As a hardcore racing game fan, it doesn’t get much better than taking back-to-back spins behind the virtual wheels of the three hottest new racers on three different platforms – two of which are next generation. But that’s what I did earlier today, and holy crap, was it fun. And quite surprising!
First up was Gran Turismo 6. Without wanting to harp on too much, Polyphony’s storied franchise seems to have been running a little lean recently. Its gameplay structure and clunky menu system have evolved little over the last 15 years, series innovations have been few and far between of late, and one gets the distinct feeling that more development time has been poured into finessing the fine details of the cars than has been invested in improving the overall game. The series needs a boost, and following some encouraging-sounding promises from Polyphony boss Kazunori Yamauchi at Gran Turismo 6’s unveiling at Silverstone a few weeks ago, I was really interested in seeing exactly what has been done to the game.
There’s unfortunately nothing much to report in that respect. As I should have expected, we were treated to a locked-down demo that felt like it had been pieced together from Arcade Mode. So I can’t really judge anything about the game outside of driving it. And even then, I was somewhat stymied again. The game was shown with a full arcade-sim setup, with a big plastic bathtub that represented the inside of a racing car, a giant screen, steering wheel and pedals. Yeah, it was cool for sure – the ultimate Gran Turismo setup – but unfortunately the experience was completely alien to me, and gave me no frame of reference. If I’d had a familiar controller, it would have been far easier to judge whether the new suspension and tire modeling really make a difference, but instead I just drove around and had fun. It looked and felt pretty much like Gran Turismo 5, but was clearly 6 because I was driving around Willow Springs.
I walked away a little disappointed, simply because I’m so interested in seeing the new stuff that’s being added to the game, and saw nothing. So for now, it’s just business as usual, and I’ll look forward to getting a proper hands-on demo with a more fleshed-out version of the game sometime late summer.
Walking over to the Microsoft booth, I was pleased to see Forza 5 being demoed with a familiar controller setup. Great! I could actually make immediate comparisons with Forza 4, which I’d played the night before I left for LA, along with Gran Turismo, specifically for that purpose. Like Gran Turismo, this was a limited demo, with four cars and one track. I chose the McLaren P1, which seemed appropriate given the fact that there was a real one not three yards away from me, parked resplendently behind some velvet ropes and guarded by a dude who really didn’t look like the sort of guy you’d want to mess with. The track on display was an unfamiliar one, and the demo didn’t tell me what it was. It looked like some kind of European town, with twisting roads that ran along the edge of a river, before heading right through the heart of its historic-feeling center.
The loading screens showed some supremely sharp pictures of my car, with exquisite, hyper-real details. And there were quite a few of them, because this demo seemed to take an age to load, even though it was probably only 30 or so seconds. Once in, I switched off the driving aids, went into cockpit view and roared away from the start line. The game felt immediately familiar, but with a super-smooth frame rate, and a handling engine that felt just a little richer and more finessed than the previous generation I’d played the the night before. And it looked beautiful! The landscape was filled with incredible details, from worn walls, realistic masonry on buildings, and highly convincing flora. The lighting effects were equally impressive – subtle, but adding additional layers of visual depth, which were further enhanced by neat ambient details.
Forza 5 definitely looks and feels next-gen, but isn’t a quantum leap ahead of its prior incarnation. And if I’m being really critical, most of the differences are in the visuals, which are difficult to appreciate when you’re racing along a narrow, twisting road at 125 mph. Yes, I’m probably being a bit harsh for a first-gen racer from the next gen, but it’s pretty clear at this point that the evolution of gaming is beginning to seriously slow down, and from now on – as it has been for a few years – it seems to be all about subtle, incremental improvements, rather than big steps forward. In a way, that’s a good thing – because what it does do is force the designers to be more creative and come up with new things for us to do, rather than relying on continued cosmetic improvements to blow us away. I’m looking forward to seeing how Turn 10 evolves the racing genre in that respect. Forza 5 has a few hints of this. The awfully-named “drivatar” system sounds interesting, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the really addictive social/asynchronous racing from Forza 4 continues to be improved. It’s definitely a great time to be a racing fan.
Once my demo was over, I’d assumed I’d hit the racing high point of the day, and headed over to Sony to play Driveclub and tick the final racing box. But man, was I in for a surprise. The Driveclub booth was pretty cozy, featuring eight racing-style seats, each with a new PlayStation controller. Once I’d settled in, some unimpressive menus led me into the game, and two fairly ordinary-looking car renders were offered as a choice. I took the Audi, not even pausing to check which model it was. At that point, the game took a picture of me and immediately put me on the starting grid and began the countdown. Two other ghost cars appeared, and then I was off, racing with some of the other people in the booth. We were constantly barraged with speed and split time data, and continually ranked against each other on a variety of different competitive details. It was intense, very competitive – and extremely fun.
To be honest, I was enjoying myself so much, I didn’t even step back and look at the game objectively – I was sucked deep into the action, immersed in a great racing experience. And that really impressed me. This was a great demo, providing immediate competition and huge amounts of fun, which is what competitive driving games are all about. I stuck around to watch someone play again, so I could more effectively evaluate the visuals, and was reasonably impressed. Driveclub isn’t quite up to Forza’s meticulous standards, but it’s close. And handling-wise, it felt much more arcade than sim. But ultimately, I didn’t really care too much about any of that. This was racing competition in classic, arcade style with a bit of sim dressing on the top, and I loved every minute of it.
So hats off to Evolution Studios for providing the best driving experience of E3. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it continues to develop this game, because Driveclub looks like it has the potential to be the adrenaline-pumping, arcade-with-just-a-touch-of-sim racing game that I realized almost the moment I started playing, I’ve been missing for a long, long time. It’s a different approach to “the big two”, and a smart one. Forza and Gran Turismo can continue to slug it out at the more hardcore, serious end of things – but if Driveclub gets it right, it could well become the fun-packed racer everyone can enjoy.
Like I said. It’s a great time to be a racing fan.