Gran Turismo Sport (Polyphony Digital, 2017)

Gran Turismo Sport is the latest entry in Polyphony Digital’s long running Gran Turismo series. It’s been the flagship racing game franchise on the Sony Playstation since 1997 and has appeared in some form or other on almost every Sony games console and handheld. When I bought GT Sport in January it marks the first time I’ve played a Gran Turismo game for quite a while. The Forza series has mostly filled that niche for me up to now but after getting a PS4 Pro it felt only right to hop back over to this side of the fence. Even though I’ve usually enjoyed myself with Gran Turismo and Forza games, I’ve always felt that they were never quite for me. I like motorsport and racing cars but I’ve never really been one for general car culture or drooling over the latest unobtainable road-going supercars.

Before we go any further, this game requires an internet connection to access the majority of the content. Even most of the single player modes. I know that could be a deal-breaker for some players so I thought I would say it straight away.  It’s increasingly common for single player games to require an always-on connection but no matter how widespread it is, I’ll never be okay with it.

 

 

As you might guess from the always-on requirement, GT Sport is very much an online-focused game. The big selling point is the FIA-backed online multiplayer which promises players the so-far rather nebulous reward of being able to apply for an FIA racing license in the future. Details on this are still sketchy at best but it would appear to allow an eligible player the chance to apply for a new class of license designed to help facilitate the transition from eSports to real motor racing. Of course, the players who choose to take the FIA up on this offer will most likely have to pay for their license, like all other FIA racing license holders. This feature has not been implemented yet so it remains to be seen how it will play out.

The online play takes the form of custom lobbies, three rotating daily races and two competitive racing series with multiple-week seasons. Public online races have a bit of a bad reputation for being absolute carnage but so far in my experience it hasn’t been a complete mess. GT Sport has an iRacing-style safety rating system, or “sportsmanship rating”, to try and keep a lid on bad behaviour or at least allow the safer drivers to rise out of the swamp and find clean races. Rating systems like this are a good step but they always have their drawbacks. In GT Sport‘s case the big flaw is that it’s so easy to maintain the top sportsmanship rank that I question the effectiveness of it. There is still no guarantee that an S-ranked driver won’t dive-bomb you or just sideswipe you off the road. Something I’ve seen happen more than once.  In spite of some examples of questionable behaviour I’ve had a lot of fun with the online play so far and although it’s far from perfect I think the daily races provide a good low-pressure, low-commitment option for new or occasional players to dip their toe into the online pool.

 

 

As far as the single player experience goes, it’s…okay. There’s a lot of obsessively detailed cars to collect and a fair number of hours worth of single player races but I wasn’t bowled over by the main campaign. A lot of the races boil down to fighting your way through a line of painfully slow cars to catch up to the faster drivers at the front. This is pretty much the way Gran Turismo has always been but I think I would have preferred a normal race format to a game of chase the rabbit. I found myself enjoying the secondary single player challenge modes more, particularly “circuit experience” mode. This is a sector-by-sector time attack that serves as a great way to learn the tracks and improve your overall lap-times.

I’m not really qualified or inclined to discuss the game’s handling or physics in terms of “simulation value” but the Gran Turismo series has always tried to strike a balance between realism and accessibility. GT Sport seems to continue that tradition with controls that require precision and practice but still remain within the reach of mere-mortals, especially with the range of driving assists on offer. You get the standard range of assists such as ABS, traction control and counter-steer assistance, all of which can be dialled in to your preference rather than just a binary on-off choice. It also supports motion-controlled steering with the Dualshock 4’s tilt sensor which is surprisingly good but I doubt it’ll convince anyone to throw their steering wheel away.

As much as the quality of the content on offer in GT Sport is fantastic, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed by the track selection. All the tracks look amazing but there just aren’t many of them, particularly when it comes to the real-world circuits. Yes, you get the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and that’s enough for some people but not me. Leaving aside my own personal favourites, classic racing game staples like Laguna Seca, Spa and Le Mans are missing. These are tracks that were in previous instalments of the series. It’s particularly odd that you can drive the entire range of Le Mans Prototypes from 2016 but there’s only one track from the WEC calendar. On the plus side, the latest update added Monza as well as some extra layouts to one of the fantasy tracks so hopefully we’ll see the track list filled out a little bit in the future.

