Thursday, February 26, 2009

Roadclub Review

Roadclub, developed and published by Solid Core Entertainment.
The Good: Exceptionally comprehensive editor suite, robust career mode, top-quality physics model, lots of cars and tracks, very challenging AI
The Not So Good: Lacks multiplayer, overhead perspective won’t appeal to everyone, maximum of six cars per race, brutally tough computer drivers can’t be adjusted globally, requires perfection to be successful, fixed screen resolution
What say you? A satisfactory and highly customizable 2-D racing game: 6/8

Now that the NFL season is over, it’s time for my annual five-month obsession with NASCAR (until the NFL starts up again and I ignore NASCAR). Yup, watching cars going around in circles for three (to four (to five)) hours is edge-of-your-seat excitement! Even better than watching is doing, so computer games have filled the void for people not talented enough to drive real race cars without crashing into things (*author raises hand*). Since we’ve already had a stock car simulation, we can turn our attention to the more general selection of automobiles offered up by Roadclub. This 2-D racing game features both stuff and things. Let’s check it out!

The fact that Roadclub is a 2-D racing game will probably initially turn off a lot of people; I mean, when was the last time you played a top-down computer game? Nevertheless, we are stuck with the bird’s eye view in Roadclub, and it’s not all bad. There are some nice effects, from time of day to weather, that at least somewhat immerses you into the game. There is slight visual damage to the vehicles, such as smoke, fire, and flickering headlights, but no noticeable body damage, although you’re playing the game far enough away from your car that you’d probably not see it anyway. The environments are fairly bland, with a small amount of objects scattered around the place to get in your way. Your view never rotates with the car, so you must be able to figure out that the turning controls are with respect to the car and not your view. Roadclub is also played at a low resolution; this is fine, if you let me play the game in a window, which Roadclub does not. The game also does not like to be alt-tabbed out of, which makes writing a review more difficult. However, the advantage of having 2-D graphics is that everything in the game is very easily edited, using simple .TGA graphics files. I’m willing to make a sacrifice in graphical quality in order to gain the level of customization found in Roadclub. The sound in the game is dominated by the soundtrack that consists of songs from independent artists; while it doesn’t necessarily fit the genre all of the time, the music isn’t bad. While the racing game has generally left 2-D behind a long time ago, Roadclub still clings tightly to two dimensions and all of its limited glory.

The first major decision you’ll have to make in Roadclub is whether to use the arcade or simulation difficulty levels. I, of course, chose simulation right out of the box, opting for a more realistic physics model. The main crux of Roadclub is the career mode, and it is quite a significant feature with many options available. There is a number of leagues to join in the game, from ones designed for beginners to the Roadclub that offers five levels of competition that you can move progress (or regress, much like soccer) through. Each league has its own schedule of races and AI drivers who are also trying to rise to the top of the global skill rankings. You can also take part in challenges offered by AI drivers (or make your own) for cash or new cars: a neat feature. Roadclub features almost fifty cars (49, to be exact) you can purchase and upgrade within the career mode, improving their stats or buying new attributes; you can opt for completely new cars, used cars, or free “junk” cars if you are desperate. Your fleet can be upgraded (in many different aspects) or repaired between races. There is some strategy involved in choosing which league to compete in, which cars to drive and when to upgrade them, and which challenges to undertake. The amount of variety here does keep you interested in Roadclub for quite a while. Once you unlock (boo!) tracks in the career mode, you can do quick races where you can customize the time of day, weather, and number of opponents. Unfortunately, Roadclub only supports a maximum of six cars in each race, which worsens the first-or-last finishing phenomenon. While Roadclub does record ghost cars of the best laps that could theoretically be sent to others, the game does not offer any multiplayer, either online or on the same computer. A racing game with no multiplayer? Blasphemy!

