Friday, 9 August 2013

Next-Gen Driving Games #2

The Need For Speed a.k.a. Over Drivin (1994)
By: Pioneer Studios / Electronic Arts Genre: Driving Players: 1 Difficulty: Easy-Medium
Featured Version: 3DO
Also Available For: Saturn, PlayStation, PC

As one of the very first video game genres, I think it's safe to say that driving games have come a long way since Atari's Night Driver, the first into-the-screen example and released all the way back in '76. Since then there have been some great games released, as well as a good few not-so-great ones, but as enjoyable as they may or may not have been, they were never terribly realistic. Of course, as technology got more advanced their realism slowly improved and today's console efforts appear almost photo-realistic and often require tutorials to even 'play' properly. Between these two points though, the first example of the genre I encountered that truly felt like an actual driving game was The Need For Speed, the first of the now-extensive series that's still going strong today (there's even a movie on the way!), and for this reason it's the game I've always considered the first genuine 'next-generation' driving game.

My Stealth Lambo sneaks up on a Ferrari 512TR...
Despite now numbering more than twenty games for near enough every system that's been a 'current' system since the mid 90's, the series actually débuted in 1994 exclusively on the 3DO courtesy of Electronic Arts. It wasn't an especially hyped game so, unlike some of the more recent instalments, the weight of expectation didn't work against it, and the poor 3DO wasn't exactly swamped in 'killer apps' anyway, so it came as a nice surprise to find that it didn't suck major arse. Seeing it for the first time back than was a memorable, almost jaw-dropping experience too; I remember the occasion well, but that's a story for another time (a future 'Gaming Memories' feature, perhaps?) - the big question now, for me at least, is one that I've been wondering since I got into Burnout: does such a pivotal game still pack a punch today that's even comparable to the impact it had back then?

The 'driver's-eye view' is the best choice by far...
The first thing you'll notice will undoubtedly be the rather nice presentation. There's about a million animated company logos (okay, two), a hyper FMV intro showing various shiny supercars zipping around, all accompanied by a 'bangin' soundtrack, and then we're introduced to our 'rival', another racer played by an actual real-life person, Z-list actor Brenan Baird, whose job it is to psyche you up (or taunt you) before a race, gloat if he beats you, and concede defeat graciously (sometimes) if you beat him. As well as this there are also fact-files on each of the impressive vehicles along with FMV of them screeching about and sliding on skid pans, all with narration of course. This kind of stuff is taken for granted these days, obviously - it's even annoying a lot of the time and gets automatically skipped - but back then it was quite amazing and made players feel like they were in for something special! When you finally got around to trying the game itself though, it looked as though it wasn't just window-dressing either.

"Oh crikey, it's the rozzers!"
The only game modes available are a Versus race or a Time Trial and the same three tracks are available for both - City, Alpine, and Coastal. Each is divided into three sections of public highway which means they're all filled with normal road users pootling around (in first gear, apparently) in their cars, but what of your own set of wheels? Happily, there are eight fine choices: Mazda RX7, Honda NSX, Toyota Supra, Porsche 911, Corvette ZR1, Dodge Viper RT10, Ferrari 512TR, and the monstrous Lamborghini Diablo VT. In the Time Trial mode it's obviously just you, your exotic ride, and the other idiotic road users, but in the Versus mode you actually have someone to race - the aforementioned 'rival'. You can choose which car he drives though, which is basically another difficulty level (for there is another on the options screen) - give him a piddly RX7 which choosing a Diablo yourself and you'd be a bit of a hopeless nincompoop if you didn't beat him!

Oops! Watch the road, not the hot air balloons!
He's not the only one you have to beat though - there are also pesky coppers laying in wait at certain locations or just driving around and they don't take too kindly to your probably-reckless skylarkings. If you pass one (even at normal speeds as far as I can tell) they'll set off in pursuit; if they manage to catch you and overtake, you'll have to pull over to receive a ticket. If you get three tickets in any one race it's game over, so it may be best to drop the hammer when the blues and twos arrive. This presents its own challenge though, which often results in arguably the most famous aspect of the game, at least in its day - the crashes! Indeed, since EA acquired official permission to use the splendid cars in question they don't actually show any crash damage as usual, but that doesn't stop the game from flinging them about all over the place when you do make an error in judgement (or, as may be more likely, when you try to cause as big a crash as possible!).