 

 

Overall GT Sport throws up no real surprises and delivers the kind of quality you’d expect from a long-running flagship franchise. As usual it will probably appeal to car enthusiasts the most but the slight increase in emphasis on motorsport and multiplayer might just draw in a slightly wider crowd. People willing to play online will definitely get the most out of the game but for those less inclined to trade paint with the masses there’s still a good amount of single player hours, even if it’s not as many as some earlier games.

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Mini Reviews November 2017

Here’s another batch of mini reviews. I intend to say more about all of these games in the future if possible but for now here’s some quick impressions to tide you over.

Human Grand Prix/F-1 Pole Position (SNES, Human Entertainment 1992/1993)

On the surface, Human Grand Prix for the SNES looks like your standard early 90’s F-1 game, and in many ways it is. It doesn’t look much different to other F-1 games from the period and it has most of the same features. This makes it quite a difficult game to talk about but I feel like I need to say something because I played through the season mode recently and it really drew me in. It doesn’t offer anything unique and it’s far from a perfect game but in my opinion it’s towards the top end of the scale when it comes to old grand prix racers.

It’s a very straight-faced game and the season mode is quite long so I don’t think it’s something everyone would enjoy but if you’re looking for an old licensed racing game for a bit of nostalgia then this is a great place to start.

Screenshots

 

RC de GO! (Arc/PS1, Taito, 2000)

I’ve wanted to talk about this for quite a long time but for whatever reason it kept getting pushed to the back of the queue.

RC de GO! is a remote-controlled car game by Taito. It was originally an arcade release but it also came out on the Playstation, which is the version I’ve been playing. It’s unusual in that it’s based on real-world RC racing rather than just being a game where the cars have antennas on them. You control your car from a track-side perspective and can use twin analogue sticks to control the throttle and steering, a bit like on a real RC handset. The handling is a little tricky at first but feels very rewarding once you start to get the hang of it.

The Playstation version of RC de GO! offers a choice of a “quick race” mode based on the arcade version of the game and a championship mode which is a bit more in-depth. The championship mode might seem a little dry at first glance, especially once you look at the vehicle parts shop but it’s really easy to get into and it plays just like the arcade mode.

It’s one of those games that looks like a joke at first but it’s really anything but. Look beyond the budget presentation and the offbeat premise and you’ll find a fun and challenging isometric racer.

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ThunderWheels (PC, Arcade Injection, 2017)

We’ll finish with a quick word about a Steam Early Access game I bought recently. ThunderWheels is a Super Off-Road inspired game which went up on Steam at the beginning of November. Although it’s a very early version, it’s a working game with 6 tracks plus reverse variants, local multiplayer and 8 vehicles.

It needs work in a few areas, it’s an Early Access game after all, but I think this might be worth following. It’s already had an update and feels a bit more polished than the initial build they released. I don’t how much of a splash a game like this would make in 2017 but I think it has a lot of potential and it’s always nice to see indies make racing games. I will keep coming back to this one as it gets further updates.

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Toybox Turbos (Codemasters, 2014)

Toybox Turbos by Codemasters isn’t a Micro Machines game, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was. It’s by the same developer, has the same toy car theme and includes a few pretty direct call-backs to this earlier series. Make no mistake, this game wears its inspiration on its sleeve.

The main single player mode is split into 7 levels each made of 5 race events of various types including standard races, overtaking challenges and time trials. You can choose from 4-6 vehicles per level which are unlocked with in-game currency plus additional vehicles that you unlock by completing the final head-to-head events. It’s pretty easy to collect enough coins to unlock everything with no grinding at all, which makes a nice change.

Toybox Turbos is a much more chaotic game than the classic Micro Machines series. The handling can be a bit wild and woolly with some of the cars and there are weapon pickups and environmental hazards which add a more unpredictable element to the game.  I know weapons are always a bit of a sticking point for some people but I don’t think they’re particularly annoying in this case. There’s only a small selection of them and once you’ve been hit with one you get back up and running very quickly. It’s a silly game that doesn’t take itself very seriously but it doesn’t lean so heavily on the whacky elements as to spoil the fundamentals of the racing.

