Monday 27 January 2020

A New Generation of Semi-Sim Driving Games

I have been thinking about driving games again. The act of driving around virtual tracks in virtual cars - possibly not strictly simulational but taking inspiration from the laws of physics and how they apply to an engine working through a gearbox to apply force to up to four wheels in contact with (ideally) tarmac. Games that aren't about exploring open worlds or drifting on invisible rails but about refining your entry into corner 12 with the perfect braking point for your current setup, tyre wear, weather conditions, and fuel level to optimise your exit speed down the long final straight.

What I haven't been doing is playing much Forza Motorsport 7 or Gran Turismo Sport. Which isn't to say they're not still the ongoing titles in those series: Polyphony Digital have made good on their plans to keep releasing new content for GT Sport to bring it up to a full game and Turn 10 finally missed their odd-year Motorsport cadence (they've hit from the 2005 release of the very first Forza Motorsport) so are having to support their e-sports ambitions on the old platform even after updates have run dry.

Meanwhile, Codemasters have continued to release more driving games than any other publisher with their annual F1 licensed games and usually combined with at least one of a TOCA/Race Driver/GRID or Colin McRae Rally/Dirt titles. Now Slightly Mad Studios (of Project CARS fame) is part of that publisher, they'll have even more games to publish. Which is to say I've been playing through some older games and also trying out the reasonably new F1 2018 & 2019 releases to help me refine what I'm looking for in a driving game.

One of the nice things about different teams coalescing around an idea of a semi-sim, ie a game that's not the PC pure simulator racing setup, is that many of the quality of life features appear in several places. Since Flashbacks came to GRID & Dirt in 2008, they also came to Forza in 2009 (with unlimited rewinds in FM3). While playing the earlier 2011 F1 game, Flashbacks were limited with custom difficulty offering at most four rewinds, but by the time F1 2015 rolled around, you can rewind as much as you like (something that's still true in the most recent F1 games). To me this allows offline play to combine the process of learning tracks and control with experiencing a decent campaign made up of your best performances. It's training for time trials or online play and it gives players the confidence to turn off assists because learning how to tame a beast of a car won't ruin a 30 minute race against AIs that they'd otherwise have been crushing. We now expect regular checkpointing in games rather than a failure resulting in restarting the entire mission.

The idea of assists has also changed over time. The handling of F1 2011 and 2015 isn't identical but you can feel similarities (beyond how weightless both make the car-car impacts feel) with things like how ABS works which are unlike a modern Forza or the newer F1 games. Previously, when working with physically-based cornering (ie not "arcade" handling) then turning on virtual ABS provided limited help in corners because they felt like they consumed all the friction of the tyre slowing the car down so there was nothing left to turn with. If you brake before the corner then turn and accelerate, this isn't the end of the world. Unfortunately for those wanting this assist, trail braking is a thing and F1 is known for it - it's basically impossible with this old system for simulating ABS (which feels a lot like you've locked the brakes but without the loss of deceleration).

But assists are meant to limit your potential (they make your mistakes less ruinous but cap your performance so there is incentive to turn them off - that's the ideal anyway) so this wouldn't be the end of the world without another major assist everyone offers: dynamic (3D) racing lines that go from green to red to tell you where the braking point is. Only they're not quite as dynamic as you'd want from a teaching tool: they tell you where the best braking point is for a competitive lap, not where you need to brake if you can't use trail braking because of another assist you've got on. Marking the place where you need to have already been braking is like having a note marker in a rhythm game where you're not meant to press a button: that's the opposite of what I wanted. So jumping ahead from 2015 to 2018, I was glad to see that the new ABS system reserves friction for turning - it becomes a helper mode that makes your braking slightly less effective but means you don't need to know how far to hold in the left trigger and how to let it off slowly as you decelerate to get round the track competently.

