30 December 2008


 


 

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIS MONTH I'VE MOSTLY BEEN PLAYING
Date: November 2008
Game:
Trackmania (DS)
Reason:
because
dammit, there has to be
a good DS racing game out there somewhere
.

Racing games are the DSí Achilles heel. Since an excellent but unadorned port of Ridge Racer 64 four years ago and a decent enough iteration of Mario Kart a year later, the system has been noticeably lacking in whatís arguably modern gamingís most popular genre. Yet thereís no inherent reason for it Ė RRDS shows that the machine is capable of moving big, detailed scenery around at breathtaking pace (by the later stages itís terrifyingly fast) and can fit lots of tracks onto even a small cart (at just 32MB, Ridge DS is only one-eighth of the size of the DSí biggest ROMs), and digital controls didnít stop games like the original Ridge Racer, Daytona USA and Sega Rally being massive hits in the PS/Saturn era. So where are the great post-2005 DS racers? And surely there must have been at least ONE good one in the whole of 2008, the DSís biggest year to date?


Good luck figuring out where to go next.

Trackmania DS certainly isnít it. Since your reporterís valued friend and colleague J Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun came back breathless with excitement in the summer after visiting developers Firebrand for a preview, itís looked as if the handheld version of the hugely popular PC series might be the game to finally wave the (chequered) flag for the DS in the world of racing. And when it finally appeared this month, first impressions were pretty encouraging Ė TMDS has a splendid engine that carries the high-speed action along more smoothly than a greased hovercraft on a Teflon ice-rink, even during the incredibly fleeting moments when there are more than two cars on the screen at once. (Possibly because it isnít wasting any CPU time on bothersome collision detection Ė TMDS is a time-trial game, and your ďopponentsĒ are ghosts who exist only to provide a visual cue for how close you are to the target pace. In fact they just get in the way visually, and thereís no point in ever choosing to have more than the one whose medal time youíre trying to achieve displayed. Oddly, you canít race against a ghost of your own previous lap time.)

But like the same developerís DS version of GRID from a couple of months before (see below), Trackmania is a case of a great engine wrapped around some really poor game design. Despite being capable of pretty stunning draw distances, it spends most of its time lazily cheating you with blind corners and jumps, giving you no possible way of working out where youíre supposed to be going until itís too late. The gameplay, then, chiefly consists of speeding down the track until you fall foul of some hidden obstacle or pitfall, then immediately restarting, remembering where it was, and repeating the process until youíve trial-and-errored your way to the end. (Itís no accident that thereís a one-touch ďinstant restartĒ button, because otherwise thereíd be a nationwide epidemic of smashed DSes.) For those of you old enough to understand the reference, itís Rick Dangerous Racing.


You rarely see Trackmania screenshots like this.

Because itís so fast and slick and jaunty, TMDS is one of those games that you try really hard to like, despite the way it regularly spits in your face. In the brief period between learning where a trackís hidden traps are and executing a successful gold-medal run through them, itís even possible to forget how much the designers hate you and actually enjoy yourself for a few minutes. But then it just throws up another particularly loathsome course like Desert C2, or it starts putting great big hidden holes right in the middle of the track on the Stadium ďDĒ levels. (These are a standard feature of the dismayingly awful ďPlatformĒ stages, where they should have had the decency to stay Ė I mean seriously, what sort of PRICK builds a high-speed racetrack with enormous fucking HOLES in the road?)

Or you just run into a brick wall in the tiresome unlocking structure and canít get any more tracks to play on, or you suffer some particularly blatant piece of AI cheating where youíve been going flat-out for 10 seconds without a single error and the CPU car just zips past you and disappears into the distance anyway, or something else equally cheap and sneery happens, and eventually Trackmania DS passes your own personal putting-up-with-shit threshold and gets frisbeed out of the window forever. (For most people, I estimate this will be somewhere around the end of the ďCĒ levels/beginning of the ďDĒ levels, where the balance between enjoyment and frustrating, unfair repetition really starts to go off the scale.)


