Console Racing Comes Of Age

Opinion by Andrew Ogley,
Games can be, and often are, used as a form of escapism, allowing us to live out fantasies in a virtual world, but at the back of our minds we know it’s not real. Playing with controllers and pads, it breaks a certain level of realism. We might be great at a PGA Tour title, but hitting buttons on a controller will never come close to replicating the swing of a real golf club. One might be a wizard at FIFA but wiggling two thumbsticks in specific directions whilst holding a shoulder button will not turn anyone into a Messi or Ronaldo. There’s a wall, a blockade, to a fully immersive experience.

Console Racing is different. Admittedly we’ll never (or at least can't yet) feel the wind blowing through our hair in a virtual open-wheel car, we can’t feel our bodies being crushed and battered as we throw an F1 car through a tight corner, or our spine shattering after a particularly vicious landing in an extreme rallycross car. However, the level of immersion that is now achievable can bring us a lot closer to the real thing than in any other console genre. With the titles that are now available coupled with the current hardware it all makes for a compelling and highly addictive experience. Thanks to simulations, console racing is finally coming of age.

Yes, we’ve had driving and racing titles on consoles since the earliest days, but given the limitations of older platforms, the limitations of the control pad, and the lack of pure processing power to perform the complex calculations necessary, they remained strictly games. Not that they weren’t fun, they certainly were. The original Xbox was blessed with early – and eventually classic - franchises such as Burnout, Project Gotham Racing, Need for Speed and Test Drive. There were even early attempts to produce the hardware to drive with as firms like Mad Catz produced early steering wheels and pedal sets for the console. The problem was that there only a limited number of titles that supported the wheel sets, and the cost of additional hardware hardly seemed justified.

It’s hard to pinpoint when things started to change on the console. Some look to Gran Turismo on the PS1 as being the turning point when players were challenged to take racing a little more seriously, and having to pass driving tests for their individual class licenses based on real driving theory. Things started to change too with the Xbox 360. Great games including Burnout Paradise – one of the best racing titles of all time – graced the platform, but developers were already taking advantage of the then added capability of the console adding more realism to the graphics, the physics, and the handling.

Manufacturers had also recognised that there was a growing market for racing peripherals and more wheels and pedals started to appear. Whilst not all games supported them, key franchises such as Forza did, and used this to their advantage giving those gamers who demanded it a more immersive experience.

With the added processing power of the Xbox One developers have now been able to produce titles matching, to a certain extent, the simulations that run on PCs. Titles like Project CARS, DiRT Rally and the soon to be released Assetto Corsa are all leaning more towards a higher simulation level. Physics, tyres, and car handling are all being modeled more realistically than ever before. These titles are taking the racing genre towards its own uncanny valley.

The fact is that we’ve moved away from simple racing games. With the various levels of realism and the many virtual worlds the genre has become more diverse. The spectrum is measured with arcade at one end all the way through to simulation at the other. For those that fall somewhere in between, a totally new term has recently been coined: sim-cade, those titles that are almost realistic but not quite – although it can a be little fuzzy where exactly the distinction lies. It’s also no longer simply about racing either, some titles are more focused on the driving experience, moving away from tracks and circuits and placing virtual drivers on open roads in open worlds. With all of the classes and sub-classes now, it’s not quite as easy to pigeon-hole titles as it used to be.

It’s often said that there is nothing new under the sun, and a lot of what we see now has its roots in earlier games, although this generation of consoles is pushing everything a lot further. Titles like Forza Horizon and The Crew build on the open worlds previously introduced through Test Drive Unlimited and Burnout Paradise. They focus on the driving experience and give us vast arenas to drive in. Forza Motorsport provides an almost encyclopedic garage of cars to drive, tune, and tweak, and Project CARS provides a tyre model and physics beyond anything else on the console. We have more choice than ever before, and with the highly acclaimed simulation Assetto Corsa only days away, with a physics model that is even more advanced - it’s Ferrari’s choice of simulator at their official centre in Milan - it’s getting even better.

Tracks are laser scanned to ensure that they are accurate to the smallest detail. We have dynamic weather systems changing the racing experience reducing visibility and altering track conditions. There are day-night transitions for those who want the endurance experience of driving in the sunset or through the early dawn. We even feel the effect of driving on cold tyres as opposed to rubber that’s at the optimal temperature. Some even include the effect of flat spots on the tyres after locking the wheel. The complexity is mind-bendingly staggering.

Unfortunately, there is a drawback to all of this added realism. There is a reason why top drivers are paid such ridiculous amounts of money or receive such sponsorship bonuses. It’s a hellishly difficult thing that they do. Assetto Corsa calls their elite players ‘Aliens’ and they mean it as a compliment, implying that they are something beyond mere mortals. As the titles become more realistic, they also become more challenging and far more difficult than any simple arcade title. They make extra demands of the player; they require far more work, and for some it's a case of too much effort and too little reward. Some recent racing titles that have aimed to be simulations have been criticised in various forums around the web. Some people believe that if a title appears on the console then it has to be a game, and has to be fun. It’s meant to be a means of escapism, and those particular titles weren’t. In short they were just too difficult to play.