With all these assists (ABS, traction control etc), they're completely illegal in actual F1 racing but also that is some of the most demanding driving you can do - I'm not trying to play an actual simulator; I don't drive race cars & my joypad is a bad approximation (which is why games have to smooth steering inputs with a joypad) for a complex wheel & two pedals - F1 cars don't need a clutch pedal. Doing this for real is something experts are paid a lot to do very well and consistently after years of practice. Which helps lift the question beyond "is it realistic" because no, none of these are options you can enable in an F1 car. I think it's easier to have conversations about what assists are designed to do when there's not the option of falling back to how it happens in real life (unlike a lot of the cars in these semi-sim games that do have actual clever gizmos doing this stuff, sometimes with an option to disable them for track day).

When I'm learning how to handle the car losing balance at a tricky corner or how to manually tweak my various boosts (if you didn't know, F1 cars charge an onboard battery under braking which they can deploy as extra power (beyond tweaking fuel mix); they also have a system for increasing speed on the straights by opening the rear spoiler as long as they're under a second behind the car in front to help encourage overtaking) then sometimes I don't want to worry about locking. Also there are a lot of people who haven't had to think about any of these things and introducing one concern at a time is a great way to build the ladder to enjoying the full range of systems in these semi-sim games (along with unlocking the best lap times that mastering all the systems and knowing a track well can provide).

There's something here that might not hold me for an entire 305 km on a single track but luckily you can tweak distances and it'll kick up wear to compensate (as all these games should), turning a race into a more reasonable 20-30 minute play session. The weather forecast is always there to keep things interesting - pit for wet tyres or should you risk it not getting worse and put on intermediates? The pit strategy is a core part of every F1 race because you've got to change tyre compounds at least once and, in previous years, refuel (1994-2010) - it's all about handling the dynamic conditions and betting where you'll need the best lap times (making races less of a procession defined by raw pace during qualifying turning into race pace). The conditions for an exciting race have been developed by actual racing so video games can handily borrow all that know how - drivers considering when to burn tyres on pace and when to sacrifice a tenth of a second but be better placed to overtake in two laps when the opportunity arrives (bonus points for games that have the radio operator advise you about such possibilities). One of the things that has turned me off Forza games as a long term project to master was a lack of interest in dynamic conditions being as dynamic as they really are (even the poorly received DriveClub provided examples of dynamic conditions and real-time lighting: changing a dozen or more laps into never the same loop twice - something Forza Motorsport took too long to adopt). Having wet tyres teleport onto your car as the rain starts is really not doing it for me in 2020 (especially in FM7, where you keep driving past a pit lane there's no reason to use).

F1 games had always challenged me because they're so fast that mastering them without assists needs a great memory or amazing reaction times. With a granular AI difficulty (1-115) you can really tune the AI to your pace (also the breadth of teams means that you know approximately where you should finish based on how good your car is vs the rest) and slowly ease off the assists. There's also the pageantry of the race weekend (all of this stuff tweakable to however much you want to engage with) which allows you to (in the most recent games) run various programmes during qualifying to get familiar with the track and show your team how you can maintain an ok pace while focusing on minimising fuel use (doing things like coasting at the end of straights) or being kind to your tyres. There's a lot more than just doing the race itself and those programmes feed back into unlocking upgrades to push your car up the rankings. F1 2019 even introduces a brief Formula 2 option, finally offering cars with longer acceleration and braking times than the slowest F1 team (to help get up to speed - something the far wider selection of cars in other series make much easier).

We should see some new consoles showing off new driving games later this year but I might actually be the most interested in what new is coming to F1 2020. The actual motorsport is making a few changes that'll mean new tracks but it would be nice to see them bring back the classics (especially as they've already built versions of the tracks recently retired from the real season) to make more meaningful the smattering of classic cars already in the game and expand options beyond just running a career mode that pretends tracks never change in the future theoretical seasons. What if they got really into speculating on future rules changes so you could vote in new seasons which played quite differently? Something to give a 10 year career some real legs.

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