With the exception of the Need for Speed series, arcade-style racing games have never been a big hit on the PC. While games like Gran Turismo 3 are enormously popular on console systems, the popularity just doesn't cross over to the PC market. Instead, racing games on the PC have tended toward the hard-core simulations, such as Papyrus's excellent NASCAR series. But Razorworks Studios, which is best known for helicopter sims like Apache Havoc and Enemy Engaged, is hoping to change that trend with Total Immersion Racing. Blending arcade fun with realistic artificial intelligence and physics, Total Immersion Racing could prove to be a best-of-both-worlds hybrid.
Iain Hancock, producer of Total Immersion Racing, sees Gran Turismo 3 as the primary competition. And with good reason--Gran Turismo 3 was both widely praised and wildly popular. But instead of trying to emulate the competition, Razorworks decided to focus on improving upon certain common faults in arcade-style racing games. "We decided that it was a fallacy to try to get too many licenses, too many cars in there," Hancock said. "It would be better to spend our development dollars trying to make the physics believable. Instead of a simple arcade game, or a full-on sim game, we wanted to try and find a happy medium."
That's not to say that Total Immersion Racing won't have top-of-the line cars. In fact, it will have 14 of them, all GT-class vehicles. Among them you'll find the BMW M3, the Noble M12, and the Audi GT. And though it is a GT racing game, don't expect marathon sessions. "GT races tend be 12 hours or 24 hours, and that's not so much fun," Hancock said. Total Immersion Racing will cut those down to much more manageable sessions. This decision affected which vehicles Razorworks' chose to include, because GT cars are built for long hauls. "We had a bit of a bias toward the fun cars," Hancock said.
The cars have been modeled with an almost obsessive attention to detail. A tour of the modeling area at Razorworks includes expensive miniatures, expensive equipment for digitizing the information, and lots of discussion about obtaining the actual CAD data from the manufacturers.
The Total Immersion Racing team is nothing if not obsessed with realism. The car modeling is just the tip of the iceberg. They've also used the original architectural plans to help model some of the game's 20 tracks, which include such real-world GT tracks as Hockenheim, Monza, and Sebring. Photo and video data were used in the process as well, which was not as easy as it may sound. "It's amazing how busy these [tracks] are," Hancock said. "You can't just go out and do a photo shoot. We had to wait six weeks to get one day at Monza. Our artist went to Hockenheim as well, and they gave him a moped. Trying to do a full racecourse on a scooter at 13 miles per hour may be one of the most depressing things ever."
Using the assembled data, the tracks have been rendered in great detail, from the geometry and the environmental scenery right down to the surface texture and the tire marks in areas where skids are common. More interestingly, the tracks in Total Immersion Racing are environments. "The environments are real," Hancock said. "They're not false tunnels. You can actually turn and look a half mile away."
Don't You Forget About Me
Hancock knows that an incredible amount of detail does not necessarily make for a good game. "Of course there's a balance," he said. "How realistic do you make it? Is it going to be fun? At that point, the artists get to grip with it and try to find the best combination of being realistic and being fun to drive."
One area where Razorworks sees no reason to scale back the realism is in the artificial intelligence. Total Immersion Racing's AI is its most interesting feature. You opponents will not only be constrained by the same physics as you are, but they will also behave and drive like human beings. To demonstrate, Hancock showed a demonstration of several computer cars rounding a slight bend. One missed the turn and did a 180, and the other cars swerved to avoid collision.
Hancock started the demonstration again. This time, the offending car made the turn. On the third demonstration, the same driver lost control at the turn, but righted the vehicle and kept going. Watching the computer drivers react to a situation as it is presented may not seem that exciting, but it's much more impressive than the perfectly controlled vehicles of most racing games. "What we're going for is the strength of the AI, to try to get challengers you can believe," Hancock said.
The computer's reactions won't be restricted to a particular race, though. Opponents will remember you from race to race, and their reactions to you on the track will be based on your behavior in past races. "We wanted to humanize the competition," Hancock said. "As you compete with them, you'll soon find that they remember your actions. If you cut someone off really badly, you may find that, two races later, when you really, really need to get past this guy--and he's been blue-flagged already, he should let you go--he just might not let you past. We wanted to get away from these on-rails games."
You'll have other characters to interact with as well. The team manager will tell you about your rivals and give you a debriefing after each race. The race engineer will give you tips while you drive, and he'll also set your car up for you. Of course, you'll have full access to dampers, tire pressure, sway bars, gearing, and so forth if you want to make the adjustments yourself.
In keeping with the "realism" theme, unlocking new vehicles won't just be a matter of meeting certain goals. The career modes in the game will allow you to unlock new vehicles by performing well and then being asked to drive for a certain team. If you perform poorly, you'll find your access to the higher-end cars rapidly dwindling.
It's clear that Razorworks is trying to make the game as engrossing as possible on a number of levels, with real environments, opponents with personality, and believable physics. If everything works as planned, Total Immersion Racing will be aptly named.