Games

In 2017, Legendary Racing Franchises Pushed Each Other to the Limit

Forza, GT, and Project Cars all imagined different versions of the "car collector" fantasy, but it's hard to tell if this is the start of a golden age or the moment where everything breaks.

by Rob Zacny
Dec 27 2017, 9:00pm

Header art by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.

How many ways can you really describe the way it feels to launch the exact same Ferrari 458 up the exact same hill at the exact same race track? How many ways do you even need to have that experience described to you?

2017 marked a Golden Age for racing sims and maybe—because it was a year of quiet dread where a fresh disaster seemed to lurk around every corner and I can no longer quite shake the night’s morbid thoughts in the cold light of morning—a high-water mark for the genre itself. A year with just a single new installment from the Forza, Gran Turismo, or Project CARS franchises would be notable for racing fans. 2017 gave us a deluge of all three, plus strong new rally and F1 offerings from Codemasters.

But within this embarrassment of riches, you could see more clearly than ever before just how hard each franchise has to fight to distinguish itself from its peers and predecessors.

Reinvention and reimagining are great things to see in a genre that sometimes seems to risk converging on a single shared fantasy—and totally necessary to keep longtime players interested in what’s waiting around the next corner—but seeing all these games side-by-side, I can’t help but wonder whether they can all thrive together. Can even this video game staple crop, the racing game, can be sustained at this level?

Gran Turismo Sport screenshot courtesy of Sony

In 2017, both the long-established and freshly-arrived titans of the “car collector” racing game released very different installments. Each asymptotically approaches simulation from sharply different angles, and collectively they reveal how subjective is this entire exercise. They all feel so different that, played side-by-side, they reveal that none of them is really offering a 1:1 recreation of a real-life experience. Rather, each is trying to communicate the most plausible possible fantasy of that experience. This isn’t a complaint: It’s what keeps these games vital and interesting as creative works, not mere commodities.

Gran Turismo Sport represents the oddest and sharpest departure from the expected. It feels almost as if Polyphony Digital have surrendered in the fight against rivals like Forza and newcomers like Project CARS. The series that probably did more than anything else to define what a “car collector” racing game looks and feels like has now practically abandoned the genre it helped found. In fact, GT Sport is… almost tired of racing games themselves.

The care and attention to detail is still there, but it’s racing as a series of tests and procedures. It’s studious and serious in a way that I find almost alien in the context of the Gran Turismo series. It’s racing as technique and rules. This isn’t a game where you live out the fantasy of getting behind the wheel of a sports car and start burning rubber around every corner and leaving paint streaks on every rival. Instead, Gran Turismo Sport wants its player to become real racers who truly understand the craft of driving, and how to be good opponents for one another. This is not a game that nurtures your fantasies of climbing the ranks of motorsport via progress bars and XP levels, but instead demands that you put in the work to actually earn those advances.

It’s a bit dry and bookish for my tastes, but at the same time I’m kind of speechless that Polyphony has the freedom to basically make iRacing for consoles with a bottomless budget.

Forza 7 screenshot courtesy of Microsoft

That has left Forza 7 secure in its position as the undisputed king of the car collection racing games… and like all empires in middle age, it’s become slightly underwhelming in its conservatism and complacency. Most of the new ideas Forza 7 attempts were around microtransactions and lootboxes, and while that decision has probably made Microsoft a lot of money, it’s not made Forza 7 a more satisfying racing game.

In fact, the elaborate unlocks and progression systems that are wrapped around Forza 7 end up making that time-honored tradition of using less prestigious cars to work your way up to bigger and better cars, races, and series feel less coherent and enjoyable. There are so many meters and dials that are filling up, along with so many reminders of what you might be missing, that the entire metagame feels like something that just happens to you as you try and play your racing game. Once you’re behind the wheel Forza 7 reminds you why it’s the king of this type of racing game, but it’s a noisy and baffling walk to the garage each time.

Project Cars 2 screenshot courtesy of Bandai Namco

Project CARS 2 remains the iconoclast of the bunch, though in terms of singular daring it’s probably been surpassed by GT Sport. It still thinks racing games are worth playing alone, but is not a multi-million dollar expression of expert ennui the way Gran Turismo sport sometimes feels. But neither is it tamed and polished pre-fabricated experience that Forza 7 is. It is instead a toolset you use to build your dream racing game.

Which is both it’s great strength and great weakness. Project CARS 2 is a Goldilocks racing game, where I find myself forever tweaking sliders and settings to turn it into the right racing game for me. What do you want the camera to do at high speed, how much do you want to “feel” the road, how tactile should G-forces be, do you want to cockpit camera to feature your racing driver’s helmet? How aggressive should AI drivers be versus how skillful should they be? Once you get to the track, you’ll frequently discover the car itself is poorly set-up, with even basic things like gear ratios badly out of whack, which means a series of quick test laps just to make sure the car is even within the vicinity of its peak potential performance.

It’s fussy and yet also feels like the closest thing we have to a modern successor to both the old Papyrus racing games and SimBin’s legendary GT racing trilogy. When you have got it juuuuust right (a movable target, frankly, as you change racing series and track conditions) then Project CARS feels sublime: a combination of danger and exhilaration that’s hard to come by in simulated settings. But much of my time with Project CARS has been spent chasing that feeling, glimpsing the submlime through the groves of customization options and tuning elements that Project CARS has planted.

For racers, 2017 was a legendary year in which several major racing franchises all put their best foot forward and showed just how expressive this genre can be, after years of flirting with a single, shared fantasy of affluence, acquisition, and aggrandizement. But does a year like this one also herald saturation? When Forza is smuggling slot machines in its trunk, and Gran Turismo has asked its fans to put away childish things, it feels like this golden age could either be the beginning of something new and exciting, or the moment that a crash became inevitable.