Better Graphics Don’t Make for Better Racing

The 2015 installment of Need for Speed prioritizes realism and verisimilitude over gameplay.

Driveclub, a Playstation exclusive racing game, is a gorgeous looking game. I only played the free version available to PSN subscribers, which locks out a lot of content, but the one track that is available was more than enough to secure it the tentative title of “Best Looking Racing Game That I’ve Ever Seen.” But after completing that track, one whole race, I turned the game off with no desire to play it again. This decision was based on a tunnel featured on that track and the game’s insistence on creating a realistic world, complete with realistic eye adaptation effects (that is, the ability of the eye to adjust to various levels of darkness and light).

As I came to the tunnel, I couldn’t see past its threshold. It was all darkness. The game was modeling a realistic perception of light: My virtual eye was overwhelmed by the amount of light outside. It couldn’t adjust to the dark, so I couldn’t see even a few feet inside the tunnel. This was frustrating because the road curved immediately after the entrance. I obviously couldn’t see the curve and crashed into a wall. A similar thing happened when I tried again and exited the tunnel. The sudden influx of light blinded me, turning the screen white. I slammed on the brakes expecting to crash again, but when my virtual eye adjusted, I saw only clear, straight road ahead.

Driveclub is a realistic looking game and part of how it achieves that realism is by making the camera mimic the quirks of the human eye. That’s all well and good for a racing sim, those kinds of visual obstacles are important to that experience because the experience is meant to reflect reality. However, not every racing game needs to be this realistic and especially not games like Need for Speed, games that put their emphasis on speed. For the arcade racer, these kinds of realistic visual tricks just impede the experience by blocking my vision and forcing me to slow down.

The great danger here is that as consoles and hardware improve and more developers/publishers chase realism as a means of keeping up with their peers, then all racing games risk converging into a single style that’s unsuited to certain kinds of play.

I bring this up because this year’s installment of Need for Speed prioritizes realism and verisimilitude over gameplay. It’s a simple arcade racer at heart, but that arcade heart is constantly at odds with the game’s presentation of itself.

The most obvious example of this is the fact that the entire game takes place at night and in the rain. As you complete missions and progress the story, it’s clear that a significant amount of time passes, but the sun never rises in Ventura Bay and it’s always drizzling there. It’s like Gotham City but devoid of people, criminals and civilians alike, a city populated with cars only. In fact, this is probably what Gotham would look like in Pixar’s Cars universe.

Teasing aside, the night and wetness help show off some of the prettier graphical effects. Streetlamps and headlights can only reflect off rainy pavement in the dark, and the diffusion of flashing police lights is only noticeable due to the dark, wet air. It all looks great, but it results in a visually monotonous game and a more difficult game. Night driving is hard. Other games separate night and day driving because they’re very different experiences. Need for Speed can offer only one experience because it prioritizes its aesthetics over variety.

The graphics problem hit me when I went back and started playing Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, a 5 year old game (I wanted to mimic its handling physics in the 2015 game, but ended up just playing it instead). Hot Pursuit still looks pretty damn good. The cars are still detailed and don’t look like a collection of jagged pixels, like some Playstation/Playstation 2 games do. What it lacks, however, is periphery content, a world outside the race track. There’s just less stuff on the side of the road, featuring instead mostly just hills, forests, deserts, and ocean coasts. It’s a scenic world, but also an emptier one, populated with fewer buildings, streetlamps, signs, etc. This is actually nice because I’m free to focus on the road — and the road only.

The 2015 game is far denser, and while all that stuff may be on the periphery, it’s all still competing for my attention. The big neon sign of a diner calls out to me regardless of how fast I’m speeding down a street. Every additional item on the sidewalk — a sign, a dumpster, a parked car, scaffolding — it all competes for my attention. Even if it’s easy to ignore for the most part, it’s annoying to race in a world that’s constantly trying to steal my focus away from what matters most.

This issue of realism also effects how race courses are constructed and presented. Hot Pursuit features much more of an open world to exist within, not in the sense that I can dive anywhere, but that it’s literally more spacious. The roads feel wider, curves feel longer, and intersections are bigger. Everything is stretched out to make the road ahead easier to see. The developers want to ensure that I know where I’m going. The race isn’t meant to be a maze, staying on course isn’t part of the challenge, and getting through it as fast as possible is the only challenge. To that same end, Hot Pursuit is happy to break the verisimilitude of its world by blocking off certain pathways. If I come to an intersection and the race track goes left, then the other directions are literally blocked off with giant yellow arrows pointing me in the correct direction. The game wants to make sure that I know where I’m going, and it prioritizes that information over the reality of its world.

In contrast, the world of Need for Speed feels far smaller. Not in terms of overall size, but the roads and turns feel tighter, more confined. This is a more realistically proportioned world, but it’s also not as fun to drive through because there are fewer places where I can just gun the engine and drive like a monster. I can’t get up to 200mph on a city street.

The game also keeps its open world open when I’m racing, it makes no attempt to block me from going down the wrong path. A blue marker does appear on the road ahead of me to mark my course, like a holographic GPS device, but that line has an odd tendency to swerve left and right on straight roads, not to mention that it’s rather difficult to see in the night-world of Ventura Bay. It becomes especially problematic when you acquire faster cars and the road is coming at you so freaking fast that by the time that the GPS line shows your where to turn, it’s already too late. You’ve driven past it. This splits my attention yet again, forcing me to keep one eye on the minimap that shows my course, turning me into both driver and navigator.

The need for better graphics drives an overall push towards realism, which results in a darker, more confined world with confusing tracks and less effective GPS-like directions. The gamey, unrealistic, and spacious world of Hot Pursuit doesn’t look anywhere near as pretty, but it knows what is important. Every aspect of the world is designed around helping me drive fast. A slightly blurry but player-friendly world is always better than a photorealistic player-unfriendly world. Better graphics aren’t going to make a racing game more fun if all that they’re used for is making racing harder. Just let me focus on the road.