7 upcoming racing games jockeying for position

Whether you’re looking for horsepower-perfect simulations or futuristic car-combat, 2010 is already set to be the year of great racers. From realistic licensed rides and formula one racers to cartoony customized characters and arcadey powerups, a slew of four (and two) wheeled machines are roaring for your attention. Which ones will rev your RPMs? Peruse our garage menu, and feast your gear-brain on these lovely speed-junkies…

An alternative look at Sony’s anticipated, delayed racer

This geologically-measurable wait is the spiritual sequel to the highly regarded long delay to GT4. And we hardly need mention that PS3 GT was really first mooted in the early Triassic. The press release is on display in the Natural History Museum, balled up in a fossilised forest.

Only joking. We love love. And this is what Gran Turismo is about. The love of one man – Kazunori Yamauchi, the big cheese at Polyphony Digital – for cars. Slow, fast, off-road, on-road, petrol, hybrid or electric, he doesn’t care. Is it okay for a man to love something metal? Completely, and just a bit sleeplessly? Of course, so long as it’s never consummated. Consider. The fourth game featured a wooden-wheeled ‘Patent Motor Wagon’ from 1886. No joke. Polyphony was so proud it released screenshots. It had one horsepower. It was slower than one horse, yet there it was. Yamauchi loves cars. Do you?

What this series has never been about, at least so far, is a love of racing. It’s been the F1 to its competitors’ bumper cars – untouchably advanced, creeping in its progress and strangely undynamic. It’s all about the technology. This may change, but on the evidence of Prologue, we’d be surprised. The bare facts imply an increasing obsession: over 950 cars, the return of Photo Mode, the ability to export replays to YouTube and PSP. It has Ferraris, Lamborghinis, a full Nascar field… these are the headlines for Polyphony. Not the racing.

However, it has moved on. There’s a reasonable damage model now, plus moveable objects – barriers, cones, lines of nuns – and an online mode far superior to Prologue’s Fisher Price effort which, legend has it, actually ran in the mind of a sleeping cat. Wait. Not lines of nuns; zebra crossings. It does, of course, look sensational. Turn away from GT5 and your sofa, your terrible curtains, and the pleading faces of your loved ones will seem boxy and low res.

So, if you love cars like Kaz Yamauchi, GT5 will be the wet patch in your bed of motoring roses. Sure, Polyphony is adding dynamism, and needs to, but accusations of ‘sterile’ environments miss an important point – nobody can create twisting roads as brilliantly as Polyphony. GT’s fictional circuits are better than its licensed ones and often a match for that Jesus of tracks, the Nordschleife. Which is here too, by the way. Almost 1000 perfect cars and many perfect circuits (out of 70) surely mean motoring – if not strictly racing – heaven.

All the realism you’d expect with… a lifestyle simulator?

F1 2010 promises to deliver all the standard must-haves of a plushly licensed sports sim. That means realistic depictions of all teams and drivers involved in the current season, plus 19 minutely detailed circuits. The comprehensive Career mode lets you follow a driver’s whole competitive life as he swaps from team to team, or you can choose to choreograph the rise of a single manufacturer. EA’s short-lived PC sim F1 Challenge would be proud.

The boasts about the racing experience are also familiar. Codemasters say to expect palm-sweating wheel-to-wheel action against AI drivers that reflect the genuine strengths and weaknesses of their real-life counterparts. You’ll need to watch your competitors, learn where they get things wrong (breaking too early on corners and so on) and adopt that knowledge into your strategy. Crucially too, Codemasters want to get away from the accepted idea of arcade and sim modes.

Their theory is, if they make the handling ‘authentic, predictable and persistent’ all gamers can learn to drive like Hamilton without having to feel they need a PhD in vehicle dynamics. So you’ll need to cope with tyre blisters and marbles, while deciding whether its worth using the engine management system to boost your performance for a crucial overtake (it could knacker the motor and you’re only allowed eight a season).

Our hands-on test drive confirms this is the real deal – a twitchy handling experience that will see your car spin out into the grit if you so much as look at a corner in the wrong way. But then the wonderful acceleration, a generous slipstream model and pin-point steering physics also let you blast back into contention before prodding and pushing your way through the pack. It’s hardly the intuitive thrills of the Colin McRae series, but it feels like more fun than most of the po-faced entries in the F1 archive. Plus, the visual style has that trademark, gritty, slightly washed out patina of the latest Codies titles, rather than the glaring yawn-inducing realism we expect from sports sims.

And of course, this is Codemasters – a developer that loves to tweak the racing genre. Their catchphrase for the game is ‘be the driver, live the life’, which means you’ll be able to wander around the paddock areas, flirt with the media in post-race press briefings and use your agent to get you a better team. You also need to watch your greatest rival – your teammate – as you’re competing for the best upgrades and preferential treatment. Sadly, living the life doesn’t appear to involve dating popstars, though. Perhaps that’s being saved for the DLC.