[22 January 2010]
There has always been a divide between fans of racing games. One side prefers racing sims like Gran Turismo, which emphasize the technical details of racing; the other side prefers arcade racers like Burnout, which emphasize speed and have a low learning curve. But the past few months have seen two racing sims come out that try to make the experience more enjoyable for those that prefer the arcade style: Forza Motorsport 3 and DiRT 2. Despite the similar features in each, and the bevy of assists in Forza 3, I believe DiRT 2 does the better job appealing to gamers of my ilk, who have always preferred Burnout over pretty much everything else.
The setting helps. By taking races off their enclosed concrete tracks, the tracks feel less formal. Yes, they are still enclosed, but there’s a rebelliousness to racing on the dirt, mud, and gravel as if Dirt 2 is upping the ante on other racing games. This feeling is reinforced by sporadic puddles and ramps. This isn’t your everyday race track; you’re fighting the environment just as much as the other racers. It doesn’t immediately look like the kind of race that would demand precision braking, it looks more accessible. Driving though such an obstacle course is fun in its own right, so even if a rookie is in last place there’s still enjoyment to be had. Never underestimate the allure of a ramp.
But looks are deceiving. DiRT 2 does demand precision, something players learn the hard way if they treat this game like an arcade racer. It is a sim first and foremost. While the setting makes it more visually exciting than other sims, from a technical point of view it’s comparable to the best of the genre. This is when players encounter the normally steep learning curve of racing sims, and in my case, get frustrated and stop playing. But DiRT 2 does everything it can to ease this frustration to keep me playing, to keep me learning until the tracks are etched into my muscle memory, and I become a better driver.
The “flashback” feature lets players rewind time, giving us the chance to fix a past mistake. One of most disheartening things about a racing sim is that if you crash at any point, the race is likely lost. For someone just learning the controls, crashing is common, and this constant loss is infuriating. By giving the player an immediate second chance that frustration is eased, and so the player keeps playing. The immediacy is also a great benefit as it allows players to experiment, to hit the brakes earlier and earlier each time until we take the turn perfectly.
Damage in DiRT 2 is a little extra something for sim fans and arcade fans alike. For the sim crowd, damage effects how the car handles, so if a beginners cuts you off at a turn by careening around it and using the wall to stop, he’ll suffer for the bad driving. For gamers like myself who are likely to do just that until we learn otherwise, damage is aesthetically pleasing. Arcade racers from Cruis’n USA to Burnout Paradise are known for exploiting people’s love of carnage. Crashing in one of those games isn’t frustrating because the crashes are often fun to watch. The same can be said of DiRT 2. If a beginner is going to crash and fail a lot, a spectacular show of broken glass and bent steel will keep the player interested instead of frustrated.
Of course, the fastest way to ease frustration is to just make the game easier. The difficulty level can be changed before every race, so if one is proving to be particularly tough, the player can just lower the difficulty and continue playing. The game can never truly be “punishing” or “overly difficult” because of this option. And the option remains open after the race, so as we get better we can always come back and up the difficulty.
But the most important element is less obvious. It’s not a feature or a mechanic that can be seen in videos. It’s a feeling. The game effectively captures that same barely-in-control feeling that Burnout does so well but here that feeling is magnified by the higher difficulty. DiRT 2 demands more from us than an arcade racer does: It’s not just about driving fast, but driving fast while remaining in control and aware of the environment, other drivers, and upcoming turns. When we pull this off, when we finish in first place, the sense of accomplishment is that much greater.
Forza 3 also allows players to rewind time and select any difficulty, but it’s the constant off-road action that makes DiRT 2 more attractive. It doesn’t look like more of the same, luring in normally suspicious arcade fans like myself and opening the door to an entirely new genre of racing.