If Toybox Turbos falls short anywhere it’s longevity. Maybe it’s because it reminds me so much of Micro Machines that I’m expecting it to have the same breadth of content that those games had. I just can’t help but feel that there’s a few things missing even it’s just adding a couple of outdoor tracks or the old speedboats in the bath kind of level. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still got good things in it. Any game that lets you drive a dustbin wagon is a win in my book, but it would feel more complete with few extra bits and pieces.  At heart, these games have always been more fun as a multiplayer experience so if you’ve got friends who want to play it then the single-player lifespan of the game becomes irrelevant anyway.

Toybox Turbos is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC via Steam.  With the 360 and PS3 being a bit old hat these days, PC is probably your best choice. It’s got a budget price tag and is frequently discounted so you can pick up copies for yourself and your friends at a reasonable price. Either way, whether you’re playing this alone or with friends, I can firmly recommend this game.

 

Video: 3D Stock Cars II

I decided to try and make a video review and for whatever reason I ended up making it about 3D Stock Cars II on the Spectrum.

There’s a lot of ways this video could be better but I think it’s important for me to actually publish things rather than sitting on them forever because they’re not totally perfect. Anyway, here it is. Maybe I’ll do more in the future.

Manx TT Superbike (Sega, 1995)

It’s been a while since I mentioned an honest-to-goodness arcade game on here so I’ll put things right by talking about Manx TT Superbike by Sega.

This is a Sega Model 2 game from 1995. It’s based on the Isle of Man TT which is an annual motorcycle road-racing event dating all the way back to 1907. There are two courses available in the game, including a very approximate recreation of the Snaefell Mountain Course over which the real event takes place. I say approximate because the real thing is over 37 miles long. You don’t get a very accurate recreation of the course but it’s quite faithful to the look and feel of it nonetheless. There’s also a shorter course which appears to start on the promenade of the Island’s capital, Douglas and passes by the famous Laxey Wheel.

Manx TT Superbike‘s graphics look as good as other games on the Model 2 platform with the same simple, bold style and Sega’s trademark blue skies. They’re simple by today’s standards but very clear and easy to look at. The music is up to the standard you’d expect from Sega, nothing quite so iconic as Daytona USA but upbeat and catchy.

As this was a ride-on cabinet and I haven’t played a real one since the late 1990s it’s hard for me to comment on the controls and difficulty with any certainty. I can say that playing via an emulator with a controller is very twitchy and that I found using my steering wheel set to 180 degrees felt a lot more natural. Both of these control methods let you play very aggressively and throw the bike around a lot more freely than you would be able to on a real cabinet. When using a pad or wheel, Manx TT Superbike is not a particularly difficult game. Most of the hard course’s challenge comes from the behaviour of the AI riders that I would describe as a sort of reverse rubber-banding. The opposing riders will set off in a pack at an impossible speed that you can’t match unless you manage to latch onto their slipstream at the start of the race. Once you slingshot past them they then become rather reluctant to overtake, even though you’re travelling a lot slower than they were previously. If you fall behind at any point they’re going to disappear up the road, never to be seen again.

 

The difference in speed between your bike and the AI combined with the sheer power of the slipstream makes me think you might be able to get better lap times by not taking the lead. When I started to realise this a lot of the shine came off the game for me. I really like the style and presentation of Manx TT Superbike and overall I still think it’s okay but I don’t think it has much long-term appeal compared to Sega’s other offerings from the mid-1990s.

There were two home versions of Manx TT Superbike, one for the PC and another for the Sega Saturn. I haven’t played the PC version because trying to get 20-year-old PC games working is usually more hassle than it’s worth but I did try the Saturn version. Aside from a significant graphical downgrade, I think the Saturn port is a really good conversion. The music and sound are reproduced exactly and it retains the speed of the arcade version. The AI also behave a little differently to how I described earlier. They spread themselves more evenly along the course making you feel more like you’re actually racing them rather than just chasing after them. The Saturn version also supports analogue controls which is a bonus.

Normally when it comes to making recommendations I’ll lean towards the arcade as that’s the original version. In the case of Manx TT Superbike and other games with ride-on cabinets I’m a bit more divided in my opinion. Although you can play the game more-or-less as intended via an emulator, you’re never going to get the full experience without very specialised hardware. In the case of this game I’d say give the arcade version a go and see how you find it but you might also enjoy the Saturn version just as much, if not more. It’s certainly no less authentic an experience than playing a full-motion arcade game with an Xbox 360 controller.

Bonus video: Here’s the TT Course played via the Nebula emulator.

