Wednesday, February 22, 2006

rFactor Review

rFactor, developed and published by Image Space Incorporated.
The Good: Very modification friendly, MODs easy to install and switch between, scalable difficulty, a myriad of custom race features, smooth and buttery multiplayer
The Not So Good: Internet game browser could use some filters, not as much default content as other sims, can’t download missing tracks in-game (yet)
What say you? Modders and simulation racers will find plenty to enjoy: 7/8

There used to be a whole bunch of racing simulations on the PC market. From the first racing game I ever played, World Circuit, through Grand Prix Legends, NASCAR Racing, and F1, these games were very popular and formed quite a niche audience. And then, generally with the discontinuation of the F1 series and final NASCAR Racing version, they all but disappeared for a while, replaced by sub-par titles such as NASCAR SimRacing. Fortunately, there’s been a sort of semi-renaissance recently, thanks to independent developers and games in the form of Live for Speed and rFactor (and SimBin’s GT games). I have previously reviewed Live for Speed so now it’s time to check out rFactor, developed by ISI, who was responsible for the much heralded F1 series. rFactor is designed to be forthcoming for those modders out there and become a good sandbox for many different types of racing.

Both the graphics and sound in rFactor are very well done, and compare favorably to the zenith of racing simulation graphics and sound, GTR/GT Legends. The models are detailed, the cockpits are varied, and there are lots of nice effects, such as fire, smoke, and dust. rFactor also has real-time day to night transitions, and you can adjust how fast dusk passes according to the length of your chosen race. There are also real-time updated scoring pylons (finally) that can distract you as you slam into the wall. The sound is also enjoyable. This is probably the first game I remember hearing braking sounds in addition to wheel slip. Each car has appropriate sounds that change when upgrades are bought. There isn’t any commentary or spotters present in the game yet, but all that talking would get in the way of the throaty engines. The quality of the graphics and sound in rFactor is certainly in the upper echelon of racing simulations.

Even though rFactor definitely has a simulation tilt, you can customize the difficulty of the game to suit your skill level, adding assistance in braking, steering, stability, and shifting. Unfortunately, once you go online, most servers have all help disabled, so it’s up to you to drive and shift (I’m just one man!). rFactor by default has two racing series, covering both road racing and open wheel. In each series, there are several classes of cars available to unlock, from trainer vehicles all the way up to top of the line models. You earn credits to unlock performance upgrades and better cars by completing races against the AI drivers or online. You can practice in testing sessions, engage in single races, or take on a full season (typically 3 to 8 events). There are several different seasons you can undertake, dependent on which vehicles you have bought and unlocked. I’m not sure if I fully like the unlocking mode in rFactor: a part of me likes to have all the cars available from the beginning, and a part of me like to have some sort of ultimate goal when completing seasons and races. It is strange, however, to have a simulation game with an unlocking mode: this is usually reserved for less sophisticated arcade racers for people with short attention spans. There are six tracks on which to race, a couple of which have several configurations. This doesn’t seem like much content, especially when compared to Live for Speed (which has 18 cars and 23 tracks), but it does take a while to unlock the superior vehicles and the developers are relying on user-created modifications (more on that later). The newest beta version of rFactor does add stock cars to the mix, which all but spells the end of NASCAR SimRacing (if that hasn’t happened already). You can fully customize each race, changing the flag rules, fuel and tire wear, mechanical failures, AI drivers, race start time, type of start, and race length type, which supports a fixed number of laps, fixed amount of time, or whichever comes first.

Before you take to the track, it is important to at least slightly improve the default setups (although they are decent enough) using the garage. Like most simulation games, there are plenty of options for the aspiring crew chief. You can adjust gear ratios, weight balance, shocks, springs, brakes, differential, and aerodynamics: all of the usual suspects. If you’re playing online, you can easily share setups between all drivers; any setup publicly shared by a driver during a racing session is dropped into a special folder so you can use it and make fun of their crappy setup. Ridicule has never been so much fun! Once you do mash that gas pedal, the physics model of rFactor takes over, and it’s both realistic and fun to drive. rFactor adds a couple of wrinkles to the equation, such as cockpit vibration (more so than most games when cars are at speed) and head physics. Probably the most astounding part of rFactor’s physics model is how adaptable it is. Most games can spend years trying to accurately simulate just one kind of car and never get it right, but rFactor can cover a multitude of different vehicles, just by changing some values. I also enjoy the linear track map that shows where all the vehicles are on the track, represented by squares on a number line. Once you’re done wrecking into half the field, you can see the carnage over and over and over and over using the game’s replay features.

Games are much more fun if you can humiliate real life competition instead of computer drivers that don’t have feelings (yet), so rFactor gives you the ability of racing online. The game has an in-game browser so you can find races all over the Internet. One feature that is lacking is the use of filters to remove unwanted games from the list. I’d like to remove games that have a password, use an incompatible version or track, or are unpopulated, but rFactor doesn’t give you that option, resulting in you sorting by one column and scanning the list, wasting precious seconds that could have been spent wrecking into the wall. Once you do find a game, the online gaming experience is pretty enjoyable and relatively lag-free: I haven’t experienced any problems during a race that wasn’t directly my fault (I swear that tire wall just jumped out in front of me, officer!). This is a rare and notable feat in racing sims. You can also watch races with RaceCast (theoretically, it’s not the most functional piece of software) and also browse driver stats and rankings. A future feature (according to the official website) will include support for downloading missing vehicles and tracks while in the game, which is a little problem right now. The tracks are scattered all over the Internet and I still can’t find some of them, so once this feature gets implemented, life online in rFactor will be a lot easier.

When talking about rFactor, you need to talk about the ability to modify the game. This is one of the selling points of the game, as it’s probably the easiest racing simulation to add new content to. While other games are stuck in their rut of default tracks and vehicles, rFactor has opened the door for the large simulation community of modders, and they have answered. There are no less than seven fully functioning mods in the community so far, covering stock cars, Formula 1, Formula 3, Grand Prix, V8 Supercars (my personal favorite), Porsche Carerra, and Superkart. All of these mods, even though they are completely done by third parties, are of high quality and could be mistaken for default content in some cases. Also, unlike some games, switching mods is very easy (they are all listed in a menu in-game) and automatically done when joining a multiplayer session; there is no need to exit the game each time you want to drive a different car. The future could only hold even more mods for rFactor, authored by both the developers and community.

Initially, the draw of rFactor is its open architecture, allowing the creation of some pretty advanced modifications. This alone would make most members of the hardcore simulation community salivate, but there are also plenty of other great features. The graphics and sound are well above average, the physics are believable and enjoyable, race customization options are numerous, and the game is just fun to play. Beginners shouldn’t be scared off, because there are options to scale back some of the difficulty, provided you don’t plan on playing online, where most help is turned off. Playing online is pretty fun and a lag-free experience (for once). There are a couple of small missing features (Internet game filters, automatic missing track download), but they’ll probably be patched in future versions of the game. There’s less included content than some other games, but there are enough mods out there to satisfy most drivers, and mods are easy to install and easy to switch between. Drivers of all skill levels will find rFactor is an enjoyable racing simulation with tremendous mod support that will continue the life of the product for quite a long time.