The handling of the Minis is fairly ridiculous. They practically move in right angles.

The tin lid is the absence of any sort of online mode or even leaderboards (the online functions being what made Trackmania popular in the first place, of course), making the construction kit which occupies space that could have been used for more tracks a near-total waste of time. (And the game could certainly have done with more tracks, because youíll gold-medal the 75 built-in ones in three or four hours if you can stand the ever-increasing levels of cheating for that long, and quicker than that if youíre a TM veteran.) In a particularly cretinous piece of metastructuring, you even have to spend in-game money on buying the building blocks for the editor, when youíll want to use it to unlock the tracks.

Trackmania DS is a sort of low-budget Fisher Price version of the PSPís splendid Gripshift (also available on XBLA and PSN, and warmly recommended on all formats). If you want to be reminded of just how inferior the DS catalogue is in the racing field, itís the game for you.

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The sort of tracks GRID likes to pretend to be full of.

RACE DRIVER: GRID (Codemasters)

Firebrandís other big release isnít the one to save the day either, which is a crying shame. It starts fantastically, with an all-action race through the streets of Milan, eight cars all jockeying for position in the narrow street circuit with lots of 90-degree turns and fast straights. Unquestionably the DSís most impressive-looking racer, with big vehicles and lots of detail making it look like a miniature Project Gotham, GRID then immediately throws it all away as it descends into an utterly miserable Gran Turismo wannabe with time trials, braking tests, drift exercises and possibly the most catastrophically misjudged single inclusion of any racing game ever Ė an ďeventĒ where instead of driving round a road really fast you have to design an entire three-mile-long track with the clunky course editor.

No, I'm not kidding. 10 minutes into the high-octane racing action for which you presumably bought the game, you have to stop, learn how to use a fiddly, annoying construction kit, grasp some principles of racetrack design, and laboriously build a pretty lengthy track with it (I'd just about let them off if you could knock out a quick oval loop) before the game will let you progress. Do you think anyone ever made Lewis Hamilton do that before theyíd let him get in his car and have a race? Iím not sure anyoneís ever put anything more epically retarded in a videogame in all of human history, and Iím including Otis from Dead Rising in that calculation.


What you'll actually be looking at most of the time.

After the brilliant Milan opener, just three of the next 18 events involve you actually racing against other cars, and one of those puts you behind the wheel of a hideous American monstrosity that steers like an oil tanker falling down a mountain, which you have to navigate around 150-degree corners in the angular streets of San Francisco. Luckily, said streets are so narrow and your beast of a car so wide that thereís little chance of anyone overtaking you no matter how many dozens of times you smash into the walls, and the damage allowance is so generous that you can afford to, so the race is as easy as it is unenjoyable.

If you know what happens after the 19th event, youíre a far stronger and more persistent person than I am, though probably also a considerably stupider one with much lower standards. If Firebrand ever hire anyone who knows half as much about actual game design as they evidently already do about how to program the DS, they're going to come up with one hell of a racing game. This definitely isn't it, though. Could someone explain to me what it was it that ever gave some idiot designer the moronic idea that the reason people want to pretend to get behind the wheel of insane 300mph supercars is so they can DRIVE THEM AROUND SOME FUCKING TRAFFIC CONES? Thanks in advance.

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Lego Car Racing DS can't be far away now, and it'll surely look like this.

EVOLUTION GT (Black Bean)

Compared to GRID, Evolution GT looks like it was drawn by one of Firebrandís developersí learning-impaired child with a chisel and a bucket of gritty dog vomit, but God bless it, it actually lets you race against cars! It also offers eight nicely-designed tracks spread across various European locations, from the winding country roads of the Scottish Highlands to the tight city streets of Barcelona, but thatís about it for good news. The AI was apparently coded by the graphics artistís less talented younger brother, and features a collection of drivers with a single hive mind who are accordingly prone to lining up duckling-fashion behind each other in a single file that only gets messed up if you disturb their formation, at which point they all fight to get back onto the same position on the track at once, causing endless comedy mayhem.

