I’ve always preferred arcade racing games over racing sims. I can’t bring myself to care about Gran Turismo 5; no matter how many assists it might add for beginners. The subtitle “The Real Driving Simulator” will always be a turn off. The same goes for Forza, Need for Speed: Shift, and Grid. Thankfully, this year saw the release of three high profile arcade racers back-to-back-to-back: Split/Second, Blur, and Mod Nation Racers. While I admit that I haven’t yet played Mod Nation Racers, when I played the other two games I was so disheartened that I went crawling back to a perennial classic in a desperate attempt to reignite my love of the genre. I bought Burnout: Revenge, and was instantly hooked. Replaying it now, it’s obvious what sets Criterion’s masterpiece (personally I’m not a fan of the open world in Paradise) apart from its competitors. It’s a single and perfectly implemented mechanic: the ability to ram cars.
Arcade racers are about one thing and one thing only: speed. Anything that slows you down is inherently detrimental to the experience. The ability to ram opponents is a perfect addition to a racing game because it’s something you can do at top speed. In fact, it’s best done at top speed. It’s a mechanic that uses our natural racing tendencies in a new way, so that each race becomes more than just a race (they become fights) without ever dampening the game’s sense of speed.
Split/Second and Blur both tried to add something new to the genre with mixed results. The lack of ramming in both games feels like a major omission, severely limiting how I can approach an opponent.
In Blur, you fight other cars with power ups, but to acquire a power up, you have to run over a floating symbol with your car. The power ups are usually grouped together in horizontal lines across certain parts of the track, and since each power has a different symbol, you can easily see what powers are available and aim your car towards a specific one. That last action is precisely why combat in Blur can be frustrating. You have to pick up a power before you can use it.
In Blur, it’s important to stay on a good racing line, keeping track of your angle and speed going into a turn is necessary to maintain your position, but picking up a power often requires you to veer from that line. Being a good driver means missing power ups, which leaves you helpless against the other cars, but loading up on missiles and shields means straying from the line so often that your driving becomes haphazard. The combat in Blur actually detracts from the overall racing experience.
Split/Second suffers from similar offensive limitations. Combat consists of setting off what are essentially traps in order to destroy other cars. You can drop a shipping container ahead of opponents or even bring down an entire building on top of them. To actually set off a trap, you have to fill a gauge by performing certain stunts like getting air time, drifting, or driving in someone’s slipstream. These requirements make combat immediately more fitting than the power ups in Blur because combat in Split/Second directly relates to driving. Your naturally crazy driving fills the gauge, which you then use to attack others. The only problem is that you can only set off traps ahead of you, so you can only attack cars ahead of you. Thus, if you’re in the lead, combat is nonexistent.
To keep races interesting, the game uses an aggressive rubber band AI that constantly tries to put you in the middle of the pack. If you get too far ahead, then other cars get a speed boost. Start to lag too far behind, and they slow down. But this AI only exacerbates the combat problem by giving your opponents an unfair speed advantage. When you’re in the lead, you can’t do anything to stop an opponent from speeding past you, and if this happens near the end of the race when there are no more traps to set off, all you can do is watch helplessly as you take 2nd or 3rd on a track that you raced perfectly. In this case, the ability to ram opponents would be a fitting defense for someone in first. Even if it’s ineffective (making the traps a more preferred form of combat), nevertheless, knowing I can swerve into someone to prevent them from passing me would at least lessen the frustration. I wouldn’t feel quite as helpless when I get overtaken at the last turn.
For arcade racers from Road Rash to Burnout, ramming other cars is still the best form of combat. But perhaps it’s unfair to compare Burnout: Revenge with Split/Second and Blur since Burnout has had plenty of time to refine itself. I sincerely hope that Split/Second gets the chance to do the same (even more so now that Blur’s developer has been shut down). As frustrating as it is to lose a race due to poorly balanced AI, it’s also endlessly fun crushing opponents under a flying semi truck. That alone is worth a sequel. And if the sequel is still frustrating, I can always go back to Burnout: Revenge. Some classics never get old.