It’s a challenge for developers to make the titles accessible to all levels of driver. Forza handles this well with the number of assists available, Codemasters' F1 series does too, and after the less than stellar start from Project CARS, Assetto Corsa has already released a comparison gameplay video showing a lap raced with a controller against the same lap with a wheel emphasising that both are equally good. Casual gamers need not fear. However, playing devil's advocate, after spending so much time and effort into creating a detailed physics model, tyre model, and car handling, one could understand if there was a certain reluctance from the studios to downtune everything just for the sake of casual gamers who will move onto to other titles in a short amount of time.

It’s no coincidence that the range and the quality of hardware has also vastly improved for this console generation. As the titles become more realistic so does the hardware. Racing seats, rigs, wheels, pedals and shifters are all available in price ranges to match all pockets. The wheel bases that provide the force feedback even at entry level can cost almost the same as the console to which it will be connected. The more expensive options will cost two or three times more than that. The wheels are no longer cheap plastic copies either, they can be licensed replicas of top marques such as Porsche and Ferrari, aluminium rims wrapped in the same Alcantara stitched leather. The pedals too are mechanical wonders, featuring gas hydraulics and motors to replicate ABS and tyre locking, and naturally they’re not cheap either. Neither are the Recaro style racing seats or the gear shifters. All in, a good setup can run to thousands. It can be more than a cheap secondhand real car.

But why would anyone want to spend such an amount on very dedicated hardware? After all, other than driving and racing there is not a lot that you can do with a steering wheel and pedals. But that is the essence. These are the same mechanics and mechanisms that you engage in real life, the same physical inputs and the same feedback. It’s hard to describe how it feels when you settle down into a racing seat with the shaped form wrapping itself snugly around you. That feeling when you reach for the leather wrapped wheel – something I don’t even have in my own car. And your feet resting on metal pedals, you can’t resist pushing on the gas pedal even before any game is loaded or the console even switched on.

Just as Oculus hightens the visual immersion, there is a physical immersion that anyone who has driven will instantly recognise, it’s like muscle memory but on a full body scale. Sitting down, one hand instinctively reaching for the wheel, the other reaching for the gear change, even if you had intended to sit down and play FIFA or Battlefield, the ‘rig’ acting like a stripped down version of “Christine” draws you in and with the wheel in front of you it just demands to be driven.

And when it is driven, when you grip that wheel you know that it’s going to be your friend one moment and your foe the next. It provides that nuanced and subtle feedback that just cannot be achieved on a controller, not even on the Elite controller that is so highly regarded amongst Forza fans. That subtle signal the moment understeer or oversteer threatens to take over control of the car, no amount of rumble through two plastic triggers can replicate that. There’s the less than subtle combination of force feedback and Dirt Rally with the two conspiring together to dislocate joints in your hands, arms, shoulders or all three. There’s a pure physicality that cannot be matched. Even the act of manually declutching and shifting gears. The movement and action of the gear stick as it slides through the h-gates, you can’t go from 7th to 5th to 3rd on a controller. There’s something rugged and raw, almost macho about that simple action. Mammoth sessions become genuine endurance races, arms and shoulders aching, leaving you crawling from the race seat bathed in sweat.

It’s all familiar to any drivers, but it’s never easy under racing conditions, even if they are only virtual. Driving a virtual racing car with hands and feet feels so much more demanding than just using a controller. And those demands, the feeling of being so much more physically involved, means that successes, however minor, feel all the more rewarding. The realistic physics mean that real driving and racing theory can be used in practice. The moment that I consciously corrected oversteer in a Porsche GT3 heading around Silverstone balancing the throttle and counter-steering could only have been bettered if it were in the real thing. Those moments - admittedly rare in my case, I’m still learning - when you feel like a virtual “Stig”, a legend in your own living room, there is a blurring between fantasy and reality that is rarely captured in any other gaming genre.

When you slip behind the wheel, you could be slipping behind the wheel of a real car, and because it is a virtual model, it could be any car. From Fangio’s Maserati 250F (in the upcoming Assetto Corsa), Jim Clark’s Lotus 49, through to Hamilton’s Mercedes F1. From historic legendary cars through to cutting edge hypercars of today, it’s all possible, and through the simulations, each and every one has their own characteristics and unique feel. For race fans and car fans, the options are simply breathtaking.

The combination of ever increasingly realism in the titles and the hardware that is available for the Xbox One means that Console Racing can become more engaging and more immersive than ever before. It gives fans a real opportunity to try and emulate their heroes of the track or just to lose themselves in a complete driving experience. With Forza Horizon 3 and Assetto Corsa heading our way soon, it’s only going to get better. There is more diversity for racing fans than in any previous generation and there's something for all drivers of all levels, from the casual through to the hardcore, racing on tracks, off-road, or just exploring open worlds. Racing on the console is as good as it gets right now. If it were any more realistic I may be throwing up like Chris Evans in Sabine Schmitz's passenger seat.
Andrew Ogley
Written by Andrew Ogley
Andrew has been writing for TA since 2011 covering news, reviews and the occasional editorials and features. One of the grumpy old men of the team, his mid-life crisis has currently manifested itself in the form of an addiction to sim-racing - not being able to afford the real life car of his dreams. When not spending hours burning simulated rubber, he still likes to run around, shoot stuff and blow things up - in the virtual world only of course.