The upshot of all this is that unless you get caught up in the middle of said chaos, itís a piece of cake to get past all the CPU drivers in one go, and then stay in front of them simply by holding the racing line (in the unlikely event they ever catch you up anyway), which will cause them to dumbly ram straight into your rear bumper over and over again even if youíre going at 20mph.

Weirdly, the game is full of unlockable licenced cars that you donít get to actually drive in the main Career mode (your vehicle is always chosen for you, with the unlockables only available in Quick Race and Time Trial modes), which removes any last glimmer of interest, since the CPU AI offers no obstacle to your progress at all, even at the highest of the four difficulty levels when the enemy cars at least go a bit faster. And you have to unlock the levels in turn anyway, which means literally hours of unbearably tedious processions through the tracks on the easier levels until youíre so heartily sick of them that the prospect of Pro levelís Berlin race going on for four long laps makes a grisly, drawn-out suicide by combine harvester seem an attractive alternative.

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That glimpse of Hong Kong is the only one 99.9% of Ducati Moto players will ever get.

DUCATI MOTO (ZeniMax)

The DS is rather better served with motorbike racers than most other consoles, which is to say it has more than one (the soul-crushingly funless Moto GP being pretty much the only option on the big machines). Itís still a genre on the margins, though, and as a result it still tends to mostly see releases by people who are a bit mentally subnormal. Ducati Moto is a perfect example Ė a game with a splendid fast engine, great handling, a large number (15) of excellently-designed tracks in interesting and varied locations, very accomplished graphics, and a game structure for which someone needs to have strong-smelling fish nailed to every part of their body and then be lowered by their feet into a large pit full of starving polar bears until thereís nothing left but blood-stained toenails.

When you first play Ducati Moto you think youíve uncovered an obscure treasure and wonder how such a good-looking and exciting game could possibly have been missed. Then, slightly baffled, you wonder why youíre being asked to race the same track that you just won on again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Because Ducati Moto is so incredibly, spitefully mean-spirited that it simply wonít let you off a track until youíve accumulated dozens of Championship points on it, for which it forces you to perform endless repetitions of PGR-style tasks: normal races, but also token collections, time trials and Ė most heinously of all Ė three different types of absolutely awful ďStunt ChallengesĒ.

You canít even mix and match these tasks to stave off the boredom of repetition Ė youíre not allowed to attempt a single Stunt Challenge until youíve come first in Race, Time Attack, Eliminator and Race Line modes, all on the same track. Since doing that is likely to involve a good 20 or so attempts even on the easy starting tracks (Ducati Moto has some pretty decent opposition riders, and it takes a LONG time to accumulate enough money from beating them to upgrade your bike into something competitive), itís hard to overstate how much youíll come to hate the sight of each one before the game reluctantly deigns to unlock another course from its well-stocked but jealously-guarded cupboards.

Itís clear that for some reason, the designer of Ducati Moto absolutely LOATHES the people who are going to play it, which is a terrible shame because everyone else who worked on it did a fantastic job that nobodyís ever going to see. No other explanation is possible, because words seriously canít do justice to just how staggeringly, insanely, OBVIOUSLY terrible the structure of this otherwise-superb game is. Pity.

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Moto Racer DS is full of lush, blue-sky scenery.

MOTO RACER DS (Electronic Arts)
The other DS bike racer of 2008 at least initially holds more promise, because it comes with a top-quality pedigree. The first two Moto Racer games on the Playstation 1 were simply magnificent pieces of work, right up with Suzuki Alstare Extreme on Dreamcast in the ranks of the finest motorbike games ever made. Since then, though, EA have undergone something of a policy shift towards making all their games easy enough for seven-year-olds to finish in a week, and Moto Racer DS sadly didnít escape the clutches of their dreaded Infantilisers.

