Motor City Online Updated Preview

We take a look at the latest build of EA's online driving game.

This is the first menu you'll see after creating your character and buying your first car.

Ever since the concept of a persistent world proved to be a key ingredient in the success of many games, developers have been scrambling to incorporate it into genres that are otherwise stagnant or lacking innovation. Electronic Arts has opted to reinvigorate the driving genre with Motor City Online, a game that lets you race against other players. Of course, you won't be able to jump right in and adequately compete against the best drivers right away. In fact, you'll spend hours driving in an old rusted bucket, raising your level and earning more money, before you really feel comfortable racing against any sort of competition.

Your first car definitely won't look as good as this one.

To call Motor City Online an online driving RPG wouldn't be a false description, as Motor City shares much in common with the role-playing genre. At the beginning of the game, you can create an online avatar from a selection of more than ten different characters, ranging from punk rockers and beatniks to greasers and brawlers. None of the characters actually have an effect on your driving skills or the initial group of cars you can select from, but they certainly make your online persona more vivid. After you select a character, you can change the color of its hair, skin, and clothes--then you're off to buy your very first car.

As you might expect, the first set of cars is nothing to get excited about, as most of them are around 50 years old and badly rusted, though you can choose from a few inexpensive paint jobs right away to mask the car's decaying exterior. This first group of cars includes a 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air, a 1957 Ford Fairlane, and a 1957 Ford Ranchero. All have plenty of horsepower, but their heavy weight prevents you from taking on opponents with lighter and faster vehicles. When you add a customized license plate, it's time to roll into Motor City.

The development team at EA wanted to make the interface for Motor City as simple as possible, so at the very least, those who are familiar with Web browsers can navigate through various menus and options with ease. Your avatar appears on the left side of the screen along with the amount of money in your account, your insurance liability, and your level, which determines the amount of money you earn in your weekly paycheck. The three bars underneath that information give a quick glimpse at your car's structural integrity and whether or not it needs to be brought into the shop for repairs. In the center of the screen, there's more general information on your current status as well as listings of links to different sections of the game, such as car auctions and parts as well as the actual racing area.

Start Your Engines

You can participate in several different types of races.

There are six types of races you can participate in: street racing, circuit racing, drag racing, open trials, sponsored trials, and test drive. Street racing is generally the hardest type of race to compete in if you're new to the game because of the complexity of the courses. For example, one of the first tracks accessible to low-level characters--WestBrook--looks like an easy oval track, but it's filled with sets of narrow roads that make it difficult to navigate through without getting a single scratch on your car. But a solid performance in a street race usually reaps a nice reward.

If you perform well, you'll be rewarded with cash and experience points.

Circuit racing is probably the easiest multiple-lap race that includes actual competition, because the first tracks are basic ovals with turns that you can take at nearly full speed. However, the three other competitors on the track--both human and computer controlled--can still make life difficult for you by pushing you into walls or clipping the back of your car, causing you to spin out. Unfortunately, in the current build of the game, if you're a level-one character, many of your races are against players with level-four or level-five characters with more money and better cars. It's very difficult to place well and win a significant reward in this situation. Once you reach level two, it's easier to place well, because you can set limits on races by permitting only level-two drivers.

Drag racing can be a less-than-rewarding endeavor. Two cars line up at the stripe, and when the light turns green, you floor the accelerator until you hit the end of the strip. It sounds easy, and it is, but if you're not in a sponsored race, it might take a while before you can win a good amount of money and experience points.

If you prefer to go at a slower pace to become familiar with the controls and generally how the game operates, it's best to jump right into the time trials. There are two types of time trials that you can participate in: open and sponsored. Open trials let you race your own car on a completely open track with no opponents in an attempt to set a new record for that particular track. Successfully completing the track before times runs out results in a nice chunk of cash and experience points, but if you place within the top three before a specified time, then you can win up to $5,000 and 1000 experience points. Sponsored trials are a little more fun because you get to drive some of the nicer cars in the game, such as the Pontiac GTO, without spending any cash. Both modes are helpful for getting to know the game and slowly increasing your level to gain some cash for car upgrades.

Those familiar with EA's Need for Speed series probably won't have to spend too much time practicing, because Motor City Online feels so similar to that game. It's not quite a simulation, but it has enough realistic elements to actually test your driving skills. The graphics are also similar in style to those in the Need for Speed games, but you'll definitely notice that the cars and tracks lack some finer details, which is more than likely for multiplayer synching purposes.

The community in Motor City Online is already quite strong. Players are already engaging in car auctions and other forms of exchange for better cars and parts. There are also a surprisingly large number of clubs that can challenge each other for control over tracks within the Motor City universe. There are still a number of problems with cheaters taking advantage of bugs in the current build, and there are some minor server stability issues, but EA should be able to iron those out before Motor City Online's October 23 release.

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