Monday, October 26, 2009

RACE On Review

RACE On, developed by SimBin Studios and published by Viva Media.
The Good: All of RACE 07 and STCC, new U.S. muscle and International Formula Master cars, two new U.S. tracks, 2008 WTCC season tracks and cars
The Not So Good: Does not include GTR Evolution content, missing one 2009 WTCC track
What say you? Admittedly limited if you own all previous expansions, this stand-alone product delivers entertaining feature-rich racing: 6/8

SimBin has manufactured themselves a comfortable little rut. Starting with their first touring car simulation RACE, they have released yearly stand-alone expansions: RACE 07, STCC, and GTR Evolution. We now arrive at RACE On, which adds the Swedes from STCC to RACE 07 and adds a sprinkle of America with muscle cars and a couple of tracks, in addition to the 2008 WTCC season (why are they always a year behind?). Last time around, the embellishments were disappointing with a limited scope. Does RACE On successfully continue SimBin’s march of quality simulation racing products?

RACE On looks the same as previous titles in the series, as it seems this version has not received any graphical enhancements. The game still looks good, although the overall level of quality is starting to lag behind titles like GRID that have more graphical flair. All of the car models and race tracks appear to be realistic, and there isn’t an overemphasis on confusing shiny effects like bloom and blur that distract you from driving. The damage effects could be more dramatic, as bumpers fall off but the frame is never deformed. Some of the textures could be more varied and detailed, too, as road-side objects can be blurry (even on the maximum settings) and grass and track surfaces are repetitive. The advantage to the lowered graphical quality is that RACE On performs very smoothly even with the detail level cranked up. The game prompts you to increase your settings if frame rates are high: a nice feature. The sound design is generally the same as before: informative tire squeals and satisfying engine effects. The same spotter is used again, and the main menu music features a very, very annoying person shouting about winning a race: I turned it off instantly. As long as RACE products act more like expansions that true sequels, the graphical quality will remain at the same average, but acceptable, level.

RACE On is, surprisingly, a racing game where you race in races. These can be done both by yourself and online by taking place in a number of events. Single races comprise of practice, qualifying, and warm-up sessions, followed by the two-race (in WTCC, at least) main event. You can also take place in a full championship season with a points system, or create your own custom season with any of the game’s cars and tracks; you can even mix car types to create a staggered series. You can enjoy time attack mode (complete with online leaderboards) and practice for those who don’t know what they are doing. It should be noted that RACE On still lacks a tutorial system, something I have complained about since the first RACE title. Have they read none of my review?! The game does provide corner markers for novice-level driving and pretty clear braking zones (noted by darker tire build-up) on the tracks to help new players somewhat. Online racing is still solid, though most of the servers are located in Europe so some event can be a little laggy, though nothing that is unplayable. You can join any server that is running RACE 07 or STCC in addition to RACE On, which serves to prevent gaming community fragmentation (unless, of course, it’s running GTR Evolution and you do not). Race rules can be customized, like superpole (one-lap) qualifying, rolling starts, race lengths (both laps and time), and mandatory pitstops.

You race with cars, and RACE On features an impressive array of vehicles. New to the series is the 2008 WTCC season, featuring six makes of vehicles that aren’t terribly different from the 2007 or 2006 seasons that are also included. Also new is the International Formula Masters series that use the same tracks as the WTCC with the exception of two (Hungaroring and Spa) that are not included in RACE On. The primary focus of RACE On is the new U.S. muscle cars. There are four models that come in both street and racing versions: the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V, 2009 Dodge Charger, 2009 Dodge Challenger, and 2009 Chevrolet Camaro. These heavy, powerful real-wheel drive cars behave differently from the WTCC vehicles, as they are prone to oversteer (or “loose” to us Americans) when exiting a corner if you are not careful with the throttle. Additional content is gathered from RACE 07 and STCC, which are actually installed alongside RACE On as separate games, though there is no reason why you’d use them instead of RACE On that includes all of their content anyway (Steam is weird like that). Here we go with some links: the 2008 STCC season comes with nine makes, the Camaro Cup Champsionship that features (surprise!) Camaros, Caterham (3 makes), Radical (6 makes), Formula 3000 (now GP2), Formula BMW, Mini Cooper, and the 1987 WTCC season. In addition, if you have previously purchased GTR Evolution, all of that content is imported as well, making RACE On the only executable you'll ever need. In all, that’s a lot of cars and a good variety of them.

What good are cars if you have no where to race them? RACE On features three new tracks: Okayama, Road America, and Laguna Seca. That’s not a lot of new content (RACE expansions have mostly been light on the new tracks), but when you combine them with all of the tracks from RACE 07 and STCC, you do get forty-seven total, which is nice. RACE On does not include Marrakech, Morocco, featured in the 2009 WTCC season (probably saved for RACE On 2: On Harder), but SimBin is always a year behind reality. There a nice variety of slow, fast, oval, and urban tracks to race on, and everyone should find at least something they enjoy. RACE On does include competitive setups for most cars on all tracks: a nice feature. Some of the more wacky combinations (like Caterhams on the Puebla Oval) won’t be found, but including all of the conventional possibilities is impressive. The physics are seemingly realistic and different for each kind of vehicle. I personally prefer cars that are slower but handle better, like the WTCC and Mini Cooper vehicles, rather than the muscle cars or open wheel vehicles. I will say, though, that the International Formula Masters cars are the least annoying open wheel cars I've ever virtually driven, as they are not prone to breaking loose exiting every turn. The AI is still competitive; I dislike having to tweak their difficulty the first couple of races to get them “just right” (an automated slider would be greatly appreciated), but on full power they will be quite competent racers. They will also make mistakes on occasion, running off track, and are aggressive without being idiotic: a good combination for exciting racing.

Your assessment of RACE On depends on how many of the previous SimBin games you own. If you have RACE 07 and STCC and GTR Evolution, then you are paying $30 for essentially two new car classes and three new tracks: a very tough sell. However, if you’ve been lagging behind or are new to the series, then RACE On represents an excellent value for what you get. The racing options are robust, from custom championships to online event against people who own previous titles in the series. The game comes with many styles of cars: four seasons of the WTCC, the 2008 STCC season, the Camaro Cup, International Formula Masters, Caterham, Radical, Formula 3000, Formula BMW, Mini Coopers, and street and racing versions of four American muscle cars. These cars can be run on forty-seven tracks; new additions to the series include Okayama, Road America, and Laguna Seca, in addition to all of the tracks from RACE 07 and STCC. RACE On does not include the 2009 season, though, which is one less track to enjoy. The AI continues to be strong if too consistent, and competitive setups for most cars are provided for all tracks. This is very enjoyable simulation racing, from the way the cars handle to the variety of content to enjoy. RACE On is $10 cheaper than buying both RACE 07 and STCC together on Steam, plus you get all of the new content. It’s the same price as getting RACE 07 with GTR Evolution, and this represents a better value in my opinion. I think this would be a definite buy if RACE On had all of the GTR Evolution content, too. Still, getting the RACE On bundle and GTR Evolution together ($30 plus $20) equals a full price game, which I would consider all of the content as a whole to be. In the end, one of the best racing simulation series continues with another strong entry.