arts had perfected with Need for Speed Underground 2, and better yet, how does a developer tasked with creating a street racing title in 2017 and beyond retain this winning formula?

Let’s go on a journey.

The Music

Including the PSP exclusive tracks that appeared in Underground Rivals, which was released roughly alongside Underground 2, the game featured thirty two distinct tracks from a variety of up and coming artists. While most will assume the list of songs is a completely random assortment of artists Electronic Arts had signed under the EA Trax banner (which is partially correct), there was actually a formula the Underground 2 team employed when selecting music for their game.

The track list had been split into three distinct themes; racing, cruising, and navigating through menus. By default, and this is something you can see in the menu upon booting up a new save file in Need for Speed: Underground 2, each of the thirty two songs had been assigned a distinct area of the game, only to be thrown into the rotation during that specific portion of gameplay. Hard hitting, fast pace punk rock and heavy metal pieces such as Helmet’s Crashing Foreign Cars would only appear while the player was partaking in straight up race events, while atmospheric electronic instrumentals like the remix of Paul Van Dyk’s Nothing But You and Chingy’s I Do would pop up during periods of lighthearted free roaming or scrolling through customization menus.

What this did was establish a very distinct subliminal atmosphere in Underground 2; rather than the game outright telling you that races against the AI were heated affairs and downtime in career mode was to be relaxing and easygoing, Electronic Arts scripted the track list to kind of manipulate your senses and get you into that state of mind. Of course, you can always go through the options menu and change it for yourself to hear everything at once, but most people didn’t do that, and it worked.

What also worked, is how the track list had been crammed full of artists that the general public wasn’t all that aware of, and this allowed the songs to become synonymous with the game. Save for Queens of the Stone Age and Rise Against, who at the time were brand new bands that had each put out a very good album a year or two earlier, people went into Underground 2 willing to give the entire soundtrack a listen, instead of mashing the skip button until their favorite band appeared. As a result, there are people who will hear Killradio’s Scavenger and instantly associate it with Need for Speed: Underground 2, the same way people see Topher Grace and immediately associate him with That 70’s Show.

When it comes to picking out a soundtrack for their next arcade racer, developers need to focus on more than just signing popular bands or getting one or two hit songs on the track list; they need to understand how music messes with people’s emotions, and in some cases can become forever linked to the software.

The Customization

As much as the import tuner scene gets ragged on in real life for being a bunch of dweebs in their early twenties bolting cheap pieces of plastic onto their Honda’s and Subaru’s, Need for Speed Underground 2 essentially gave you an entire fantasy parts catalog to run wild with; options so diverse, websites such as NFSCars.net were able to hold a string of customization contests just with the vanilla in-game content alone. A dizzying array of body kits, spoilers, roof scoops, rims, and hoods were just the tip of the iceberg, as the customization element extended deep into nitro purges, tinted windows, mirrors, doors, pulsating neon effects, and even completely useless shit that served no purpose during gameplay, such as hydraulics, custom HUD gauges, and in-car audio systems. While rival street racing games such as ValuSoft’s Street Legal Racing Redline require you to download an abundance of mods to push the customization element to the fullest extent, Underground 2 had almost too much shit to mess around with by default.

And that’s before we get into the simplistic yet somewhat powerful livery and decal tool. While you can’t manually place individual stickers as is now commonplace in games with built-in comprehensive livery editors like Forza Motorsport 6, Underground 2 offered an enormous amount of base layers, graphics, sponsor stickers, and custom artwork to make up for the inability to draw dicks and swastikas on your Mustang. Bases, layers, and accents could be combined to generate a unique livery that looked somewhat reasonable for the subject matter at hand, and though pretty much every creation looked tacky as hell in hindsight, the key thing was that your own vehicle never resembled anything else you saw on the internet, because the possibilities were as close to limitless as the options allowed.

Now in subsequent games, every developer, including Electronic Arts themselves, bundled some sort of car customization element into their product to try and improve upon what was offered in Underground 2, but where they failed is in the sheer number of parts. Underground 2 didn’t have ten spoilers to select from (where only three of them would look reasonable), it had close to forty. The front bumpers all ranged from modest splitter extensions to radical re-designs, so those who wanted to keep the rice factor light were able to do so, while teenagers looking to create an embarrassing monstrosity were free to run wild. Individual bumpers, headlights, and roof scoops could be mixed, matched, and omitted entirely, again ensuring that your creation was something you weren’t going to see anywhere else aside from your own television. Both Need for Speed Most Wanted and Rockstar’s Midnight Club series attempted to retain this level of personality, but fell flat when it was discovered you just couldn’t do a lot in comparison to Underground 2.