 

 

Mini Reviews July 2017

I’ve got another batch of three mini reviews for you here. These are games that I played in June.  We’ve got an old-timey Gameboy game, an endless runner and an indie game jam entry. Grand Prix cars, solar powered planes and scooters.

F-1 Race (Nintendo, 1984/1990)

F-1 Race is a Pole Position style game from Nintendo for the NES and Gameboy. That tells you almost everything you need to know about it. You’ve played it ,or games like it, a thousand times already. I played the Gameboy version for a while because a friend of mine really likes it. It’s not very original, especially by the time the Gameboy version came out in 1990, but it does what you’d expect a game like this to do and does it pretty well. It has short levels which are ideal for a handheld game, it’s pretty challenging and it has really funky music. It’s fun in the way that all games like this are, but that’s about all you can say.

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Race the Sun (Flippfly, 2013)

Race the Sun by Flippfly is an endless runner where you control a solar powered plane and attempt to fly as far as possible before the sun sets. It first came out in 2013 and has done the rounds on all the major platforms since then. It’s the not the sort of thing I’d play normally but I ended up really enjoying it. The stark, minimalist graphics look really stylish and the soundtrack is also really good. It contributes nicely to the atmosphere and tension of the game. What makes this game great for me are the controls, which are super smooth and responsive. I also enjoy playing in the first-person mode but that be a bit stressful sometimes. To keep things feeling fresh, Race the Sun generates a new landscape every day so even though all the same elements are always there, you’re not playing the exact same levels over and over. I’m sure most people reading this have already played Race the Sun but if anyone hasn’t I can strongly recommend it.

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Scoot Scoot (Watch Yr Step, 2016)

I found Scoot Scoot when I was looking for racing games on itch.io. It’s a scooter agility/autocross game that was created for the “A Game By It’s Cover” game jam in 2016. As it’s a jam game there’s not a whole lot to it but it’s really fun and well-presented. You drive your scooter around a course marked out by traffic cones in a car park and aim to complete 3 laps in as short a time as possible. You’re penalised for touching the cones and rewarded for riding fast through the speed traps spread around the course. It’s just a goofy little game with 1 level but it’s actually quite addictive. It’s available from the creator’s itch.io page (here) under a pay what you like scheme. If you do choose to download it I suggest giving them something because it’s absolutely worth supporting.

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ChoroQ Advance (Electronic Applications, 2001)

Choro Q Advance is the 14th racing game in the Choro Q series and the first of three entries released for the Gameboy Advance. It was developed for Takara by Electronic Applications (Eleca Ltd) and released in Japan and the USA in 2001 and Europe in 2002. Here in Europe we know this game as Penny Racers and in the USA it was called Gadget Racers. Both of these names are re-used for different games in the series so to avoid any confusion I’ve decided to refer to it by its Japanese name.

Choro Q Advance is a cute, colourful and simple game that I think works really well on a handheld console. Like so many racers on the GBA, it has a very SNES-like feel with its Mode 7-style graphics. This graphical style means the terrain is pancake-flat but there’s lot of track-side objects so the environment doesn’t feel as empty as a lot of other games with graphics of this type.

Like its home console counterparts, car customisation is a key feature of Choro Q Advance. You can race on tarmac, dirt, sand, snow or even on water so it’s important to equip the right parts for the race you’re about to enter. You can also collect and swap car bodies which has no effect on your performance but it’s a neat cosmetic touch that I really enjoy. The car bodies are mostly based on real cars with a few extra novelties thrown in and although they’re not named, you can easily tell what they’re supposed to be.

As with all games in this series, the driving mechanics are very basic. It handles like a kart racer with a slightly more realistic drifting technique. Don’t take that as a criticism though, it’s a lot of fun and the simple controls work in this game’s favour. It’s very easy to pick up and play and also easy to return to after a long break. For handheld games, those are very important characteristics.

I wish I had more to say about this game because I’ve wanted to mention it for quite a while. It’s one of those games that doesn’t do anything particularly unique or original but doesn’t really do anything wrong either. Those are the hardest games to talk about in my opinion. I’ve had a copy of it for a few years now and I still play it from time to time whenever I dust off my Gameboy Micro. If you want to play it yourself, it’s easy to get hold of. Loose cartridges are quite cheap and readily available and of course it’s playable in all the popular Gameboy Advance emulators.