As a huge fan of racing games, I like it when I feel immersed in what I play. I like to feel like I am the one racing, that the opposition are trying to cut me off, and not a digitally rendered racing car. There are a few games that, in my experience, nailed immersion so well that they should be recognized for their achievements. I’ve selected what I feel are the five most immersive racing games ever created.
Before Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft came into existence, there was Rock n’ Roll Racing. Today, the idea of Blizzard Entertainment making a racing game sounds laughable, but they did it in 1993. Of course, this was no ordinary racing game. Rock n’ Roll Racing was set on alien worlds, and the racers were aliens and monsters. So how could a game like this, which doesn’t even seem to carry much humanity in it, possibly be immersive? For starters, the soundtrack was stunning for it’s time. Midi renditions of Paranoid by Black Sabbath and other heavy rock and/or metal songs populate the soundtrack for this game. In 1993, this was simply awesome and was the next best thing to having the real recordings. The gameplay was pretty great as well, and I felt immersed by it simply because the racing felt truly personal. In a lot of weapon-themed racers (such as Wipeout), the in-race combat doesn’t feel authentic and only serves one purpose – to frustrate you. In Rock n’ Roll Racing, it felt different. The guy in second blasting at you? It felt personal. Add in a primitive career mode, which was rare at the time, and you have a good racer from 1993. It may not be much today, but back in the Super Nintendo’s early days this game was something special.
In recent years, Need for Speed has forced us to pretend that we are convicts, cool dudes from the ghetto, or whatever else their protagonists are now. This was a colossal mistake by Electronic Arts when they tried to force coherent storylines in each Need for Speed. It began in Underground and only got worse. By the time Need for Speed Undercover rolled around, I wouldn’t touch the series with a ten foot pole. You see, the key mistake that Electronic Arts made was not giving their racing games some basic storylines, no. What they did wrong was plunk us into the lives of daring street racing punks who, well, are nothing like us. There was just no connection, and I couldn’t get into the games as a result. SHIFT changed this by making you the main character in the story mode, which was essentially just a career mode. It was very refreshing, and it made me feel like I was really part of the game. There is some good voice over work in the game that only enhances the experience as well. Electronic Arts did a fine job with SHIFT by making the player the main character rather than having us follow the exploits of Biff Dangerous or Slugger McRoadkill. However, Electronic Arts failed to capture one thing that a few other games pulled off wonderfully. They failed to make the games “speak” to us.
Codemasters, on the other hand, have become masters of making racing games speak to us as if they are our friends or colleagues. Upon starting up GRID for the first time, players are instructed to create their profile, which includes choosing your full name, alias, and country flag. The game will use these to communicate to you. If you named yourself Bob, then you will probably hear the following during races: That was a great pass, Bob! GRID recognizes a few dozen male and female names, so there’s a good chance that the game will be able to call you by something. If your name isn’t one that the game knows, you can always give yourself a nickname that suits you. How does this sound? You’re on the last lap, Dump Truck. Yeah, I don’t know what to make of the nicknames, but the fact that GRID speaks directly to you and addresses you by name adds heaps of immersion to the game. On top of that, the career mode has you building up your own racing team by purchasing cars, designing liveries, signing sponsors, and so forth. There’s quite a bit to do in the career mode, and you’ll be guided by the voice of a female narrator of sorts who also addresses you by name. It’s pretty cool, and I was surprised by how much a game calling me by my name can help the immersion.
DiRT 2 is another Codemasters game, and it took everything immersive about GRID and refined it. The profile set-up is exactly the same as before, and you’ll hear your name a lot. What pumps the immersion up a lot in DiRT 2 is the pre-race menu system. The game itself is presented as a full career mode. As soon as you start the game, you are thrown into your travel trailer which is rendered in full 3D. From in here, you can select race events, check relationships with other drivers, and purchase DLC. When you exist your trailer, you can check out your purchased vehicles, go racing, and tweak the game’s options. It adds a lot of personality to the game, which is really fantastic. Immersion takes another huge leap up during race events when rival drivers will call you out by name. If you perform well after a race, they’ll always compliment you on your performance. Travis Pastrana serves as the game’s menu narrator, and he calls out to you a lot. In my case, I heard “Hey Dan!” a lot. You can also form friendships with most of the drivers in the game, which you can take advantage of in team events and such. DiRT 2 has a pretty good system, and is definitely Codemasters’ best at the moment.
Despite only playing Prologue, I am placing this mammoth at the top spot. Gran Turismo 5 never addresses you by name or tries to make you believe that you are behind the wheel, but these are all very positive points surprisingly/ Gran Turismo 5 has an absolutely perfect engine for racing, and the game plays silky smooth. The racing in the game is what is undoubtedly the most immersive I’ve ever experienced. GT5 blows every other racing game out of the water with it’s fantastic handling, intense racing, and stunning graphics. You really have to fight the cars in order to make them work the way you want, which is just fantastic as there isn’t even a single shred of arcade racing in this game. The stunning visuals help immersion along nicely, as some locations look so amazing that, at the high speeds you are usually driving at, they will pretty much look photo realistic. The lighting on the London street circuit looks absolutely awesome, and the panaromic mountain view at the Eiger Nordwand is pretty much the best looking landscape I have ever seen in a video game. The racing in Gran Turismo is where it’s truly at, and is proof that Polyphony Digital doesn’t need any gimmicks such as voice actors calling you out by name in order to make their games immersive. No, Polyphony relies solely on good, solid racing. Gran Turismo has always been famous for having fantastic racing, but the fifth game undoubtedly takes the cake as the king of racing. In terms of immersion, no racing experience can even come close to this behemoth.
Honourable Mention: ModNation Racers
It’s game driven by community-made content. How can you not be immersed when you play with a character you created who is driving a vehicle you also created…. on a track that you created as well? Now if only the game didn’t have hour long load times, which I’ve found to be huge immersion breakers sine they allow you to take full bathroom breaks while the game loads.