Itís not all bad news, though. Once again, the technicians have done a great job in exposing the myth that the DS canít do decent 3D. This is a good-looking, fast-moving game with ultra-responsive controls and a rock-solid framerate even when youíre turbo-boosting past a full pack of CPU riders. You get dozens of tracks, with the traditional Moto Racer spread of road races and dirt-track motocross meets alongside a category I donít recall seeing before Ė Traffic, which offers head-to-head races or Mission events, both set on city tracks not seen elsewhere in the game. In the latter you have to perform tasks like riding the wrong way down a busy city street for a certain amount of time, or complete a race by overtaking red cars on the left and blue cars on the right in a highly inventive take on the slalom.

The sheer amount of content packed into MRDS is pretty impressive, and unlike Ducati Moto youíre actually allowed to access a lot of it from the beginning rather than having to do 100 laps of the same track before you get a glimpse of another one. But irritatingly for those of us over seven, the harder difficulty settings are one of the things that are quite obstinately locked, and you better be ready to wade through a good couple of hours of varied but insultingly easy events before youíll be allowed to encounter something vaguely demanding. (By which time, of course, thereís no novelty left and little motivation to carry on, because youíve already seen all the courses in Compulsory Baby Mode.)

The motocross events (subdivided into race and stunt modes) are much less accomplished than the road racing, but unlike Ducati Moto you arenít forced to play the horrible bits in MRDS, and the two good modes easily add up to a respectable whole game by themselves. Itís just annoying and stupid that EA not only feel the need to dumb down their arcade games for cack-handed children whoíll probably be buying Spongebob Squarepants Kart Racing instead anyway, but much more idiotically to lock the adult difficulty settings away from people whoíve paid good money to get an enjoyable motorcycle racer without trudging through hours of kiddy preliminaries first.

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Man, DS screenshots really don't come out well from being blown up, do they?

FERRARI CHALLENGE (System 3)

I canít really explain why I donít hate this. Itís a little-heralded sterile track racer in the vein of Gran Turismo and (more obviously) Segaís arcade nerdfest Ferrari F355. Itís yet another Firebrand effort, thatís been coded by most of the same people as Evolution GT and has single-file CPU AI thatís almost as dim. While the graphics are a lot less gritty-looking this time round, with much more crisply-defined cars, thereís a visual tradeoff for it in that all eight of the courses are near-identical featureless flat grey GP circuits. Itís also a Ferrari licence, which means itís aimed at the most wearying and joyless sort of petrolhead trainspotter. And yet thereís something modestly, unassumingly likeable about it.

It could simply be that it starts to offer some resistance earlier than almost any game in this roundup, with the opposition actually putting up a fight anywhere after the Easy races. (Itís got the same irritating unlocking structure as its sibling and Moto Racer DS, though, so you canít just jump straight into Medium and start enjoying yourself without enduring a bunch of training-wheels races.) In fact, Iím pretty sure it IS that, so I wonít bother going through a long and boring list of other possible reasons.


It all looks clean and sharp onscreen, though, so don't fret.

This is about as stripped-down a DS racing game as you could get, with the exception of the curious little Top Trumps minigame that hides away on the main menu under the innocuous title ďChallenge CardsĒ. (PRO TIP: In the ďageĒ category, older is better.) But simply by showing the player a little modicum of respect and NOT assuming that he or she is a ham-fisted sugar-rushing toddler in a blindfold, it overcomes the handicap of its DNA and turns into something thatís quietly engrossing.

