Why the racing genre needs to be more hardcore

Before I begin, let's clear up one common misconception: 'hardcore' does not necessarily mean 'hard' as in 'difficult'. Casual games can be difficult. Perhaps the best explanation is that hardcore games demand a greater understanding of how they work and more discipline on the player's part to get the most out of them. And in terms of racing games, that means more than just holding down accelerate and steering. It means involvement, as opposed to passively consuming the on-screen action. The original Super Mario Kart on SNES is hardcore. Gran Turismo 6 is hardcore. GRID Autosport can be hardcore. Indeed, most track-based racing games are hardcore (or at least can be configured to be) but they're sidelined because of the stigma attached to them. And that's exactly where I want to start...

I heard an awful thing the other day. Someone actually described a track-based racer as a 'corridor racer'. Ugh. What a disgusting, belittling way to describe one of gaming's most enduring and quality-rich staples. I assume they are inferring the track is like a corridor because you're constrained by barriers on either side. This sort of labeling plants damaging seeds of negativity, just as the phrase "it's too arcadey" did before it. And this thinking is only being cultivated by developers, resulting in the emergence of a different kind of racing game, particularly by the leaders in the field. Quite literally 'in the field' in the case of Forza Horizon 2, where you can take a supercar through a vineyard, smashing through the vines like they're made of cardboard.

You can flip the car and continue your race. You can hit oncoming traffic and it only feels like a glancing blow. You can even cut out a corner in the road completely by pointing towards the next checkpoint and tearing up the turf. Sounds like an arcade racer, doesn't it? But it isn't. Not quite. It's still dressed up as 'Forza the simulation'. I'd argue it's actually 'Forza the please-don't-get-frustrated-and-stop-playing' casual game. Yes, I did just use the 'C' word. By taking out the need to drive on the road or worry about hitting other cars, you hold the gas, you take in the views, you rewind if that doesn't work out. Essentially, it's a casual racing experience. A very good one, but casual nonetheless.

But Playground Games isn't alone in dumbing down driving, nor is it to blame. Forza Horizon 2 is just the latest in a string of ever-less involved racing games. The change in Nintendo is abundantly obvious, which is particularly telling considering the experiences it offered some 20 years ago were just as family-friendly as they are now. Frustration never used to be a problem because everyone just learned to be better. But today, frustration is interpreted by some as being a sign that the game in question isn't very good. Nintendo appears terrified people might stop playing because they 'can't do it'. I appreciate sometimes people want a game the whole family can play together, and that's perfectly fine. But since not every game is going to fit that bill, why dumb it down for everyone else?

Look at Mario Kart 8 compared to the original Super Mario Kart on SNES. By today's standards, the latter is a super-hardcore driving game, where margin for error is tiny, hazards are everywhere and deviating from the smooth track surface by even the smallest amount sees you floundering as the rest of the field disappears into the distance (with, I might add, no rubber-banding to let you catch up again). It's incredibly punishing and demands absolute mastery of your kart's controls. Yet it was massively successful when it was released, both critically and commercially. There is no way Nintendo would release a Mario Kart like it today.

By comparison, Mario Kart 8 is a round-edged, safety-foam-covered child's plaything that it's impossible to hurt yourself on. It's still a high quality game, of course it is. And it's hard to win on the highest skill level. But look at how little the trackside grass slows you down. How wide the tracks are compared to the SNES game. How slow the Kart is actually travelling when you look at the scenery gliding by. How much more time you are given to react to oncoming hazards.

If a game that was seen as casual on its release is now the epitome of hardcore kart racing, it's only because everyone has moved towards this hand-holding together. And somehow we have arrived at a place where a racing game can begin with automatic braking enabled. Automatic braking destroys a racing game because braking is the game. It's not about how fast you go, it's about how little you can slow down.

Someone asked me 'how do you go so fast?' I replied 'don't brake as much'. It was a joke. Of course the trick is actually to brake more. To slow the car properly so that you exit the corner carrying more speed. And that's something that most modern racing devs have completely forgotten. Or, more accurately, elected to ignore. Some racers not only offer automatic braking, but even steering assistance. Who is this for? Why not just watch the demo?

It's funny how far some of the frustration-relieving features have been taken, with undeniably impressive results. First introduced to racing games in GRID, the time-bending 'rewind' mulligan has been copied by everything from Formula One to WRC. If you try an overtaking move and end up flipping into a ditch, you only have to hit Y and have another go. Sure, it means you get to enjoy spectacular crashes even more (because they essentially mean nothing), but is the gameplay any more involving as a result? No. Instead, you can all-too-easily find yourself in a dull cycle of rewinding the same section, to the point where it starts to get silly. And any win won't feel half as gratifying. It's hollow. You didn't earn it.

