2014 Recap: Driving Game Highs - and Technical Lows

2014 Recap: Driving Game Highs - and Technical Lows

This year had all the hallmarks of a fine vintage for racing games, but unfortunately while some delivered a brilliant experience, others failed to live up to their potential.

This year has been a good one for driving games. Then again, it's been a bad one too. Not so much in terms of quality – but more the kind of technical issues that can turn even a great game into something almost unplayable.

That was certainly the case with Sony's unfortunate DriveClub. In our fall preview, I nominated it as potential Game of the Year, and had every confidence that it was going to deliver. It'd been one of my biggest surprises of E3 2013, and I'd also walked away impressed after playing demos of it at this year's show.

Sadly, t'was not to be.

When it came time to roll out of the garage, Evolution Studios' game simply wasn't ready. Or rather, it was flawed. The game was designed to be a fundamentally online racer, but right from the start, its MMO-oriented competitions were beset with issues. Players couldn't connect properly, and the game's many in-built challenges failed to work correctly. Ultimately, the problem came down to a developer issue with the fundamental code. President of PlayStation France Philippe Cardon later admitted, “In the programming of the game, there was an error that prevents us from welcoming enough players at the same time,” He went on to say, “All this is being reprogrammed, but it takes much longer than simply adding 1000, 2000, or 3000 servers.”

So players simply had to wait for weeks while the game was slowly fixed up, and online racing became more reliable and stable. Now, a couple of months later, the game still isn't perfect, but it's playable at least - even if it doesn't seem to be quite the massively multiplayer game it was intended to be.

Things would have been a little easier to take if DriveClub's single-player mode was robust enough to maintain interest, but unfortunately, it just didn't feel particularly well baked. Although it did have a good selection of races – and two additional sets have since been added, along with a handful of new cars – the competitive structure and general presentation felt limited, and indeed outdated. Far, far less comprehensive than that of its peers like Gran Turismo 6 and Forza 5.

Worse still, the game missed opportunities like making winning cars feel like an event. Instead you simply unlocked a grayed-out vehicle, in a most perfunctory and unimaginative way. It almost felt like the designers didn't think about how to keep the player feeling rewarded and excited. They'd put all their eggs in the online basket, and unfortunately realized the full meaning of that particular proverb when it got dropped.

What all this added up to was a big disappointment. DriveClub is a fantastic-looking racer, and it features an interesting roster of cars. Its online mode is also really engaging when it works, essentially throwing up continual leaderboard-style challenges while you're racing, which can help turn even a losing race into something potentially exciting if you can break a record

Hopefully, as we head into 2015, we'll see a revised version of the game – and indeed the previously promised PS Plus version that has since been pulled. That certainly sounds like it might be the case, with UK boss Fergal Gara quoted in a recent IGN.com interview as saying, "We apologize to any players affected and are doing our damndest to make things right. So that’s what we’ve been doing and the game is pretty near complete now. We don’t want to introduce the PS Plus Edition until we’re confident the servers can take the load.

"Unleashing it on the millions of PS Plus users is the next step, but we want confidence in the capacity and concurrency figures. I’ll say again: we apologize and are trying to sort it, and we’ll hopefully learn from it so we see it less in future."

Although it's a last generation racer, Gran Turismo 6 more than held its own against the Johnny-come-latelies during 2014. Although it was released at the end of last year, and has so far been the least successful entry in the series in terms of sales, developer Polyphony has nevertheless supported the game throughout the year in the form of updates and tweaks. And best of all – the content has all been gratis. A very welcome thing in an era where it feels like publishers are quite happy to nickel and dime you on even the most modest of updates.

Firstly, there have been continual additions to the GT Vision aspect of the game, which features exclusive in-game concept cars that players can race competitively. Amongst the manufacturers to supply these sometimes incredible-looking vehicles are Subaru, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and Aston Martin. Additional road cars have also been added throughout the year, including the BMW M4, a Toyota FT-1 concept, and Mario Andretti's 1948 Hudson stock car, as well as a suite of racing cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo Racing Series, Toyota TS030 Hybrid, Lexus IS F CCS-R and the Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3.

Cars weren't the only thing to be added. Austrian Grand Prix track, the Red Bull Ring and an update to the game's Suzuka Circuit also made their way onto the Gran Turismo roster this year, along with a new 17-mile track, Zahara de la Sierra, based on real-life location Cadiz in southern Spain. All this adds up to an impressive volume of content – doubly so, since users didn't have to pay a penny for it.

I recently went back to the game to play it again, and I'd forgotten just how good Gran Turismo 6 can be. While it understandably doesn't quite visually match up to the next generation Forza Motorsport 5, it nevertheless offers a superb driving experience that's as good as anything else out there. It also sports an embarrassment of automotive riches that simply dwarfs the competition - even if you put them all together.

The game's online mode has also been beefed up, and I'm very impressed at how easy it is to get into GT6 competitive online racing. If the forthcoming (though when it'll arrive, your guess is as good as mine) PS4 iteration leverages the very robust infrastructure of the PS3, I imagine it'll deliver a stable, high-quality online experience right out of the gate.

Which is what Forza Horizon 2 did when it was launched on both the current and last generation Xboxes in September. Although its online components are a little simpler than DriveClub's, Playground Games' open-world racer is nevertheless still quite sophisticated, and it went off hitch-free.