"But... my speedometer is broken, officer!"
The developers haven't been too harsh here - hitting other cars below a certain speed or banging sides with other road users will merely slow you down a little, but if you hit anyone at speed the effects are often chaotic to say the least - your car (and any other idiots you might've hit) will usually be put into a spin, sent rolling down the road, or even launched in the air, tumbling and flipping until it finally comes to rest. Obviously this can cost you a lot of time, particularly as your rival has no such crashes (he does make mistakes, just not ones of that size) but it still makes for an entertaining (and oft-amusing) spectacle. These scenes of carnage also supposedly obey the laws of physics which is an indication of the kind of realism Pioneer have tried to inject. How successful they've been isn't something I can really comment on as I've never personally driven any of the featured cars, never mind crashed them at high-speed, but it sure sounds like they put in some effort.

How did I manage to lose control in a straight tunnel?
All the cars, for example, consist of bitmaps digitised from real photos and then wrapped over a polygon skeleton, so they all look the part even if they do get a bit pixelly close-up (see the white NSX above). The interior of each car is apparently also authentic, as are their engine sounds which were recorded from the real thing (although they don't actually sound very good so I've always doubted that claim). Pioneer also added a fairly comprehensive post-race replay system which allows you to view the action from several different 'cameras' and even speed things up or slow them down. On top of that, they collaborated with US magazine, Road & Track, to ensure the cars each perform exactly like their real-life counterparts. To quote the game's producer, this was achieved by way of "a very sophisticated physics model which uses statistical information recorded by Road & Track to accurately simulate the performance characteristics of all the cars, covering aspects such as acceleration, braking, handling, top speeds, etc". This attention to detail is all very well of course, but does it result in an enjoyable game?

Crossing the lovely Alpine bridge...
Well, again, I haven't actually driven the cars myself, and I remember being amazed when I first played this game, but coming back to it again after having played other supposedly realistic games like Gran Turismo, F355 Challenge, and even Shift, a later instalment of the NFS series itself, the handling of the cars here does seem a bit sluggish. They can reach quite a pace, and the sensation of speed is decent enough when you get there, but it seems to take a while, and the steering often feels quite heavy as well. Trying to move around other cars or go round corners sometimes feels like hauling a big truck around (although I've not driven one of those either). There's no power-sliding here and the cars don't have traction control or ABS either so you have to actually slow down and take tight corners properly if you want to win races (although this also means you can do huge burnouts, or even doughnuts if you so desire!). Then again, who knows - maybe all this is realistic for these particular cars.

The car on the right is a cop - proceed with caution!
The courses are just as realistic as the cars as well. The scenery also consists of digitised textures taken from photos and, despite including some nice features such as snow/ice (on the Alpine route of course), a giant bridge, and some surprise hot-air balloons, everything is pretty normal which means no crazy short-cut-laden races through amusement parks or airports or anything like that. Nor do the courses feature insane hairpins, banked corners, opening drawbridges, etc, but that's not to say they're crap - they're more 'pleasant' than pulse-quickening, requiring you to actually drive around them rather than just holding the accelerate button and bouncing off the crash barriers and other cars. They sure look nice for their day anyway, though. The City course is probably the least interesting (which is why there's not many screenshots of it!) but the mountainous, pine-tree laden Alpine course is great and the sunny, cliff-top drives along the Coastal routes only need to add the breeze in your hair! The draw distance is superb too, thanks to an advanced 3D rendering system which enables realistically-unlimited road.

Go anywhere near the edge and this happens...
So basically then, Need For Speed was a revelation on its release (for those lucky/foolish enough to have a 3DO) and an important game for the genre, but as the original instalment of a loong franchise it's understandably showing its age a little now - the frame-rate seems a bit iffy at times, there's no career or championship mode, and there aren't too many circuits (although still more than some celebrated games that came after it like Ridge Racer, Daytona USA, etc), but it's difficult to emphasise just how impressive this game was in its day. More courses and a two-player mode were added for the Saturn and PlayStation conversions which came later, but something was also lost during the process and they just weren't the same. There's no doubting the historical significance of this 3DO original though, and I've still enjoyed playing it for this feature - it's can be so relaxing and immersive to simply go for a drive without having to worry about anything else and it remains a unique game for me in that regard. Anyone playing it for the first time today is likely to move onto something more modern quite quickly but for gamers like me who grew up with it, The Need For Speed was and remains a special game.

RKS Score: 8/10

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