Features Racing Games that shaped a decade

Features

Alan Boiston

Founder & Website Editor

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10 years have flown by but with them we've seen some fantastic evolution in the racing sector, and this period represents an era where home consoles have finally been able to do the genre justice. Looking back on personal experience, the hardware available1980's was incredibly limiting but it was a time when we simply didn't know any better? Pole Position, Final Lap, Chase HQ and Outrun would represent the pinnacle of their respective genre, moving into the 1990's and Virtua Racing would change everything but it wasn't until the advent of the PS1 that things would take a marked step forward. Pushing the power of the home formats, rolling into the PS2 and Xbox would introduce a whole range of new opportunities.

GT5 would kick off the decade along with latter Dreamcast title Vanishing Point.

Ridge Racer 5 would finish the 1990's but it was Gran Turismo 3 that would set the benchmark for all to come. Stunning visuals and refined handling, GT3 may not have been the package everyone had hoped for but either way it was without doubt the most advanced of its era. Transferring from the PS1 wouldn't be as straight forward for all developers, Colin McRae 3 was a lackluster affair, dreadful handling and mediocre graphics hurting the franchise while more Japanese highway battle racers were poorly executed.

But it always takes a leap, where a developer goes for gold, takes the industry forward and proves the sales potential. For Microsoft the investment into Bizzare Creations would be just that, with the highly impressive and underrated Project Gotham Racing. Running at 60fps with perfect handling, this would become a sleeper hit amongst racing fans but loosing that critical online mutliplayer functionality did not maximise its potential. The 2003 sequel would fix this, in fact it would take over as the best console racing title ever made! Meanwhile Codemasters set about repairing the damage to the Colin McRae franchise, CM4 would be right on the money, great graphics and revised handling putting the title well ahead of its rivals of the rally genre, though some may site Rallysport Challenge, these would be completely different in their approach with the latter resolutly aimed at the shallow arcade aspect.

The first major trend of the decade would be influenced by hit movie The Fast and the Furious with EA rebooting their Need For Speed franchise and using a unique graphical approach in producing a title that would appeal to wide demographic while including those flashy effects. Gameplay would be simple enabling more players to gain their rush and race the US streets “undercover”. This later followed by the Juiced series and the official game of the Fast and Furious movie, however both would fail under the wait of EA's marketing behemoth. Though my key title for this period would undoubtedly be TOCA 2, 60fps with 12 player online races and manageable lag, Codemasters did it again, but alas the weak scoreboards would be open to exploitation thus destroying the serious racing community and the longevity of the title.

It had certainly been a while since racing games had built any kind of arcade racing fever but with very few racing genres being touched upon it would be up to Initial D to fill a gap. Racing on open roads down some of Japan's finest mountain passes along with some of the most cheesy music ever. Initial D would build a huge Asian following but a disappointing conversion to the PS2 would seriously affect the power of the brand, curious that Sega didn't take more care in converting and marketing a title of such obvious potential. Rivals were keen to captialise with Battle Gear 3 and 4 converted accurately, Wangan Midnight to follow in the coming years, but as time would pass, so would the market dominance of this trend.

Back to Europe and the racing event of 2004 would undoubtedly be the stunning Burnout 3, again graphics taking at step forward and combined with the power of XBLive there would be hours of fun to be had and if that wasn't enough, EA would grab the Christmas number 1 with Need For Speed Undercover 2. If any evidence was needed that driving games were back and could gain market share, this would be it.

Late 2004 in Japan (2005 for the rest of us) saw the long awaited Gran Turismo 4, again it was stunning in presentation providing the complete GT package but it didn't set the world alight in quite the way many of us had hoped. The rally mode featuring dreadful handling and lots of bitty issues, on the one hand it should have been the dominant title of its era but as soon as PGR3 was revealed, GT4 became history in the minds of many. But that's not the full story, we had seen the release of Colin McRae 2005, probably the finest in the series and a stunning finale to the franchise on the XB1/PS2 formats. We had also seen the release of Forza Motorsport, redefining the quality of racing experience expected in the home and the connectivity of XBLive unleashed like never before, ushering in new possibilities while giving a glimpse of our online future. Indeed the power of Forza Motorsport would create online communities quite unlike any previous title, it may have come at the end of the XB1's life but would always serve as the formats benchmark racing title, even surpassing the supreme PGR2. But merely months later we would finally get our hands on the next generation, PGR3 for the XB360.

Visually PGR3 was a revelation, HD visuals, a stunning photo mode and great handling that would find a balance between its arcade and simulation intentions. Featuring fully modeled interiors and some fine cities, PGR3 was just what the doctor ordered. But as good as the game was, it just didn't have the longevity it needed, and with a two year drought the serious racing fan would struggle the seemingly never ending wait for Forza Motorsport 2. Again Forza 2 would take its place as the most highly regarded racer on the format, it wasn't perfect, indeed the handling had in some ways taken a backward step but at least we had something to keep us busy. This was soon following by Colin McRae Dirt, a new apprach to the franchise, no doubt attempting to spread the brand to the US and gain greater awareness. But alas Codemasters kept up their tradition of poor transition to new formats, terrible handling would let down a game that had superb potential, however you can't keep a good man down and in the case of Codmasters you can never count them out.

2008 and Gran Turismo Prologue rolls onto the scene, as ever its everything a GT title should be but still with a lot of room for improvement, it may only be a glorified demo, but what a demo. It's funny to think that the GT demo would become the favourite racer on the format, even beating the exclusive Motorstorm titles, though lack of an option to use the steering wheel couldn't have gone unnoticed. But the loudest title of the year would be new Codemasters franchise Grid, another super intense street racing action game, this would introduce the now common rewind feature and sold well due to its pick up and play antics. However the reception by serious races would be met with huge disappointment, in many respects the title was sold as their new answer to TOCA and unfortunately on playing the final product we would realise that this description would prove to be very long way from the truth. Grid was an arcade game and looked at that way it would be great, but alas console simulation fans would have to wait.

Gran Turismo Prologue and Motorstorm would be the PS3's key automotive franchises.

If 2008 was a turning point, 2009 would see racing fans finally receive their just rewards, and it would kick off early with the much anticipated Race Pro from Simbin. The first time a serious PC developer would make an accurate simulation for a console format, on first play the title proved to have exceptional handling despite shabby outdated graphics. However the biggest fault would be the utterly broken online aspect and serious bugs, proving a severe lack of testing and rushed development process, no doubt pushed by financial issues within Atari. Despite successful sales initially, word of the major bugs would hurt long term sales and the Simbin name, its unlikely we'll see another Simbin console racer in the short term, but even if we do, it'll have an uphill struggle to gain any support, a crying shame as a clearly great independent developer should be supported in the current climate.

2009 was a busy year for the racing genre.

Within weeks Race Pro had fallen from the game on everyone's lips to a thing of the past, now all eyes would focus on E3 and ever increasing rumours of a new Forza title. E3 2009 would see the announcement we all knew that was coming, Forza Motorsport 3 is officially announced but to everyone's surprise it would be released in late 2009 again beating Gran Turismo 5 to the grid.

Formula 1 has gone through a range of guises, what will the new generation from Codemasters offer?

This just a selection of the many titles and focuses on the console format through the PC genre is something we'll look at more closely over the coming months. But the ongoing trend is to ignore the simulation aspect within console racing and instead work towards gimmicky aspects in searching for something uniquely mass-market. Though on the bright side the biggest console titles, that being Forza and Gran Turismo have both stuck reasonably close to their real racing routes.

Looking forward to 2010 and the next decade, there's a lot for developers to learn from, we'll take a closer look at the coming year here.

The future is almost here….

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