The massive selection of aftermarket visual upgrades also played an integral role in the progression of the game; as you made your way through the lengthy campaign mode, you were always finding new shit to bolt to your car, and that made playing through story mode genuinely entertaining, even when the grid of plowing through event after event started to drag on. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, a new tier of body kits, spoilers, hydraulics, or mufflers would be unlocked, allowing you to drastically re-design your car several times over and watch it evolve from a simple Honda with entry-level aftermarket body panels, to something that resembled a Super GT competitor, and everything in-between. Part of the enjoyment of playing through Underground 2 was being rewarded with all kinds of crazy shit every step of the way, whereas other street racing titles handed you a tricky livery editor and some shitty looking rims as seen above.

Developers looking at creating a current generation street racing title need to realize that five wings and a few preset bodykits aren’t going to woo the masses; Underground 2 succeeded in this area because there was so much crap jammed into the customization menu, and it was such a simplistic process to apply, you could regularly hold online car shows that didn’t rely on elaborate third party custom liveries designed in photoshop.

The Variety

Like all racing games that made use of an open world environment, Need for Speed Underground 2 took the classic approach of closing off corridors for circuit races and point to point marathons, but then proceeded to blow the doors wide open with a selection of more unconventional race types. Drift events in the mountains, drag events across bridges and abandoned airport runways, autocross-like events held inside drift facilities, and even select invitational tournaments on purpose built race tracks that whisked you away from the city altogether all contributed to a very diverse racing game with a lot of genuinely unique disciplines held under the same night sky. In keeping so much content under one roof, it meant that people had a reason to keep coming back to the game to try something new. Underground 2 wasn’t just a goofy free roam, ricer culture simulator that challenged you to build something wacky with the extensive car customization options; suddenly it was a drifter’s paradise, a circuit racer, a canyon battle platform, and a lighthearted drag racing game, all in one.

Oh, and you could take all of this stuff online against your friends, as well.

In custom lobbies, no less.

There were no black sheep modes inserted into the experience that were clearly an afterthought or not as fleshed out as another portion of the racing; every style of race in Underground 2 served a purpose, and offered something totally different than the last. This ended up making for a game where repetition isn’t something that drags the title down – you’re always being introduced to new race types, and more challenging variants on disciplines you’d thought you’ve already mastered. First, you’re drifting on a closed course. Then, you’re racing SUV’s on the same drift track. Then, you’re taken away to drift in the mountains. As a feature-complete package, it just kept throwing new shit at you and saying “here, try this.”

This diversity is aided by the excellent Bayview map, which serves as the home of Underground 2. Split into five distinct areas, each portion of the map has a substantially different flair to its layout, and thus requires multiple driving styles to remain competitive. While the downtown area is the traditional generic ninety degree corner paradise, the industrial sector is loaded with blind corners & back alleys that can be used as risky shortcuts, whereas Beacon Hill boasts crazy elevation changes, and the most northern region is basically a drifting paradise that overlooks the city. It’s one of the few open world cities that really nails individuality and makes every virtual city block matter, compared to other open world racers where you blast through bland, meaningless areas of the game world which serve no purpose whatsoever. Codemasters’ Fuel comes to mind as being an example of this problem.

What the act of throwing so many different things into in Underground 2 does, is it essentially justifies the lengthy career mode and time spent unlocking everything, or merely upgrading the cars in your garage. Developers need to take note of this; Underground 2 was not a disposable game that was forgotten in a month, and is instead still actively enjoyed by many, because once you finally got to the end-of-game credits, players felt like they hadn’t yet exhausted every mode or race type available – that’s how much there was to do, and that’s what developers need to aim for in the future.

In fact, if there were to be a high definition re-release of Underground 2 for current generation consoles, it would not be surprising to see active communities or even private leagues start up for the game centering around specific race types in the game. People would be racing through the game’s Career mode just to create a purpose-built drift car, for the sole purpose of having a competitive ride in online lobbies. As a developer, that’s the kind of following you want, because these people will be most likely to purchase additional DLC packages and extra goodies on the day of release, thus extending the lifespan (and, of course, profits) of your title well after launch.