The game turned out to be quite a surprise. Initial preview playtests had concentrated on the early stages of the game, whose rather patronizingly douchey, alright-me-old-mate, Abercrombie and Fitch wannabe host and general scenario seemed somewhat nauseating, in a cheesy 00's Need for Speed kind of way. However, upon subsequent play, we found out that the host soon disappeared, and the wooo-aren't-we-having-a-good-time nonsense quickly gave way to some spectacular racing across some of the most gorgeous-looking landscapes yet seen.

Not only did the game feel like a truly next generation product, it was also superbly designed. Racing series could be tackled any way you want, with whichever car you fancied driving. So if you wanted to drive a Transit van – and yes, Forza Horizon 2 does have one – the game would essentially create a competitive field of vehicles to challenge you. This freedom of choice, combined with plenty of side activities resulted in a game that I feel is a killer app for the Xbox One – and a very fitting racing swansong for the Xbox 360. Although the last generation version of the game is graphically inferior, it really isn't that far behind the current one – and it plays just as well.

Speaking of last generation racers. GRID Autosport was launched this year on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Rolling out of the garage in June, it felt like it'd missed its window of opportunity to make a big splash as a last hurrah for the GRID series on the outgoing generation. A shame, really, as it provides a solid, extremely visceral racing experience that includes very aggressive damage modeling, which makes races pretty damn exciting and potentially nerve-wracking.

Where the game disappointed, however, was in its career mode. It just wasn't particularly compelling and engaging. However, what's clear is that there's huge potential for the series to jump to the current generation. If its career mode can be tightened up – and perhaps returned to the former glory seen in prior versions of the game – and its graphics are given a next-gen makeover, a PS4 version of GRID Autosport could well be honed into a good enough racer to give the likes of Forza a run for its money. Sure, any game is going to find it difficult to compete with Turn 10's storied franchise in terms of presentation and car roster – but when it comes down to the racing action, there's no reason why GRID with a beefed-up career mode won't be able to compete with Forza on sheer excitement.

The latest addition to this year's racing collection is The Crew. Like DriveClub, Ubisoft's open-world, always-online racer launched with issues. Unlike DriveClub, however, they were soon resolved, and the game became fully stable the weekend following its Tuesday release.

We played the game extensively, and were impressed at what developer Ivory Tower had achieved, but were a little less so with The Crew as a game. It sets out to be the first major car MMO, and packs a huge, coast-to-coast, condensed map of the US (complete with appropriate scenery), a comprehensive story mode, and a myriad of skill challenges and events across a variety of racing disciplines, from rally and circuit racing to PvP combat. Whether you want to race down roads against the clock, tackle slalom courses, length-of-jump contests or simply replay story missions to better your record, The Crew has plenty to keep you busy.

The problem is, however, that while the storyline is fairly challenging and fun, beyond that, the endgame content just doesn't feel up to MMO snuff. Sure, there's plenty of stuff to do, but a large portion of it is simply variations on the same themes that all end up feeling a much of a muchness. The reason why you play MMO endgame content is because you're working through a greater storyline - usually raids and dungeons and the bosses therein - and are continually building up your character as you progress. In The Crew, it feels like you're simply grinding the same kind of missions over and over again to incrementally upgrade your car for no real reason other than so you can do better at the challenges you're grinding. There is an interesting PvP aspect to the game, but it doesn't quite have the variety to make it truly compelling over the long-term.

What's going to be interesting is how The Crew gets built out with additional content. It pushes its season pass content very hard in-game, and hopefully what will be added will be more interesting PvP modes, and perhaps more endgame content that has specific goals and more interesting rewards. If it's simply more story missions being added, I think it'll provide a good reason to go back and play for a while, but it won't make it the long-play MMO the developers were hoping The Crew would become.

Looking forward to next year, let's hope Gran Turismo 7 will make an appearance. I wouldn't bet good money on it to be perfectly honest - but if the full game doesn't arrive, I'd definitely have a flutter on some kind of "Prologue" game arriving in Autumn to herald a full release in 2016.

I think what we are pretty much guaranteed to see in 2015, however, is Forza Motorsport 6. By this time next year, Turn 10 would have had almost 24 months of development time for what I imagine will be the best racer we've yet seen - particularly if GT7 hasn't rolled out of the garage by then. Hopefully it'll feature all the cars from the current version, a selection from Forza Horizon 2, plus a host of new ones. That would add up to a pretty solid racer - particularly if we also see a return to the same volume of tracks we saw in Forza 4.

Another game set to debut in Spring is Namco's Ride – a motorcycle racer from Milestone, makers of the pretty damn good MotoGP 14, which I reviewed a month or so ago. In many respects it sounds similar to Polyphony's Tourist Trophy – it features around 100 motorcycles that include supersports, sports, naked and even historic bikes, and a host of famous motorcycle tracks to ride them on. Very little is known about the game at the moment, but I loved the riding mechanics that underpinned MotoGP, and if the developers can address some of the graphical issues that plagued the PS4 version of the game, it could be a really solid racer – and a very welcome one for motorcycle racing fans like myself.

With possibly four new racers arriving next year, a hopefully fully-working DriveClub to play – and a new PS Plus version – and updates to The Crew, all things being equal, 2015 could well be the vintage racing year this one promised to be – but didn't quite deliver.

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