The editors are such an integral part of Roadclub (and one of its two key buying points, along with the career mode), they deserve their own paragraph. So here it is! You can easily edit pretty much every aspect of the game apart from the physics engine itself: tracks, cars, leagues, and opponents. I’m a big fan of track editors in racing games, and the one featured in Roadclub is as simple to use as Paint: just draw your track with the mouse, add the starting positions and some waypoints and triggers for the AI, and you are done. You can embellish your tracks with fences, houses, trees, and various road markings if you wish as well. You can also edit the properties of tiles (such as grip) for a more precarious or stable setting. You can seriously edit a functional track in three to four minutes with absolutely no knowledge of three-dimensional modeling that’s required in most other track utilities. The fifty cars in the game can also be edited (or new ones created): mass, center of gravity, tires, grip, brake bias, steering, brake strength, plus many more. You can even import your own .TGA image file to add custom drivers to the mix: outstanding. That import feature goes for the track elements too: just make a simple 2-D image and bring it in. Roadclub also includes a league editor for custom seasons and an opponent editor to adjust the AI behavior. Simply put, all racing games should have the amount and easy of editing that Roadclub does.

All of these features would be for naught if the game didn’t drive well, and Roadclub strikes a good balance between simulation and arcade racing. You will have to slow down for tight turns and there is a significant amount of sliding around corners, although it doesn’t feel like the driving in Roadclub approaches the level of realism found in its 3-D competition. The developers claim to have sophisticated torque, tire, and collision physics, which I do not doubt, but it’s harder to access the realism of a 2-D racing game since you are viewing the action from a high perspective. I have encountered some collision problems: the “corners” of objects seem to be a little farther out than they are shown in the game. Roadclub discourages contact with a severe damage model where a couple of good licks will put you out of submission: the cars behave more like F1 cars than stock cars in this aspect. Because the view doesn’t rotate with the car, you have to be able to think about turning left and right even if your car is headed down the screen. Some people won’t be able to do this inherently unintuitive task, so Roadclub is not for them. Still, I found the driving physics to be enjoyable enough. The AI is a very good opponent that approaches being frustratingly talented. Typically, one mistake during a race will prevent you from winning, while two or three will relegate you to last place. While I have no problem with a challenging AI, Roadclub kind of cheats in this aspect, giving the AI drivers superior cars that you don’t initially have enough money to compete directly with, even in the beginning leagues. You can individually customize the AI skill on a per-driver basis, but there is no global setting for difficulty, and I found (as a person who plays a significant enough number of racing games and is OK at them) that the beginning leagues were more difficult than they should be. The fact that you gain no experience or money from a last place finish only exacerbates the problem: the AI drivers, even in the beginner’s league, are given much better cars than you can afford, setting you up for frequent failure.

Roadclub has a balance of good and bad attributes that, thanks to the editors, leans more towards the positive end of the spectrum. You can very easily edit almost every aspect of the game: cars, AI drivers, leagues, and (most importantly) tracks. All of the editors are very simply to use, utilizing sliders for values, .TGA files for images, and mouse-drawn painting for track surfaces; if only more racing games made it this easy to modify the game. The editing features makes the archaic 2-D graphics a forgivable offense, although I suspect there will be a lot of potential drivers that will simply not be able to adapt to an overhead viewpoint. The physics are quite plausible: although Roadclub still leans towards the arcade side of things, sliding through turns and taking on the AI in tight tracks makes for some enjoyable racing. The career mode is also very comprehensive, with multiple leagues to choose from, car upgrades, and user- and AI-created challenges. Roadclub might be too tough, however, as you can’t adjust the overall difficulty and the AI drivers usually have better cars than yours; you need to be almost perfect in order to proceed through the career mode, a level of stress that can make for exasperating gaming. Despite the positive features like the editors and career mode, Roadclub falls short in other areas as well: the game lacks multiplayer of any kind and you can only race against five others at most. If you are looking for a customizable racing game and you won’t be deterred by the 2-D presentation or high difficulty, then Roadclub would be a good choice.