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NFS:MW – The Nuts and Bolts of It

Now that I’ve thrown off the shackles of disappointment and have started looking at Need for Speed: Most Wanted Not the 2005 Version, The 2012 Version They Named the Same to Be Difficult as it’s own game, I’m having a much better time with it. There’s something to be said for accepting the things you can’t change and just moving on with one’s life. There’s also something to be said for not griping over video games, but if we said that too much, I’d have very few ideas for written pieces.

Having spent more time with the game, I better understand the decision to give the player access to so many cars from the beginning. Every car has five races that must be completed in order to score mods for that car but those races are shared across multiple cars. In other words, if a particular circuit race is a Hard race for the Aston Martin Vantage, it may be considered an Easy race for the Lambo Countach and so on. By giving the player access to a whole slew of cars, the game can cater to the racer who wants to knock down all of the races but could care less what car they use. At the same time, the mod reward system lets those who want to tune their particular ride work on obtaining all of the mods by sticking with a certain car. Plus, there’s going to come a time when all the mods in the world aren’t going to help you take down a Most Wanted racer, so being able to tool around the town and find a new car with which to try may help take the sting out of hitting the Great Wall of No More Progress.

I wish I could tell you that swapping out off-road tires for track tires, or choosing long gears over short gears makes for a completely different driving experience, but I’m just not good enough of a racer to say that. I guess it could be that the game isn’t good enough at showing me the differences, but I’m such a bad racer that I tend to defer to my own incompetence before accusing someone else of it. When I get the opportunity to apply a new mod, I look at the bars for my car’s various attributes. If the mod makes the bars bigger, I apply it. That’s the extent of it. If I keep failing an event, I’ll switch the mods up based on what seems like a logical combination, but other than succeeding where I had previously failed, I can’t tell a lick of difference. At this point, I’m bound and determined to get all of the mods for the Viper SRT not because I think it’s going to turn the car into an automotive super-beast but because there’s an achievement for it and in the process of getting all of the mods I’ll beat Tom’s score in a particular event. I’m coming for you, Chick.

Thankfully, switching between cars isn’t so nebulous in the results, but that’s to be expected in a game where a Ford pickup can be found around the corner from a Bugatti. Granted, if several cars are all roughly the same in terms of statistics, I can’t tell the difference between them, but again, I’m a terrible driver, so I tend to think that’s just me. Two cars slamming into a wall at 150 mph are going to react roughly the same way: badly.

One thing that does bug me about the car stats, though is that when I beat a Most Wanted driver, the car I win should be better than the car I used to win it, otherwise, why did I lose so frequently? I ended switching to the Viper SRT because the Alfa Romeo Concept 4C wasn’t cutting it to obtain the Shelby Cobra. As I cycled through all of my cars, the SRT had the biggest bars, so I went with it. After obtaining a few mods and taking on the Shelby a few times, I eventually won. When I went to compare the Shelby to the SRT, there was no comparison, the SRT was by far the better car. Sure, the Shelby had a head start, but come on. I know I’m bad, but I’m not so bad that my advantages would be negated that much. When I win a new car, it should be the gold standard of my garage until I beat the next Most Wanted racer. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Having done all of the race types up to this point, the only ones that cause me to let out a groan of disappointment when I see them pop up on the Autolog is the speed run. If you ever raced the Burning Routes in Burnout, you know what I’m talking about. Speed runs have you going from point A to point B with the goal of reaching Point B with a target average speed. For example, the Downtown Run event, the only event I need to win so that I can get the aero body for my beloved SRT, has a target speed of 150 mph. That’s the average speed, so things like crashing or braking is generally frowned upon. I can successfully evade the cops in the ambushes (check your speedwall on The Hunted there, Tom), and find that the extra competition in the sprint races and circuit races affords me enough chaos to get a win despite my crappy driving, but speed runs are all about driving clean and “clean” is not an adjective I would use to describe my driving style. Now, if I only cared about the race itself I could switch to a Lexus or some other car and have an easier time, but I’m determined to get the last mod, so it’s back to the driving board I go.

When I’m not racing, which is pretty much all of the time, I spend my time trying to break as many billboard records as possible. There’s plenty of experience to get just driving around, although I still think that Paradise City was a better environment for this than Fairhaven, but so many actions end up in a pursuit chase, which I abhor outside of races. I’m content to tool around leisurely until I find a billboard at which point I try to bust through it and knock it off of my list. If that winds me in hot water with the police, that’s ok. It’s a small price for claiming a billboard from one of my friends.

