Thursday, 6 May 2010

Here in my car, I feel safest of all

Aside from being a cracking song, Gary Numan's Cars makes a valuable point that a video game blog writer would do well to heed. Namely that a misanthrophe/agoraphobe/lazy person will find life easier if they just get in the car, lock all the doors and avoid the rest of the world.

After a wet and rainy bank holiday spent wearing wellies and doing housework, I can't help but agree. Consequently, I thought I'd follow Numan's advice and write about cars. Actually, I thought racing in games would be marginally more interesting, even though this sometimes takes place on snowboards. I doubt Gary Numan would approve of this (it means going outside), but I don't think he's reading. Yet.

In South Park (racking up the Well-Rendered mentions of late you'll notice), Stan and Kyle get so good at Guitar Hero that they land a record contract and invitations to a coke 'n hookers party with lots of other celebrities. Along the way, Stan forgets what's really important and ditches Kyle for the monosyllabic Thad, who is a better (pretend) guitarist. Overwhelmed by the pressures of fame and the loss of his best friend, Stan winds up addicted to Heroin Hero, a (mercifully fictional) game where the player chases the dragon. You never catch the dragon, you just... chase it.

Stan plays so much Heroin Hero that he becomes unable to play Guitar Hero, or indeed do anything else. Thad quits the band, and he is left destitute, alone, and without a record contract. Exhausted, Stan limps into the nearest game shop and angrily demands to buy "a nice, simple, driving game". Upon playing the game, he realizes that friendship is the most important thing and reverses his on-screen car to make his way back to Kyle. He is of course, still just sitting on the sofa.

Now amongst all the other valuable lessons this episode teaches us about the pressures of fame and the dangers of drugs is one about how totally chilled driving games are. At his wit's end, all Stan can manage is a driving game, and it is the game's hypnotic simplicity that drives him back to Kyle.

Indeed, the plotless, mechanical experience of playing a racing game is unlike anything else that gaming has to offer. As such, it suits my current state of mind: frazzled, dusty and exhausted from spending weeks in Gran Pulse.

Because I would rather be in my pjyamas eating cereal out of the packet and watching Trailer Park Boys than trying to think of something revolutionary to say about pretend cars (brrroooom! brrrrrroooom! neeeeeeowcrsssssshhhhhh etc), I will make my own life as easy as possible by deploying the lazy journalist's fallback: The List.

It would take an extremely long time to explore all the different genres and subgenres that can be categorised as racing games, so I think a top 10 of "Most Awesome Racing Games Ever" should suffice, especially if I interpret the word "racing" in as loose a fashion as possible.

I also hear lists encourage comments (hint hint), especially if the list in question is a) illogical and b) biased.

Most Awesome Racing Games Ever

10 Wipeout

Wipeout (or "wipE'out" if the official packaging is to be believed) is a really terrific series of futuristic racing games developed by Psygnosis, derided last week for being responsible for Spice World on Playstation. The original wipE'out takes place in 2052 and features anti-gravity racing ships that whiz around imaginary versions of Japan, Canada and, erm, Mars. Like many fantasy racing games, it features rockets and shields to sabotage opponents and protect the player respectively.

Perhaps the best game in the series was the technically brilliant Wipeout 3 (oh, alright, wip3out), which combined extremely realistic physics with crisp visuals and an excellent soundtrack. Actually, I'm not sure "realistic" is the right word for anything relating to hover cars, but there you go. Driving the anti-gravity ships is difficult to master, but completely exhilerating.

On the downside, it takes such a long tim get good at Wip3out that it's not the best racer to bring out when you have buddies over. This makes it less versatile (and oerhaps less value for money, if you're concerned about that kind of thing) than other fantasy racing games such as Mario Kart.

9 Run! Run! Run!

In a predictable Well-Rendered attempt to "mix things up a bit" (like a wedding DJ who thinks he's being edgy by playing The Prodigy), I give you Run! Run! Run!, the sprinting minigame on the Gameboy Camera.

This game entails pressing the "A" button as fast as possible in order to make the stickman run, with occasional application of the "up" button in order to make him jump the hurdles. Prior to playing the game, players can take four pictures of themselves using the camera, which are cycled at random as the stickman runs. Extra points go to Nintendo for discovering a hitherto unknown species of mole who can dig tunnels at 20kmph.

