There was no shortage of high-profile racing games being shown at E3 2009. I managed to play the good majority of them myself, and what surprised me most was that between Gran Turismo PSP, Blur, Need for Speed: SHIFT, DiRT2, Forza Motorsport 3, and Split/Second, I came away pretty impressed by just about everything, though for usually for decidedly different reasons.
Gran Turismo PSP
Gran Turismo PSP is something that's seemed like a bit of a pipe-dream, having been name-dropped before the PSP hardware even came out, but never really materializing until just now. From what was being shown on the floor at E3, this looks and feels like pretty much exactly what people want from a pocket-sized version of Gran Turismo. The graphics have been scaled down to perform well on the PSP hardware, but the handling feels like what has come to be expected from the series, and there's still plenty of content to be had. In just the E3 demo alone there were 100 real-world licensed cars to choose from, and 14 tracks, several of which are recognizable from past Gran Turismo games. And that's, presumably, just a taste of things to come. This doesn't look like a game that will change what Gran Turismo will be, but it's primed to deliver on what Gran Turismo is.
Forza Motorsport 3
Similarly, Forza Motorsport 3 is shaping up to be a bigger, better version of Forza Motorsport 2. The expanded scope extends to just about every aspect of the Forza formula. Just talking pure numbers, there's more of everything. There will be 400 cars from 50 manufacturers. The cars themselves will contain 10 times the polygons, four times the texture resolution of the cars in Forza 2, and full damage models, including rollovers--all of that, by the way, while delivering a solid 60 frames-per-second. User-generated content for custom-painted cars was a huge deal in Forza 2, and it's something that Forza 3 will expand to the tuning aspect of the game, which is itself being made even more detailed. In Forza 2, there were 49 different upgrade types you could apply and tweak; in Forza 3, there will be 75. During a close-door meeting with Turn 10's Dan Greenawalt--the guy who threw down at the Microsoft press conference, saying that Forza 3 would be the defining racing experience of this console generation--he spoke extensively about how much the physics have been improved, from simulating how tire roll effects turning to spending time in the wind tunnel at McLaren headquarters to get a better idea of how a car disrupts the air around it.
For as much effort as Turn 10 seems to be putting into making Forza 3 that much more of an honest simulation, there are some key features being added that have the potential to make this a much more accessible racing game than its predecessors. There's stuff like auto-braking, allowing less-skilled players to focus entirely on steering, though the noticeable feature is the rewind, which you can activate up to four times at any time during a race to take the action back a couple of beats. It seems like a pretty bold move, one that will potentially upset hardcore racing fans, but it addresses the issue of having a perfectly good run blown by one bad turn or an unforeseeable pileup. Honestly, so long as it doesn't break what was great about Forza 2, I have a hard time seeing this game disappointing anyone.
Need for Speed: SHIFT
While the Forza name carries a lot of weight with race fans these days, the Need for Speed series has a lot to prove right now. Pardon the wordplay, but Need for Speed: SHIFT represents a major shift for the franchise, and it definitely looks like it's setting its sights on Forza, opting for closed-track, simulation style racing, instead of the open-world, story-driven format that has been the focus of the past few games. I managed to get three races in with SHIFT, and compared to Forza, I found the handling to be a little looser and a little more exaggerated. It's certainly no Ridge Racer, but I found it easier to kick out my back tires and do some controlled drifting around corners. Graphically, I think SHIFT is looking superb. I don't think it can claim the 60 frames that Forza's been touting, but it seems like it's got a little more flair and a more dramatic damage model.
While Forza has its rewind feature, SHIFT addresses the issue of restarting botched races by rewarding you points, regardless of whether you win or lose, based on your driving style. Where this gets real interesting is that your driving style will inform the order in which you'll unlock cars in the single-player progression. So, if you're a precision driver, you might get something fast-but-fragile before a dirtier, more aggressive driver, who in turn might get something that can take a few bumps earlier. This, to me, seems like the most interesting aspect of Need for Speed: SHIFT, and it's something that I think is key in keeping it from feeling like a Forza also-ran.
Blur's another interesting case, because it represents such a huge departure for developer Bizarre Creations, which is best known for its Project Gotham games. While PGR was a closed-course racer with a modest eye for style, Blur is a combat racing game that soaks its every frame with neon-lit motion blur and puts a premium on juiced-up, chaotic action. The pronounced visual style is quite striking, and it makes Blur an easy game to pick out of a lineup. There will be power-ups in Blur, though rather than blue shells or machine guns, you'll be knocking other racers around with pure force with moves like the shunt, which shoots a blast of force out of the front of your car, and the barge, which sends it out from the sides. There are currently five power-ups in Blur, though BC is working on more, and they're key to the rambunctious feel of the game.
The big number that Blur posts up is the support for up to 20 cars on the track at one time, something that will apply to both the online and offline modes. Also bridging the single- and multiplayer mode will be the game's social networking motif. In the career, it'll help establish the idea that you're trying to work your way up to the top of various regional scenes as you globe-trot from location to location. Online, you'll actually be able to create your own groups, with Bizarre Creations planning an actual website to go along with it. Playing a race on the game's LA River track, I definitely found it to be a chaotic experience, but there was something kind of hollow about the way the car handled. Power-ups like the shunt move made it feel like the cars didn't have any real weight. It's got a fast-and-loose feel that definitely seems like a reaction to the more rigid handling of the PGR games, but at the moment, it goes too far. Still, Bizarre Creations has got plenty of time to fine-tune this stuff, and if they can get it right, this could be a flashy package that's hard to ignore.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the lot, Split/Second marries high-speed racing and sublime carnage in a pretty novel way. The premise as it was explained to me is that you're racing on a reality show where the tracks have been rigged with explosives at key points. You've got a meter that fills up as you draft, drift, and jump your way around the track, and you can use it at specific points to trigger explosions, knocking any opponents that might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you fill your meter up all the way, you can take down entire buildings, which will then alter the flow of the course for the rest of the race. The explosions just look terrific, and as gimmicky as the concept is, the fact that it manages to combine speed and destruction in an inventive new way makes it quite intriguing. The frame rate on what was being shown was a little choppy, but if developer Black Rock can get it as stable as it was in last year's under-appreciated Pure, this could be a viscerally satisfying Burnout alternative.
DiRT2 stood out from the field simply because the handling on the cars was so wildly different from anything else I played at the show. Which makes sense, since this is first and foremost a rally racing game, though it will offer other rally-like experiences as well. I didn't play the first DiRT, and I'm generally not a huge rally nut, so I can't speak much to the changes and improvements being made here, but I found what I experienced of the edge-of-oblivion racing model quite satisfying, even when I was constantly flying out of corners.
I think Blur's going to be the toughest sell of the lot, just because it's so unlike Bizarre Creations past racers, and Split/Second has a really interesting conceit that will live or die based on implementation and whether Black Rock can maintain a good frame rate, but all of these games look potentially awesome. If I had to call a winner, I'd say it's pretty obviously the race fans that are coming out ahead in 2009.