Do-or-die moves of real motor racing are the reason racing games exist in the first place. Games are supposed to enable you to emulate that glory, that excitement. Hakkinen daring to take Eau Rouge flat-out to pass Schumi, or the two Williams almost banging wheels at the end of Hangar Straight in 1987. Mansell passing Berger around the outside of the Curva Peraltada in Mexico. The greatest racing moments often carry the biggest risk.

The really annoying thing is, there are quite a few driving games being released right now. And several of them are hardcore, at least when you set them to their most realistic settings. But they still feel like they're 'for the petrol heads'. They're niche. Segregated. Labelled as 'hardcore', almost apologetically. They target driving fanatics instead of bringing hardcore racing to the masses like games did in the past. I know I'm showing my age, but Super Monaco GP was a simulation at heart, yet looked and felt so good, it was a must for most game collections. Maybe Driveclub will bring hardcore gameplay back to the mainstream. There is a chance--it is, after all, a brand new title with limitless possibilities, and it'll have a version on PS Plus too, so it will be more easily accessible than most racers. I sincerely hope so.

Racing games don't have to be hyper-realistic. The best, arguably, are not. But the best racing games are the ones where you have to drive the car better to do better. Super Mario Kart, Sega Rally, Daytona USA, Gran Turismo 3... Are those games accessible and enjoyable from the start for players of all skill levels? Certainly. Fiendishly difficult and deceptively deep if you actually want to win? Hell, yes. We're all getting lazy because we're being encouraged... nay, conditioned, to believe that laziness is normal. I say it's destroying the genre.

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  • DavidDesu - October 5, 2014 6:41 a.m.

    Great article. I find it sad that so many arcade style racing games for a few years now have dumbed down the handling to the point where there isn't really a handling model to speak of, just going left, going right and hitting the throttle, with no nuance. For me it's a total disconnect when I've played some games. No feeling of a connection to the road, physics that make no sense and aren't consistent, and yeah all of this computer assisted braking and steering, that just doesn't even make any sense to me at all why anyone would play that or find it enjoyable. FH2 sounds like it's a great simcade racer, and Driveclub too. I've only got a PS4 and getting DC and I've seen a lot of footage recently and it looks VERY similar to PGR. A bit over the top and easy to control, but the cars have weight, you have fine precise control, you have oversteer and understeer, you need to control the throttle at points, and you need to brake. I'm REALLY looking forward to it. Also, the tracks are epic and look so well designed. So many arcade racers are let down especially in this regard, bland corners, nothing that feels... I dunno... engaging. The racing game isn't dead yet, and if devs simply embrace what's always been there they can rise again. No more pathetic gimmicks now!
  • rxb - October 2, 2014 8:53 a.m.

    For my two pence worth I think there's a few reasons we ended up here. First is the depth, realism and content offered by Gran Turismo. It really meant after that devs had to decide whether to compete on that level or make a more arcade-y game. Combine that with fact devs are trying to appeal to new players that may have a low frustration tolerance this is the result. It's great you Towelly and others are thinking like this although I expect the only viable solution maybe lots of gameplay options for those that like depth and challenge. Even then with game metric logging these days devs could how many people play those options and remove them if they didn't consider it worth the dev budget.
  • Rojoco - September 30, 2014 2:14 p.m.

    If you ask me the genre could do with more games in the vein of Split/Second and Motorstorm Apocalypse. I must be wrong though as nobody bought those games apparently. :/
  • DirkSteele1 - September 30, 2014 10:50 a.m.

    Agree, agree, agree.
  • usmovers_02 - September 30, 2014 8:23 a.m.

    Ugh. I'm so sick of this incredibly lame excuse for why rewind is a bad thing. Don't like it... DON'T USE IT!!! Forza and GRID even have an option to completely disable the feature! The fact is that most people don't have infinite time to play games. That means we frequently have to cram the most fun we can into a small window. That doesn't mean the game can't be pure sim. I LOVE Forza. Love it. I also love endurance races. I don't always get to restart if I make a mistake after an hour of racing. A feature I think would be great in sim racing games is the ability to save the race during pit stops so you can quit and come back later. Then 24 hour races would actually be possible for me.
  • Boughie24 - September 30, 2014 3:45 a.m.

    Sim racing is not as inaccessible or scary as a lot of people think, admittedly a decent steering wheel is necessary which will cost you about £100+(also the PC itself if you are currently on console) . I built my first PC because I love motor racing and racing games but found there wasn't really anything that satisfied that on the consoles. I started off with Race 07 and I now I play a lot more like rFactor 2, Game Stock Car, Formula Truck, Assetto Corsa, Raceroom Racing Experience and GT Legends. They can be a bit rough around the edges like rF2 or still in development like AC and Raceroom but they are excellent and the best experience you will get in a racing game. There are sites like RaceDepartment and Race2Play that regularly organize online races with like minded people who want great and clean racing.
  • BaraChat - September 29, 2014 7:44 p.m.