And it even manages to do it without the sort of endless obsessive hubcap-tweaking or rollerskating-hippo handling that so often ruins games in the nerd-racer genre. (Ferrari Challenge has a simple driving model where the cars feel nice and heavy and take skill to get round the track at speed, but don't slew wildly all over the place when you're just trying to go in a straight line like so many "serious" racers feel obliged to do for some reason. I don't know where those guys buy their cars, but I'd get down to a mechanic pronto if I was them, or at least to Kwik-Fit to see if all the tyres are bald. Real cars, even highly-tuned racing ones, just don't handle like that, you dolts, or there'd be 500 racing drivers killed every year.) Whodathunkit? Itís practically the best DS racing game of 2008.

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The map screen deserves special credit - it's so accurately done you can steer by the
map alone most of the time, without even needing to look at the main screen
.

NEED FOR SPEED: UNDERCOVER (Electronic Arts)

But almost as unexpectedly, thatís actually this one. EAís flogged-to-a-whimpering-pulp Need For Speed franchise hasnít seen a decent game (unless your favourite TV show is Pimp My Ride, anyway) since about 1995, and as it wasnít launched until 1997 thatís quite a poor record. The four previous DS titles in the series were all epoch-shatteringly, questions-asked-in-Parliament terrible, and there wasnít any reason to expect anything else from this one when it showed up in mid-November (WARNING! WARNING!), just in time for the Christmas market. But this time round, EA finally wised up to the fact that nobody likes seeing gigantic blocky graphics lurch around the DS screen at three frames a second, drew the camera back and reduced the scale a bit, and produced a fast-moving game that in fact pretty much resembles Grand Theft Auto without the walking-around bits.

NFS Undercover even features, rather startlingly, a mildly interesting plot, which is moved on at regular intervals with mercifully-short stills cutscenes used to concisely explain a story in which you play both criminal and cop. After each cutscene the game unlocks a handful of challenges in which you might have to complete a circuit or eliminator race, overtake a rival, cause a certain amount of damage to vehicles and scenery, evade roadblocks and pursuing lawmen to get a stolen car to a safe house in one piece without having the fuzz on your tail (those are my favourites), or chase, ram and catch your former criminal associates and deliver them to the police station.

The action takes place in a large city and its surrounding region, and there's a well-judged balance between giving you time to get familiar with an area and moving you off somewhere else to provide a change of scenery before you get bored (and cleverly gradually overlapping areas as your patch gets bigger, so that you return to places you know from earlier). The structure is flexible in allowing you to play unlocked stages in any order and move on without beating every last challenge in a section, and there are all the car-upgrading-and-pimping shenanigans you'd expect from a Need For Speed title, but nothing you need to spend any time on if you don't want to - you'll gather plenty of money, without really noticing, to simply buy faster cars if you're struggling to beat events with the ones already in your garage.

It's not perfect. Enemy AI is unsophisticated, and the EA Infantilisers have ensured that you'll be 40 or 50 missions in (out of a total of 80-ish) before you start regularly encountering ones that'll hold up your progress significantly (those that do before then are mostly the rare and comically absurd Highway Battles, where your opponent seems to be able to ghost through other cars while you crash just from getting within four feet of them, and then suddenly boosts away from you at twice the speed of sound). It's possible that you'll have wearied of all the event types by the time it gets anything approaching properly difficult. But NFSU tries its little socks off to stop that from happening by throwing different scenery, really interesting course design and little plot twists at you (along with a Most Wanted high-score table that you move up at just the right speed), and it more or less pulls it off.

It's got more sense of coherent place than any DS game not aimed at nine-year-old girls, a fair amount of genuine invention, and a sheer volume of content that'll make sure you get plenty of entertainment value for your money even if you don't make it all the way to the end. It blends GTA with Outrun 2, Crazy Cars 3 and Chase HQ, and if that sounds like a good idea to you then the execution isn't going to disappoint you. If you want a more pure and traditional racing experience, stick to Ferrari Challenge. But as a jack of all trades and master of some of them, NFSU is the best DS racing game of the year.

The Trackmania section of this piece originally appeared on Snappy Gamer.

 

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