Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My driver's license should be revoked.

dude, check out that sweet car!
I am addicted to racing games.

There's a state of being called "flow" which a friend introduced me to. It's not revolutionary or new, and everyone's experienced it a
t some point in their life. "In the groove", "in the zone", "in the moment" - whenever these describe you, that's flow. The idea is that when your skill at some task matches just right with the challenge afforded by the task, you achieve a state of perfect focus. In this state, your mind becomes totally fixated on the thing you are doing, and all other distractions drop away. Further, it provides a kind of inimitable satisfaction.

People experience flow in a million different ways - musicians, athletes, programmers, artists, writers, gamers, racers, people addicted to TVTropes or Wikipedia. They're all just avenues for experiencing that state of extreme focus on one task.

(I wrote a several-paragraph aside on racing games' penchant for terrible story quality, but I decided to put as much effort into analyzing the story as they put into writing it.)

Racing games have value almost solely in the quality of their gameplay, which brings us, inevitably, to flow.

Racing games are an incredibly persistent genre. As a staple of arcades, consoles, and PC, I'd bet they'll stay around for as long as gaming is popular. The reason they're so perfect is that they're one of most distilled vessels by which to experience a state of flow in gaming. In my experience, the only genre that can rival racing games for flow potential is rhythm games, which might be the subject of a later post.

For me, the perfect moments in a racing game are when I'm driving just a smidgen faster than I'm comfortable with - at just the right speed so that I'm taking turns right up to the guardrail, I scrape through traffic and chip my paint without slowing down, and the beautiful landscape blows by me at preposterous speeds. (Remember the matching between challenge and skill?) Too fast and I constantly crash, too slow and the game is painfully boring - and here's the key to why I find racing games so addictive:

Racing games fundamentally adjust the difficulty level as you drive. It's in the nature of the accelerate/crash dynamic that when it challenges you too much, you drop to a slower speed. I measure a racing game by how consistently I'm pressed into a situation where I am challenged, and surprise myself with success. Passing through a turn by the skin of my teeth, edging around someone to the finish line, landing a jump at just the right angle to race to the next checkpoint. It's at those times - when I'm challenged to stretch myself - that I fall into the groove and enjoy myself. That's what makes flow.

flow was first described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose name I cannot pronounce.
So how does Need for Speed: Undercover do in this regard? Well, it's up and down. The rubberbanding AI (adjusting to your speed and performance to slow down when you're ahead and speed up when you're behind) is sometimes jarring; I found myself audibly complaining at my opponents during the cop chases and the outrun races. It does provide a consistent challenge in spite of the ridiculously powerful muscle cars you drive late in the game. Even when I revisit a race with one of the best cars in the game, I still can't get gold medals on the outrun races, which feels less like an adjusted challenge and more like the game doesn't care what I'm doing. Convincing, challenging AI isn't where this game shines, but it helps when it's an incidental thing - the police pursuits come to mind. The fun of it is from competing against the courses and against yourself.

The open world affords the game a vast variety of races, with complicated city streets allowing for plenty of permutations. You won't get bored with the course shapes themselves, especially with options for sprints, checkpoint races, circuits, and so on.
The city environments are a blessing for variety, but can make for a frustrating drive - sharp turns are, as it turns out, difficult at 300 km/hr. With occasional exceptions, the developers have avoided making this a huge problem. Most of the courses are carefully constructed to have only a few tricky turns. The scenery gets a tad repetetive, but this is to some extent unavoidable. The many options for cars and tuning allow another level of choices for how you want to play the game. I, watching through Initial D (the anime which provoked drift racing as a popular narrative trope), promptly customized my cars to make them all into drifting beasts. Of course, drifting is hard, and I soon retuned my car to tear through turns comfortably and easily.

as it turns out, it's difficult to drive with supernatural skill.
The crux of the flow experience in this game is the adjustment of difficulty to your skill - races are at that sweet spot of difficulty where you pass just before you've perfected it, so you'll stay challenged. At least, that's the theory - in practice I find the races just a little too easy, but I'm experienced and should probably have turned the difficulty up.
The incredibly dense performance customization I mentioned before surprised me with its complexity and quality. Of course, prettying up your car is fun, but you can also upgrade seven different car parts, and each offers a number of degrees of freedom to tune your car exactly how you want. If you want higher-grip tires, that's doable. If you want your suspension tuned for heavy oversteer, go ahead. Want to adjust the torque/acceleration balance? Yes! Giving you control puts the decision of exactly what kind of car you drive into your hands, and so with just a little experimentation you can make this game more yours. On the other hand, no one ever explains exactly what the tuning does, and a lack of context dampens this feature's awesomeness.

