Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Racing Tangent, part 3...

Games like Destruction Derby and Carmageddon set the standard for reckless racing experiences. If the titles lacked anything however it would be realism. The titles did have cars that responded realistically to crashes but the violence and design of the games was way over-the-top, almost to the point of being cartoonish. The games could be interpreted as a satire of western tastes, Carmageddon was based on the cult movie Death Race after all. What some audiences were hoping to see were actual production cars, exotics and sports cars as well, participate in the violent races. When Gran Turismo debuted in 1997 many fans were disappointed that the car models were impossible to damage. These were not necessarily sociopaths looking to practice outbursts of road rage, but rather racing fans that wanted to experience the handling of a performance car if it did get in a minor scrape. Polyphony ignored the requests from the public at large, including the Japanese community, and did not introduce models that could be damaged until much later on in the series. By contrast some of the early PC titles tried to include a sense of realism in their design. The auto magazines like Hot Rod, Road and Track, as well as Car and Driver were licensed to produce some early racing games. These games featured actual performance machines and advanced physics engines. The most popular PC game to make the transition from PC simulator to arcade-style racer to console icon was Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed. The Road and Track name was dropped early on. The end result was a game that answered the question of what would happen if super cars could race against each other on the street. How would the police respond to them and how well would players have to drive in order to avoid the speed traps?

Electronic Arts published the series beginning in 1994. It lacked the advanced visuals, control and soundtrack that made Sega and Namco racers successful during that same time. It made up for it by offering a different experience for players. More important, it was bringing this experience to PC users at home. The games suffered a little bit as they were ported to the consoles but they planet the seeds for a new type of adventure racing that was completely unlike any other series to date. The breakaway hit was Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit in 1998. In the early versions of the game speed traps would be triggered by driving far past the speed limit for extended periods of time. The exotic cars that the player could chose from were equipped with illegal radar detectors. Finding the balance between winning a race and avoiding the cops could be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. By the time Hot Pursuit came out the cops were equipped with their own performance cars, making the chases far more interesting. The publisher explored different versions of the street racing scene as pop culture changed. Hip Hop excess and the import scene gave birth to the Need for Speed (NFS) Underground and Most Wanted revisions.

As graphics engines improved and storage capacity increased exponentially on the consoles so did the ability for developers to really wow players. At the tail end of the Playstation 2 and Xbox consoles and the rise of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 it was possible to create car models that could crumple and break apart in spectacular fashion. Particle effect generators could add smoke, fire, sparks and shattering glass to high speed collisions, making them appear far more realistic than ever before. A developer named Criterion would completely redefine the genre in 2001. The Acclaim-published Burnout series would become representative of the modern racing experience. It combined brilliant visuals, culled from years of PC development, with superb controls. This was no different from earlier NFS titles. Where the two differed was that Burnout rewarded players for driving ruthlessly. The ability to slam opponents into oncoming traffic or flip them over initiated the trademark "Takedown." As much as Criterion would like to take credit for the innovations they were actually predated by the boosting and takedown mechanism in Taito's arcade hit Chase H.Q. The frenetic 3D smashing in Destruction Derby also gave console owners a reason to drive reckelessly. Even the Burnout box art featuring cars exploding and flipped upside down was poached from Destruction Derby box art. The cars in Burnout were not based on actual production cars but were modeled after several of the big names. The lack of licensed cars did nothing to stop the series from becoming a runaway success like the Ridge Racer series was originally. It was the updated spin on racing that made it memorable.

By comparison EA was having a difficult time finding a niche for NFS. The series did have great visuals and fun gameplay but Burnout matched it mile for mile and also threw in the chaos element. EA was guilty of following the trends from other big western publishers. When the major studios had a hit on their hands they more often than not would begin cranking out sequel after sequel on an annual basis. Sometimes the publisher would have two different developers work on the same series and alternate the releases every year so that the games had a two year development cycle. This was the case for EA as they had Criterion Games and Black Box working on the series. Despite two years in the pipeline each game felt rushed and disjointed. The studios never communicated with each other, shared assets or notes. The lessons they learned, mistakes they made or entirely new gameplay elements they created were unknown to each other. There was no consistency and audiences could see this. They had gone through the same thing in other genres, from music to sports titles published by companies like Activision and Ubisoft as well. The NFS series suffered from "sequilitis" and audiences began voting with their wallet.

Eventually EA learned their lesson and hired Criterion to put the franchise back on track. The developer started by remaking Hot Pursuit in 2010, more than a decade after the original hit. It included all of the elements that made NFS a great series. The high performance cars, exotic landscapes, amazing visuals and technically challenging courses. It also threw in new crash physics and highly detailed models into the mix. As exciting as the racing became it also became far darker and more violent than the original developers had meant for it to be. This was a reflection of the trends happening to adventure games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider.

Ever the tend spotters the Japanese were eager to change their own franchises to fit into the new Western aesthetics and capitalize on the buying masses. A remake of Devil May Cry and Bionic Commando, two popular games by Capcom, featured dark and brooding redesigns of the main characters. This decision did not go over well with fans of the classic games. It did not matter if the new titles were developed by Western studios, they still had to get the okay from the parent company. It would only be a matter of time before Namco would follow the trends as well. What they did to the Ridge Racer series could be considered sacrilegious. The next blog will look at the game that left long-time fans wondering what happened to the beloved series.

1 comment:

  1. Sequelitis aka We have a good idea and run it into the ground.
    Oh and the car damage, I thought it was more of issue with the car makers not wanting their cars getting wrecked.