“Put your hands on the wheel
Let the golden age begin”
-Beck Hansen, “The Golden Age”
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.”
It is 2nd September 2005. The death of three rally fans while driving home from a meetup is determined to have been accidental. Brokeback Mountain and Bjork’s experimental avant-garde art-house film Drawing Restraint 9 premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The 40-Year-Old Virgin opens to number one at the UK box office while “The Importance of Being Idle” by Oasis is the UK number one single. Midas Interactive Entertainment’s Golden Age of Racing is released in the UK for the PlayStation 2.
Earlier this week, as luck would have it, I came across a YouTube video about World Super Police, a racing game also developed by Midas. Having not played World Super Police (believe it or not, there are some racing games I haven’t played), further research revealed that Midas are a budget developer who sell games cheap. I also discovered that Midas made Golden Age of Racing. Having not played it in many years – possibly just the once, in fact – my memories of it were that it was pretty dull with poor physics. Going back to it for reassessment, not only were my memories of it confirmed but everything I’d learnt about its developer showed.
I’ll start by talking about the driving physics. There basically are no driving physics. It’s fine on the straights but the corners is where everything goes wrong. Formula One requires very specific, very precise physics, but Golden Age of Racing doesn’t have that subtlty. This means that the degree of a turn makes no difference because the cars will react in the same way every time. There simply isn’t enough dynamism for the player to be able to be skilled at the game.
This is never better apparent than when driving off the track and onto gravel, because it makes no difference. The surface is only different visually but the driving is the same. The gravel is there to slow down cars driven off-track, thus providing an incentive to remain on-track. If driving on the gravel doesn’t make any practical difference, there’s no risk. It’s a small thing but it explains a lot about the rest of the game.
What makes matters worse is that there is a lot of attention to detail for small things that are ultimately insignificant to the gameplay. At the beginning of a race, the cars will be pumping out fuel from their exhaust pipes and the fumes will be visible, rising slowly and creating a distortion. There’s also the way the brake calipers will turn orange when braking hard enough. They’re pretty neat visuals. But that’s all they are: visuals. And they betray the overall lack of clear focus or creative prioritisation – if Midas creates games on a budget, then the key to being economical with it is expelling your energy into what’s most important. It is rather cool that the brake calipers turn orange when braking hard enough and that the fuel coming out of the cars’ exhaust pipes will create a heat distortion on screen but if the cars don’t respond to changes in surfaces or to varying intensities of bends then why should I care? Interesting visuals can never meaningfully substitute shallow gameplay.
Other things I noticed were what’s missing, specifically the lap display. There’s no on-screen indication of how many laps there are in a race. There’s a lap counter telling me how many laps I’ve completed so far but none telling me how many there are in total. Was it intentional? Why would something like that be excluded? It’s basic information to the player telling them how long they have left to either take or maintain the lead. In a racing game, it’s the the player’s way of measuring how close they are to achieving the objective of winning the race. Yet, Golden Age of Racing doesn’t have one so its player has no perspective.
Another thing missing is pitting. There are pit lanes that can be driven-down but there are no pit teams in them so it’s just an empty strip of track. This is a great visual metaphor of the overall approach to the development of the game, for something so basic as pitting in a track-based racing game to be absent. I think that’s the major problem with the game: it’s empty. It includes visual gimmicks but the core gameplay is devoid of any fundamentals. It’s a Formula One game that was developed by people who, frankly, don’t seem to have known what they were really doing so lacks anything which makes Formula One what it is.
This likely also explains why the Formula One cars in actuality drive like touring cars. Touring cars are primarily designed for oval racing, which is why they don’t corner well. The cars in Golden Age of Racing drive like touring cars, with turning lines that are more suited to oval tracks like Daytona. Also, they flip with the slightest collision – literally, they flip up into the air if they touch another car… if they don’t drive straight up and over them instead. Hit one of them hard enough when it’s against a wall and it’ll shoot straight up into space. They also respawn if you get them into an inconvenient position. What a nerve!
Even the AI cars driving around during the menu screens will crash. There’s no down-force so I felt as though my car could take off at any moment, which also led to having less overall grip.
This isn’t a case of being overly ambitious, more of ambition being misaligned. Midas wanted to create a Formula One racing game on a budget but weren’t economical. The attention to detail was prioritised over the foundations and, as a result, the overall design is unbalanced, making for a game that is good at the little things but completely fails where it matters. If you’re a fan of Formula One, this won’t provide any of the reasons for that but, hey, you might think the heat effects are pretty cool.
It turns out I really wasn’t mis-remembering it. A Golden Age of Racing this is not.
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com. He’s also one of the Well-Red Mage’s deputy editors and maintains the Archives. This is a side-project he’s working on while he finishes his novel.
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Categories: Racing Column