8 Wave Race

Wave Race is a series of jet ski racing games. I can't actually think of anything amusing to say about it. Wave Race is good fun and, you know, it's nice to have some variety in a list. Anti-gravity cars, genetically-engineered moles, watersports. Gaming has it all.

7 Need for Speed

Racing games often try and inject a bit of plot or context into the proceedings. Generally, this isn't really necessary, but Need for Speed does it better than most by incorporating a yarn about rival gangs, a turf war and some miniskirts. The driving physics make absolutely no sense, but I'll forgive EA because TV on the Radio are on the soundtrack and I wouldn't have heard of them otherwise.

6 Beyond Good and Evil (Hovercraft Races)

The hovercraft races in Beyond Good and Evil function both as a mini game and a plot device. As a mini game, they're great fun, and much care has gone into the level design. Each one of the four races are fully playable, and the player wins a valuable pearl for each one they win. However, the climactic Slaughterhouse level is only accessible by entering the third racetrack.

Consequently, a player must start the third race as normal and go through the "3-2-1" malarky in order to find the hidden passage. This is a really nice idea because it functions as a bit of a double-bluff. In a film, characters entering a race under false pretenses in order to find a hidden passage wouldn't be terribly exciting. In a video game however, players are conditioned to think only within the perameters of gaming conventions, so having to enter a race and then sneaking off the track feels genuinely subversive.

This might be hard to understand if you're a non-gamer. Allow me to explain. It would be akin to watching Star Wars, only when Luke and Han arrive on the Death Star, instead of going to find Princess Leia they start knocking down the set (without breaking character) in order to capture George Lucas to prevent him from ever making The Phantom Menace.

5 Stuntman

Stuntman isn't quite a racing game, but it does involve driving and a timer. As the name suggests, you drive various vehicles around a course and pull off stunts in order to clear the level within the alotted time. It's a nice twist on the nomal racing game, and although it is frequently frustrating, the opportunity to drive through a variety of movie genres is good fun.

4 SSX Blur

This is a snowboarding game for the Wii. The Wii, as I'm sure everyone knows, uses motion-controllers. This makes for a very intuative and - dare I say - exhilerating gaming experience. Tricks are performed by drawing complicated shapes in the air with the wiimotes, which perhaps detracts from the immersion a little bit, but the overall experience is top-notch.

The environments are also rather lovely, and feature several optional bits of tree or pipe which you can grind along or jump off/over as you please. This means that even a beginner can make a good stab at an expert track.

Gee whillikers, is it ever hard to say something funny about a racing game.

3 Forza Motorsport 3

Hmm. If it's hard to be interesting about snow boarding, it is next to impossible to be anything other than ferocoiusly boring about car racing. Forza enables you to race anything from a Vauxhal Astra to a Formula One car, and endows every single car with an almost impossible degree of realism. You can turn on "assists" like anti-lock braking and an automatic gear box, but when so much effort has clearly gone into making the driving experience as realistic as possible, it seems rude to do so.

You can also apply silly logos to cool cars, which is a nice touch. Also it looks great

What can I say? Fun to play, dull to read about. Next!

2 Trials 2

Although timed, Trials is about as much of a racing game as Stuntman. It's really more of an exercise in video game physics. It's one of the most fiddly and fustrating games ever made, but one of the most rewarding.

It consists entirely of driving a stunt motorbike and attempting to make your way from one end of the screen to the other using only the four directional keys. Up and down control your acceleration or reverse (without an engine), and forward and back control how the driver's weight is distributed on the bike.

It is as much about puzzle solving as digital dexterity, and it softens the blow of failure by cheerfully telling you how many bones you have broken if you fall.

1 Crash Team Racing

No, not Mario Kart. Although the two games are conceptually identical and Mario Kart came first, I think Crash is the slightly better game.

It should be noted that I think this because I owned a Playstation as opposed to a Nintendo 64 and therefore I am proabably a bit biased, but who cares? What I am really saying is that the kart racer - where eight go-karts driven by monsters randomly placed along the moral sprectrum fire bananas at each other - is easily the best kind of racing game there is.

Kart racers are fun, fast, easy and funny. The thing is, if I am to dedicate 10+ hours to a game, I'd like a story, I'd llike to solve mysteries, find things and develop my character. I'd like the game to give me as much as I am giving it. Great though Forza is, it takes a long time to get reasonably good at it and there comes a point (about 6 hours in to the "career mode") where I stop being interested in upgrading my car.