The Physics

Developers have a real problem with arcade racers as of late, inserting bogus handling models that basically drive the car for the player, thus taking any sort of talent, skill, or real-world knowledge out of the experience. Now, I’m not saying every single racing game on the market has to have a thermonuclear tire model understood only by a handful of NASA physicists who have passed the knowledge down from employee to employee over several generations of game consoles, but driving cars at speed is a lot more fun when the cars behave in ways that can be understood by the average person wanting to go a bit faster on the following lap, and tactics people use out on the track in a competitive setting can be defended and even countered.

Need for Speed Underground 2 was not realistic in the slightest, but the handling model made sense. Yes, you could lay on the nitro button and hit absolutely ridiculous speeds, launching off hills and undulations in the terrain with reckless abandon, but you also had to brake for corners, take proper racing lines, and generally put some thought into what you were doing behind the wheel. This is what made Underground 2 extremely enjoyable, especially for people with a dedicated racing wheel setup such as myself. For all of the Nissan’s and Hyundai’s flying around Bayview at astronomically high speeds that they couldn’t dream of achieving in real life, you still had to wheel the damn things. Underground 2 still drove somewhat like a car, a far cry from current arcade racers.

Unlike Need for Speed 2015, where the car snaps into a drift mode (and then tries to take control away from you by automatically counter-steering), Underground 2 had elements of a very simplistic vehicle simulator under the hood. Too hot of an entry, and the car lost front grip; too drastic of an angle, and the rear end broke loose. Weight transfer didn’t throw the car into the wall as it would in something like Assetto Corsa, but it was there, and posed a threat if you really weren’t paying attention over a crest. Yeah, the cars had a shitload of grip and were basically Super GT cars with every single modern electronic aid turned on if you equipped the full offering of Stage 3 parts, but that’s not the point – what is the point, is that they still drove like cars. There was no Press X to Slide functionality, no hand-of-god mechanic that kept the vehicle glued to the racing surface as we would see the following year in Most Wanted – it was simplistic as hell, but it was a car, and it made sense to drive.

And though it was a portion of the game a lot of the mainstream audience avoided, Underground 2 had a full garage menu and complimentary test track to develop custom setups for your car in any of the available race types. While the millions of teenagers around the world who undoubtedly received the game as a Christmas gift could easily complete the game with the default setup applied to their car, Electronic Arts gladly gave the hardcore crowd who would invest several weeks into the online aspect of the game a way to gain an edge against their opponents, by implementing rudimentary setup adjustments for the sim-oriented customers. This was an arcade game, in which Honda Civics could eclipse 240 miles per hour with off-the-shelf performance upgrades, and yet Electronic Arts went out of their way to cater to the hardcore crowd with a dedicated test track mode.

What this all resulted in, was a raw racing experience that was something to master over a period of days, weeks, or even months, as opposed to a game where you learned how to exploit a broken drift mechanic, or endlessly fought with a driving model that actively tried to take control away from you in favor of a cinematic experience that frequently sent you into a barrier. Underground 2 was fun to play because you could actually figure out how to drive the cars and become more proficient at the game based on the number of hours you put into it, as opposed to merely putting up with wonky handling until you inevitably lost interest.

Developers need to stop with the nonsensical “action” driving models and re-implement a set of physics that resemble rudimentary rubber-meets-road behavior, as the easier a player can comprehend what they’re doing wrong behind the wheel, the more likely they are to sit down and practice in an effort to improve, thus spending more time with the game and being in it for the long haul. Recent arcade racers haven’t allowed this learning process to take place at all because the driving portion is so nonsensical, which is why releases such as Need for Speed 2015 were shelved by some racers within an afternoon of play.

One of the greatest arcade racers of all time, Need for Speed: Underground 2 was not just a title that happened to capitalize on a cheesy movie franchise that rose to sudden popularity in the early 2000’s, but a meticulously crafted experience which was ingeniously designed to ensure people would have an especially difficult time putting down the game and moving on to something else. Since its release, several developers have attempted to capture what made Underground 2 so special with their own spin-offs on the subject matter – including Electronic Arts themselves – but failed to realize that the game relied on so many well thought out elements coming together to create one cohesive experience, their attempts failed miserably, time and time again.

The genre of street racing games can be done well, as evidenced by Underground 2, but developers haven’t figured out that part of creating a captivating street racing title comes in understanding what Underground 2 perfected in its design. It’s much more than bolting bizarre wings to shitty Nissan’s; there’s a very specific method to the madness.