Next time, getting down in the dirt with NFS:MW.

DiRT Showdown in Review

This is not what I expected. I’m not an expert on the DiRT series, but I do know that it is the descendent of Colin McRae Rally, that DiRT 3 made a big deal of proclaiming that “Rally is back,” and that dirt usually refers to an earthy material found to the side of paved streets. Silly me, thinking that DiRT Showdown might be an off-road racing game.

Traditional races involving laps and cornering skills are few and far between, and even those typically have hooks, such as the familiar Elimination mode. You can reasonably divide Showdown into three styles, each with its own set of vehicles; racing, demolition, and the technical maneuvers of gymkhana (eg performing hairpin drifts and 180s for points). Without a common theme, Showdown feels like a handful of prototypes polished to acceptable standards and lumped into a retail package.

The menus are big and flashy, the soundtrack is studded with EDM stars, and the average event clocks in at less than two minutes. If you’re too busy bopping your head to the beat and being dazzled by the abundance of particle effects, maybe, just maybe, you might be too distracted to notice the lack of challenge or how useless the vehicle upgrades feel. I suppose it’s only appropriate that car customization is limited to pre-made liveries, and usually god-awfully tacky ones at that. Seriously, can’t I just paint my car blue?

Much of Showdown’s mechanics are poorly explained. Each event has its own set of rules that necessitates a brief, but still irksome, trip to the pause-screen. Even then, the actual rules for scoring (eg points for t-boning an opponent versus a head-on collision) are kept a mystery. It was only when I set out to write this review that I learned of the tuning options accessible in Advanced difficulty. Then again, the effectiveness of tuning is another topic for debate.

The physics of Showdown are weird. You can go from zero-to-drifting-donut around a pole in a marked section of a gymkhana event, while trying to drift in other sections usually sends you straight into the wall. Showdown’s guiding hand is so powerful that traditional emergency maneuvers – twisting the wheel to avoid a rollover, or a reverse-180 after being spun – end up being counter-productive.

Joyride was a hit in DiRT 3 and is sure to attract a following for Showdown. The two sandbox-style stages – an industrial complex and a shipping yard – each have maneuvers to perform and hidden packages to locate, but most people will probably get their kicks out of cruising around and coming up with their own challenges. I suppose this is the point where I might normally call Joyride a “selling point” or something like that, but two stages hardly constitute a new game, especially when one of them is a repeat.

Showdown lacks the punch of more focused racing titles. It has plenty of style, but unless you enjoy posting videos of your 360s and drifts on YouTube, there is very little substance. Like slapping a HFP body kit on a stock Civic, it looks sleek, but it won’t be crossing the finish line in first place.

Trials Evolution Review

Trials Evolution: part physics puzzle, part platformer, part racer, all thrills and excitement

When I was a lad, there was a popular TV show called Kick Start in which teenagers on lightweight motorbikes sedately attempted to balance themselves on narrow beams, or haul their bike over burnt-out cars without falling off. That’s the sort of thing I was expecting when I downloaded Trials Evolution from XBLA. It is categorically not what I got.

What I got was the lunatic bastard lovechild of a threesome between a physics puzzler, a platform game and a motorbike racer in which you guide a hapless avatar through a series of improbable courses featuring high bridges and steep cliffs, while falling off as little as possible. You have only to worry about your speed and balancing your rider backwards and forwards: the game takes care of steering for you, making it incredibly easy to pick up and play. And given the ridiculous physics model the game employs, which can see you jumping enormous chasms before making a perfect landing on a girder the width of a drinking straw, it offers a quite amazingly intuitive learning curve to complement those simple controls.

And a good job too because in most other respects the game is chronically unforgiving. The difficulty curve is pretty smooth but reaches the same unbelievable heights as some of the jumps in the later stages of the game. Not that you should worry about this if you don’t like tough games, as it has a medal system and to get the basic bronze level you can take as many tries at a track as you like and most are liberally peppered with restart points. Even the least able players should be able to unlock pretty much everything in the game just by accumulating bronzes. If you want challenge, gun for silvers. If you’re a masochist, shaking desperately with the need for a truly punishing session of self-brutalisation then gold is probably your thing.