Crash Team Racing makes no such demands on my time. It asks me to choose whether I want to be a dingo or a bandicoot or whatever and then it's chocks away. Races take place in hot airballoons, radioactive laboratories, volcanoes and Aztec palaces. Iconic though Silverstone may be, I happen to think that a bit more lava would improve the Sunday afternoon Grand Prix no end.

Add to this the enjoyment of being able to sabotage your opponent's attempts at the cup by deploying a variety of devious missiles (collected at high speed by smashing boxes scattered throughout the track) and the likelihood of finding a hidden shortcut, and I can't reccommend Crash Team Racing enough.

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Apologies for the brevity of this week's entry (though maybe that's a good thing). All sorts of technical jiggery-pokery has been in progress at Well-Rendered towers which could move the video game frontier along a bit further, but it's difficult to tell at the moment. Either way, business as normal next week.

*     *     *

Oh, and I know that this week has also seen a deluge of embedded videos. Is this irritating?

How do you find the videos? Often I think it's the best way to illustrate something, but I understand that it can be irritating to stop and watch something. Do you find that it breaks your reading pattern? Or would you rather have the distraction? Is it easier than navigating away?

Any thoughts (in the comment box) would be much appreciated, I want this page to be fun to read.

Speaking of reader feedback, how do you find lists? Are posts too long in general? Too infrequent?

As regards videos by the way let's not worry about the fact that I don't own the content at this moment in time. Copyright shmopyright. Besides, I think this all counts as fair use.

Soon, when Well-Rendered is on the cusp of world-domination, I will be hiring a team of monkeys/netherworld beings to create visual aids for me.


  1. Do NOT ask us what we think?! crazy WR. inconceivable.
    I very much enjoyed this 'un, because racing games are basically all I can play until I hurl the controlly thingy at my brother. But still I read this religiously?!
    In response to the video things, it tends to direct me to another page where my work PC then says it doesn't have flash, or whatever, and doesn't let me watch it. this is not useful I know but I needed to tell you. There is nothing you can do, i should not be reading this at work.
    More please!

    BTW can I have a job at Well Rendered Towers please. Tea, anyone?

    Best regards

    The Tea Fairy
    Who just did a course in Tea making

  2. Don't know if you guys have lame weathercasts in Britain, but here in the U.S., where everything must be abbreviated and/or deliberately misspelled, they've taken to referring to thunderstorms as "T-storms". Yesterday scattered T-storms were predicted and I was so tempted to leave a pot outside to catch the falling tea. Why waste it, right?

    Anyway, that's neither here nor there….

    As for post length, lists, videos, etc., I think long posts with pix and videos are just fine, though my personal preference is to mix it up a bit—maybe a few longer posts followed by a short one. I prefer when longer posts are broken up with pictures and/or videos. Since most gamers are probably pretty visually oriented, I don't think you can go wrong there.

    And I love lists. Top 10…bottom 10…random 5…whatever. You can't go wrong with lists, IMO, and according to a certain National Public Radio story, "making lists can help make you famous." [] So there you go.

    I'd say write what's interesting to you in a way that makes you happy. Some people will read every post. Some won't. That's the way the proverbial cookie crumbles.

    Just please don't include music that plays automatically when a page loads. I despise that. Quoting catchy tunes is bad enough…and now I have a Gary Numan song stuck in my head. Thanks. ;)

  3. Hmm, good thoughts.

    Up here in my ivory (Well-Rendered) tower, I hadn't really thought about people who don't have the right plug-ins/connection speeds for videos. I put them in mostly because I know I have a (small yet significant) readership who don't necessarily play games and I use videos to illustrate points. Not everyone automatically knows what an RPG/FPS/HUD is. On one occasion (the Tomb Raider article), I used a youtube video so people could hear what the music sounded like. It's hard to describe, and so very far away from the Missy Elliot soundtrack of the (much more publicised) film.

    But perhaps it might be an idea to be more sparing with videos, more generous with pictures. Gamers are a visual people. Content ownership does concern me a little, I perhaps need to write a disclaimer. In a perfect world, I would have time to illustrate the blog myself. Hopefully this is something I can phase in in the future.

    And in the noble spirit of "only really hearing what I want to hear", more lists and shorter posts might become more frequent.

    Well-Rendered is still finding its feet and wearing in its comfy jeans. A few more coffee stains might be needed before its hips start to swing.

    Or something.


  4. And the tea thing? Cute.

  5. where is the hidden door in ssx in pipedream?