Zoom Zoom: The Elements of a Great Racing Game
Whether you consider racing games to be part of the “sports” genre or a separate one, you can’t deny the impact that they have on the gaming industry. The racing game community is among the most passionate in gaming. The three major console manufacturers realize this, and each have a racing game in their first-party exclusive game lineup. Forza , Gran Turismo, and Mario Kart (Nintendo) have all demonstrated their power as bona-fide system sellers. Third-party publishers such as Electronic Arts and Ubisoft also dedicate effort and resources towards the racing genre in an effort to capture this market.
In order appeal to the racing community, developers and publishers must hone in on the key factors that are important in this genre. What makes a racing game great? What elements need to be present to satisfy fans’ insatiable appetite for speed?
Control is the single most important aspect of a racing game. Whether one is playing a simulation racer or a more arcade-like experience, a racing game’s control is the link between man and virtual machine. The best racing games and franchises have reached the popularity and heights they have because of this one factor. The controls and handling of a racing game should be appropriately tailored for the intended audience.
Super Mario Kart is widely considered to be one of the greatest racing games ever made. Sure, it has charming characters and fun power-ups. However, it was the game’s accessible control scheme and handling that was of crucial importance. Even to this day, anyone can pick up a controller and play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch and have fun. This ease of play is a huge part of what makes this series so popular.
Other arcade-focused racing games such as Ridge Racer may not be as accessible as something like Mario Kart, but they are still designed to inject a fair amount of thrills into the experience. Ridge Racer games reward players who are able to master powerslide with the ability to effortlessly drift around corners at high speed.
On the other end of the spectrum is a game like Gran Turismo. For many console players, Gran Turismo was their first real taste of something that approached a racing simulation. In order to live up to the game’s tagline as “The Real Driving Simulator,” developer Polyphony Digital needed to deliver real convincing handling. Rather than advocating powerslides and crazy jumps, Gran Turismo emphasized taking the proper driving line and control in the braking zones. Racing fans loved it, and the series went on to become one of Sony’s best-selling IPs of all-time.
“Gran Turismo” is known for its impeccable car handling.
Of course, an outstanding visual presentation is what will initially hook the majority of gamers. However, it is the game’s control and mechanics that will keep them for the long haul. This explains why a gorgeous game like Driveclub is irrelevant in the racing genre with its poor car handling. Contrarily, Gran Turismo 3 A-spec, a game that released in 2001, is still beloved by racing fans to this day because of how perfectly it nails the concept of handling and control.
With that being said, one can’t deny the impact that visual presentation has on racing games. As I stated previously, graphics are what lures the player in when it comes to racing games. Since Gran Turismo on the original PlayStation, racing games have been used to really show what could be done with gaming hardware. I remember being blown away the first time I played Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed on my PC back in the day, and invested in upgrades to make it look even better. Today, this practice is still used, as Microsoft demoed an incredible-looking Forza Motorsport 7 at E3 2017 as the showcase game for the Xbox One X.
“Forza Motorsport 7” on the Xbox One X looks to be the best-looking racing game ever made.
Today, most racing games acknowledge the importance of visuals and include a built-in photo mode strictly for the purpose of showing of the respective game’s car models and vistas. From personal experience, I can tell you that I may have spent a little too much time using this feature to line up the perfect shot in Forza Horizon 3. When you’re cruising through the Australian Outback in your shiny Ferrari at dusk with the lighting just right, you just have to snap a photo to capture all of the gorgeous detail in that moment.
Car models, reflections, lighting, and environments are all important factors in determining a racing game’s visual presentation. Frame rate is just as important in this regard. Ridge Racer on the PlayStation was known for running at a blistering 60 frames per second. Frame rate affects both the responsiveness of the controls and the sensation of speed in a racing game. Today, most racing games run at either 30 fps or 60 fps. Simulation racers on closed tracks such as Project CARS typically run at 60 fps, providing a buttery feel to the controls as well as an excellent sense of speed. Open-world racing games like Forza Horizon 3 usually run at 30 fps. As long as the game runs at a consistent 30 fps without noticeable drops, the sense of speed and accuracy of the controls can be preserved, even with a lower frame rate.
While it may seem unimportant, delivering the proper aural experience is absolutely crucial to racing game fans. In games like Mario Kart, a bubbly soundtrack and charming character quips are appropriate. In other racing games, the first thing most players do is turn the soundtrack off and listen for the most important noise of all: engine sounds.
Slightly Mad Studios, the developers of Project CARS, understand this and have delivered the best engine sounds in a racing game that I have ever heard. The engine notes here have depth and power, with the characteristic “bark” of exhaust blowback and whoosh of a spinning turbocharger captured perfectly.
THIS is what a racing game should sound like.
Microsoft has also done an excellent job in capturing the sound of racing with their Forza games. This is one area where Gran Turismo has fallen behind the curve in embarrassing fashion. Even with the most recent game in the series, Gran Turismo Sport, the cars have the same weak, paper-thin engine notes as Gran Turismo 4. The cars sound more like vacuum cleaners than purpose-built racing machines here. It ruins the immersion, and pulls the player out of the experience.
This isn’t. Seriously, it sounds so bad.
Racing games must also have a diverse roster of cars to choose from. Having a great selection of vehicles gives players more options, and increases the variety of the game. One of the main selling points of Gran Turismo 2 on the PlayStation was its enormous roster of licensed vehicles. Today, Forza Horizon 3 boasts what is arguably the most diverse, eclectic selection of automobiles in a racing game today. Contrarily, the major flaw of Project CARS is its lacking, disappointing car roster.
Which Games Did it Right?
I’ve spoken at length about what makes for an awesome racing game experience. What racing games have been able to put it all together to deliver the ideal experience to racing game fans?
Forza Horizon 3 (Xbox One)
Forza Horizon 3 delivers everything one could possibly want in an arcade racer. The visuals are breathtaking, the car roster is extensive, and the controls are perfect. With some excellent expansions to boot, this game is “car porn” at its finest.
Gran Turismo 3 A-spec (PlayStation 2)
Gran Turismo 3 transcended everyone’s preferences in gaming. It didn’t matter if you liked racing games or not; if you had a PlayStation 2, you needed Gran Turismo 3 in your life. The game was a visual tour-de-force for the time, with stunning car models and gorgeous heat haze. Combined with perhaps the best handling model ever in a racer, Gran Turismo 3 is the absolute pinnacle of this revered series.
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed (PC)
While this game also released on the PlayStation, I’m giving credit to the PC version for its stunning vistas and attention to detail. Designed as a love letter to Porsche, this NFS game takes you on a grand tour of the legendary manufacturer’s automotive history to that point. Featuring the signature balanced controls that the series was known for at the time, as well as excellent sound design, Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed is still a must-play to this day for fans of the Porsche brand and the genre as a whole.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Switch)
Despite contending with a multitude of copycat kart racers over the years, the latest edition of Mario Kart proves that you can’t dethrone this king. Its accessible controls, charming visuals, and fun online modes make it the best game in the series. I’m giving the nod to the Switch version here, due to its inclusion of a proper Battle mode.
In conclusion, racing games are one of the top examples of wish fulfillment and escapism in gaming. You get to hop in fast, million-dollar cars and drive as fast as you can. For such a simple concept, there are many factors that can make or break the experience. If something is broken in a racing game, the experience falls flat rather quickly. But when all cylinders are firing, they’re among the most fun and hardcore games you can play.