But you could find all this out from any review of trials evolution. Most of them seem to miss the point about the game, which is simply this: what makes the game special is not the intuitive, quick-fix game play. Nor is it the nicely graded but ultimately jaw-shattering difficulty. Nor is it the clever genre-busting design. No. What makes this games special is the incredible, visceral thrill you’ll get by shimmying a feeble little dirt bike up to the edge of a cliff, pausing briefly to admire the view across the distant plains beyond before hitting the accelerator and plummeting several hundred feet at sickening speed, rolling perfectly down then up a ramp, tilting the balance to spin the bike as you leap before the back tyre grips dirt again and you tear off, spraying mud, across the uneven surface toward the next set of insurmountable obstacles.

The Castle level in Trials Evolution, one of several downright bizarre settings the game has to offer

The designers knew this. You can see it in every inch of every level design with their jaw-dropping backgrounds, insane obstacles and choice of settings which includes war zones, high-rise building sites and non-euclidean nightmare dimensions. You can see it in the way the game scripts explosions, geysers, even artillery in unlikely places, some miraculously missing you by inches, others an integral part of the game play as they boost your jumps and turns. You can see it in the massive slopes down which you career on a tiny bike at unforgiving speeds. It’s a game that made me beam with sheer joy at the impossible thrills on offer, even as it bludgeoned me repeatedly with the blunt instrument of its difficulty. The game even kills your tiny avatar in a different way at the end of each short course, just to make sure there’s no letup in the entertainment on offer.

The trouble with a lot of XBLA downloadable games is that whilst many are very good and very daring, they’re also very short. Comes with the territory of small developer teams, I guess. This is not, however, a criticism you can level at Trials Evolution. The basic single-player game will probably clock in at the five hours or so that’s fairly typical for an XBLA title but once you’re done with it, it’s not the end of the game. For starters there are multi-player modes that allow you to race in real-time against other players on the same console or Xbox live, using ghosts to track the progress of each player to make sure there’s no wheel-bumping to add further problems to the already tough courses on offer. And if that’s not sufficient there’s a track editor for you to design your own courses and, perhaps more importantly for those of us without time to burn, the ability to download other people’s courses. I’m pretty confident that this setup will allow the game to keep on throwing down its challenges for you for as long as you’re happy to accept them.

Trials Evolution is perhaps the most perfect example of bite-sized entertainment I have ever seen, something that offers an equal amount of pleasure for five minutes or five hours as the mood seizes you. But, don’t be mistaken, bite-sized entertainment is precisely what this is. There’s no story or career mode to engage you or, for that matter, to distract you from the core experience the game offers. You’ll accumulate money you can use to buy pointless cosmetic upgrades but after briefly noodling with your riders’ appearance you’ll cease to care. And there is the inescapable whiff of offering empty rewards to encourage equally empty box-checking replays in the medal and achievements system. That’s the flaw: the game would perhaps have benefited a little for a better and more engaging overarching framework to the design. But what it’s designed to do, it does extremely well indeed.

Racing into Reality

Gran Tourismo 5 - apparently realistic enough to allow talented players to make the switch to actual real-life racing

A small thing, this, but I’ve been entertaining a suspicion that stuff like this would start to happen sooner or later for quite some time now. And since it’s from the UK press I thought you might well have missed it across the Atlantic: a twentysomething Grand Turismo addict has used his obsession to actually make the cut as a real life racing driver.

I’m rubbish at racing games, although I greatly enjoy trying to pretend otherwise. I imagine even Mr. Barnes could probably beat me in a race. But one title I’ve never, ever been able to get to grips with is Gran Turismo. I wanted to like it. I could see the charm, the wonderment waiting under the hood for those able to master rear-wheel drive cars, running the racing line and who understood whatever the hell it is that a carburettor does. But I was not one of those chosen few and I eventually gave up the franchise in favour of the rather more user friendly Project Gotham games. I got the feeling then that Gran Turismo was close to a proper simulator, something for the hard-core, a version of Microsoft Flight Simulator for petrolheads and so it was okay for me to utterly rubbish at it, as most people are utterly rubbish at flight sims. This article makes me feel vindicated.

But more interestingly it goes to show just how incredibly realistic home video games have become. Whilst I’ve been waiting to see news reports just like this, I still find it incredible that, as the article points out, running a computer game gives the player enough skill to compensate for the incredibly important things it misses out like real G-force, real car judder and – most importantly of all – the real chance that you might crash and die horribly in an enormous fireball. What does that tell us, I wonder, about computer games and in fact about the sorts of people that play them?