At last year's E3, there were three new racers on display: the long-awaited Gran Turismo 6, the fifth installment of the venerable Forza series, and surprise racing newcomer DriveClub. I played all three in-depth, and while I enjoyed each of them, DriveClub was the one that I was most excited by.
Its action was visceral, competitive and exciting, and there was an overall intensity to the game that made it highly appealing. I couldn't wait to play it as a PS4 launch title.
Which of course didn't happen. Sony delayed the game into "early 2014," and then later pushed DriveClub's launch date even further back to October 2014, almost a year from its initial promised release. It's disappointing, but based on what I saw at E3 this year, DriveClub has benefitted from its extra development time.
Twelve months after its debut, DriveClub is feeling smoother and more polished. Last year, the game was an absolute blast to drive, but its graphics felt a little rough around the edges. The overall impression was good, but upon closer inspection, the way that light reflected off the cars seemed a little dull, the car models lacked sharpness, and some of the roadside objects felt a little last-gen. This was particularly noticeable after driving it back-to-back with Forza 5, which looked outstanding thanks to it being in a far more advanced state of completion.
This year, however, DriveClub's looks have been much improved. Its lighting and atmospheric filtering is far more effective, giving the game a more analog and lifelike look than last year's demo, which felt comparatively flat. Distance shading is subtler, and the road surface and elevation changes are also more realistic. I scrutinized the car models I drove, and those too are more convincing. The shadows are richer, reflections seem to glide along the bodywork, and there's no odd reflective artifacting that was evident last year. Based on the small number of cars and couple of tracks I looked at, DriveClub now feels at least on par with Forza 5, and if the quality of what was on display at E3 is maintained throughout the rest of the game, it might well best it.
While the visuals have definitely had a good buff, the gameplay felt largely the same. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because I loved the intense action that DriveClub's inaugural demo served up. Once again, the game was showcased as a multiplayer demo, this one against three other players. We raced a road track that snaked its way along a verdant valley. It was fun to drive thanks to good visbility and sweeping corners, and it looked great too. While we raced, the game constantly threw up data and challenges based around split times, top speeds on certain parts of the track, and overall lap times. It was every bit as exciting as I remembered.
I might be mistaken, but the handling felt a little heavier and more damped than last year, almost like the cars have been given a slightly more sim-like feel. The action still feels arcadey, but while the game gives you a little assisted leeway to explore the limits before it punishes you, it doesn't suffer heavy-handedness gladly. Which I discovered when I experimented to see how much I could get away with, and ended up overcooking a drift and spinning down the road. I really like the way it works, because it encourages you to have fun by being a little forgiving at the point a racing sim would have you crash, but only so much, so you still have to drive skilfully.
Although Forza Horizon 2 is a different kind of game, it does very much the same thing as DriveClub in terms of handling – letting the user have fun without necessarily sending them spinning up the road if they're clumsy. However, Forza uses assists to keep the car tighter and more under control – coming on just as the car begins to get out of shape. This helps drivers maintain a more consistent speed. DriveClub lets the player get more out of shape before the assists come on to help reel the car back in. That makes it feel more exciting, but it also means that if you want to clock up the best times you need to work within its limits.
DriveClub basically combines elements of sim and arcade: tuned to be exciting, but in touch enough with reality so that it feels realistic. I think this is a good move, because following the recent announcement that FIA has certified four tracks in GT6, and is endorsing an official online Gran Turismo racing series, it's clear that the series will continue to evolve as a racing simulation. DriveClub's positioning as more arcade-like ensures PlayStation owners can have two distinct driving experiences to enjoy, much as Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizons do for Xbox racers.
A game that feels like it's competing more against the likes of Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo than their arcadey counterparts is Project CARS. This new name to racing was on display at E3, although when I say "display", it was actually shown in a really low-key way – on a couple of screens at the end of a long row of monitors. Its demo didn't give much away about the game - just a few laps around the British Brands Hatch Indy circuit - but what's clear is that it looks stunning. The race started at night, and after the first lap, the sun began to rise. By the time the finish line was reached, it was dawn.
The lighting, shadows and atmospheric effects were deeply impressive, and having driven around Brands Hatch a few times in real life, I can tell you that the Project CARS version looks astonishingly lifelike. The car models look highly detailed and convincing too.
Project CARS' handling feels very sim-like, and took a bit of getting used to, especially since there was no driving line to help me avoid plowing off the track and into the sand trap as I did on my first few corners. Judging by the way the car slid, I don't think there's any ABS, either, reinforcing the impression that Project CARS is taking the hardcore approach to racing. Which isn't surprising when you look at the game's roster of vehicles, which lacks the production cars you normally see in most racers, and is instead filled with thoroughbred race cars.
The other thing that's different about this game is that all its cars and tracks are available from the start. Developer Slightly Mad Studios calls Project CARS a "sandbox racer," and instead of following a linear progressive path through the game, the player instead builds racing series featuring the cars and tracks he or she is most interested in racing. This building mode is also a fundamental part of the game's multiplayer aspect. The "CARS" in the game's title is an acronym for "community assisted racing sim," describing the game's objective – to build a community that creates its own racing series and challenges.
With a large number of variables to tweak, from weather conditions and lighting to entry requirements and numbers of tracks, Project CARS certainly does have huge potential for customized online gameplay. Because of its harder-core nature, it probably won't be quite as appealing as something like DriveClub, but for serious racing fans, it's looking like one to watch when it's released on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Wii U in November of this year.
The last racer on my E3 list is World of Speed on PC. Like Project CARS, it's also designed by Slightly Mad Studios, but this time, it's all about production cars. I played it back in March at GDC, and while many aspects of the game impressed me, I criticized its inert-feeling handling. It offered a decent enough drive, but just didn't feel particularly sophisticated. A few months on, I was interested to see whether the game's feel had been improved, but once I sat behind the wheel I realized that this was the same San Francisco demo track I'd played three months ago, featuring the same cars.
That was a little disappointing, but at least it gave me the chance to take another look at the game. I was immediately reminded of just how good World of Speed's track modeling and environmental detailing is. If this quality is prevalent throughout, it'll certainly be a great-looking game. The cars are also nicely modeled, and the whole thing looks solid – not at all looking like the free-to-play game that it is. The only thing that isn't quite right yet is the handling, but the game still has a way to go in terms of development, so we'll just have to wait and see how it pans out.
I'm also interested to see how the business model will work. I'm assuming it's going to be something like World of Tanks where you can play and have fun, but pay for "premium" cars, and perhaps to boost your leveling/xp or whatever progression mechanism the game uses. However it works, the idea of a free-to-play racing game of this caliber is a novel one, and I'm looking forward to checking out the finished product to see just how good it really is.
Looking at all the driving games on display at E3 this year, it seems that we could well be heading into a golden age for racers. We have the three covered in this article, two new open-world driving games in the form of Forza Horizon 2 and The Crew, and we also need to consider that the two biggest racing franchises of them all – Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo – are also likely to have new editions within the next eighteen months. Though if recent Gran Turismo development is anything to go by, it'll probably end up arriving a year later than the tentative 2015 date Kazunori Yamauchi mentioned last year. We can also expect a next-generation GRID, and at least one, but perhaps two Need for Speed games (if rumors are to be believed), making a really quite astonishing line-up of racing games to look forward to.