    As someone who played a lot of racing games in the past 6 years since I got a PS3 (Perhaps upwards of 20, of ALL subgenres), I tend to agree with you. However, it depends on exactly what experience you're looking for. I know, when I insert a game like GT6/Forza in the console, that I will have to focus for the whole races (unless my car is massively overpowered, which makes it possible for me to overcome small mistakes) if I want a chance to win. I'm looking for a racing/driving experience appealing to the car nut in me. The guy who watches/reads things like Top Gear, CAR and EVO. When I put a more "arcadey" game in like NFS (except the Shift ones), I'm doing it for the gamer in me. Looking for a fun time, without too much constraints or frustration-inducing factors. I can totally understand why someone would only like arcade racers like NFS and not sims like GT. It's a bit frustrating because you know inside that it's not REAL racing, but it's still a video game. And that someone will still be having fun.
  • shawksta - September 29, 2014 5:23 p.m.

    You know your right, the genre could use more, I recently played Midnight Club LA, damn great and fast feeling game with tight driving. Could use more of that.
  • shawksta - September 29, 2014 5:20 p.m.

    "How wide the tracks are compared to the SNES game" You need more clarity on this one justin, plus there are quite a few tracks with sections of tight spaces, if the entire game was nothing but tight spaces it would get too hectic. You know now that i think about it, maybe F-Zero should take the role of everything Mario Kart isnt.
  • Sinosaur - September 29, 2014 2:31 p.m.

    As someone who did use a lot of the rewind feature in Forza Horizon... I guess I'm fine playing a more casual game. I'd tried some other racing games, and none of them had ever been all that fun to me. I picked up Forza Horizon based on the demo, went in, had a lot of fun. I did use rewinds and had the racing line visible, but I avoided all steering and braking assistance. What I found was that I started driving a lot better. I used the rewind less, I was able to figure out more how turns worked. I never really reached a point where I turned them off all together because it was more fun for me. I did, however, try some online races where none of that was an option, and when those didn't immediately become ruined by a massive crash at the start line, it was fun. I wouldn't call a game like Forza Horizon casual, because it does care a lot about how the car interacts with the world, but it has the ability to create the right sort of race for drivers of lots of levels. Not having those features is a lot like the problem with many fighting games where they are completely incompetent at teaching new players how things work.
  • nick-shulga - September 29, 2014 12:02 p.m.

    Thnx justin for bringing this to topic to light. I'm a guy that seeks most bleeding edge realistic simulators and i have played racing games since the original Gran Turismo (i was like 8 or 9). I have been real frustrated with unrealistic racing games being the only marketable and what people want to play. I have friends that enjoy playing need for speed and i liked it's police chases, but when need for speed SHIFT! came out, no one would play it with me. when SHIFT! came out i was excited that NFS was taking a realistic approach instead of being able to bounce against walls like their trampolines, but all my friends found it to difficult and it wasn't fun for them and it brought me to realize is that people play games to avoid required thinking and knowledge. realistic racers takes knowledge and and continually hard focusing leaving it in the hobby section, instead of mainstream games. I'm not saying unrealistic racers are all bad, i enjoy burnout and cop chases on NFS, but they have more to them, then just racing and they don't try to be realistic, they try to be fun. What im saying is that realistic racers will continue to be confined to more of a hobby and unrealistic racers should stop trying to be simulator and then bubble wrap the users. Raceroom and iracing is mmo racing simulators, if your like me and have no one else to play racing games with.
  • doctorhino - September 29, 2014 9:50 a.m.

    Kind of strange you give Mario Kart a pass at being hardcore even though you can get hit by items and still win the race. And then Forza Horizon sucks because hitting a car head on doesn't end your race? I think you might be playing too easy of a mode on Forza Horizon if you find no challenge in it.
  • pl4y4h - September 29, 2014 9:35 a.m.

    I'm not really a sim guy cause to me, what's a racing game without a couple of explosions/crashes/city-wide demolition (RIP Split/Second), but I do like challenge in my racing games. Truthfully the last racer I played that I can remember recently was burnout revenge on the arcade to relieve my nostalgia but I would hate to be forced into "assist" controls. You either win or you lose and get better till you win, no excuses
  • mafyooz - September 29, 2014 9:04 a.m.

    I don't play many driving games, especailly the ones labelled as "Simulators", because I'm the first to admit I'm not very good at them. But on those times I have tried recent ones all the "assist" features have really annoyed me. If you can't get around the track by yourself , or are unwilling to learn how to, why bother? Like the article says, why not just watch a demo or someone on Twitch/Youtube, it amounts to pretty much the same thing.
  • normanpleasant - September 29, 2014 8:34 a.m.

    Lovely article, though I daresay your fetishistic love of the automobile won't win you much sympathy with the mainstream I'm afraid, Justin. Those with passion are looked down on as fussy or 'entitled', and so I fear you'll be doomed to wander the gaming world forever in bitter disappointment like a stray cow.
  • GR_AndyHartup - September 29, 2014 8:56 a.m.

    Beautiful metaphor. And you make a great point too.