In the end though, I'm not sure if this game carries through - did I enjoy this game? Yes. Would I recommend it for purchase? No, says the broke college student. Get it for the cheapest price you can find, if you want it. I bought this game because I wanted something older and cheap to fulfill my desire for races, and it did that. I have a hunch that you could get any game in the Need For Speed series and have the same experience.

Now, that's just one game - how does it compare to other racing games I've played? The spectrum of racing games has three directions available, as I see it: heavy inter-car interaction, racing quality, and realism. My experience in racing games has peaked with Mario Kart (Double Dash and Wii, thank you very much.), Ridge Racer 6, and Trackmania: Nations. I can't really round out the realism end very well, but I wouldn't be able to vouch for it because I know next to nothing realistic about cars.

Mario Kart has focus almost solely on inter-car interaction - it's a party game at heart. Racing quality is of middling concern in Mario Kart, and practicing at it (as I, regrettably, have) changes your experience surprisingly little. Realism? What's that?

wooo! first place! I mean fifth! I mean second! I mean twelfth!

Ridge Racer 6 features as little inter-car interaction as possible without going all the way - you can bump into cars, but the tracks are wide and mostly you avoid one another. The racing quality is where all the work shows - cars handle beautifully, there's a smooth and rewarding learning curve, and it rewards the player with hair-raising racing races at terrifying speeds. As for realism, the game is beautifully and lovingly rendered. Of course, the simultaneous revelry in ridiculous cars and physics makes it not so much of a game for car junkies. Also, so pretty.

small italicised captions on our images? what are we, cracked?

TrackMania: Nations actually does go all the way in terms of inter-car interaction: there is none. Other cars are presented only for cues as to how well you're doing, and you pass through them like ghosts. The entire focus of this game is on the race, with no distractions - the courses are all built from the same pieces (making your own is easy and awesome). Mostly, though, it gives the most distilled racing experience I've seen.

holy endorsement, Batman! on the other hand, it's flippin' free.

So, Need for Speed again - it's closest, of these three, to Ridge Racer. Straddling the line between racing experience and pure realism, it does pretty well. The main distinguishing feature is the customization - they have fairly similar gameplay, with more realism in Need for Speed and more ridiculousness in Ridge Racer 6, but NFS definitely focuses on the vehicles much more than Ridge Racer 6. Take that as you will. If you prefer the experience of something like Trackmania: Nations, it might frustrate after a while, without the precise control and obsessive training you're used to. If you play Mario Kart for the wild and crazy multiplayer dynamic, this isn't a game for you.
You should go for a NFS game if: you like cars, you like customization, you want a fun little while and you want to watch pretty people in live-action cutscenes. I love those!

Of course, it's probably worth remembering that for all my enjoyment, I'm very, very easily satisfied.

Finally, an afterthought: Racing games. Music. Why is it that every racing game with a soundtrack that I've played has, invariably, the following: One (1) to four (4) songs that I absolutely love and would play on repeat if I were afforded greater music control. Three (3) to five (5) songs I cannot stand and promptly turn off if given the chance. Twenty (20) or more repetetive songs that I don't particularly care about. It started in GTA, with the awesome/awful/hilarious radio stations. Ridge Racer had a soundtrack I liked enough that I nearly bought it, but constantly haunted me with that F%&@ING "EAR TROUT" SONG. Gah. In NFS: Undercover, I melt into a godly puddle of racing skill whenever Tyga's "Diamond Life" or Justice's "Genesis" come on, and kill the volume whenever "I Once Was Lost, But Now Am Profound" plays. I'm not saying that it's a bad song - I don't particularly like it - I'm just bugged by racing developers' ability to perfectly choose soundtracks that induce such a slingshot reaction in me. Maybe it's meant to reinforce the slaloming sense of driving through consecutive hairpin turns?

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