Hands-On Preview: Auto Club Revolution
If you’re a fan of sim racers, then I think you can agree with me when I say that there can never be too many PC sim racers out on the market. The more the merrier. I like having options, and I absolutely love looking at my computer screen and thinking to myself “Hmmm…..which one shall I play today?”
There certainly isn’t any shortage of PC sims: iRacing. rFactor. SimRaceway. Project CARS. A bunch more that I can’t think of right now. You even have all the console styled “pseudo-sims” on PC as well, like DiRT 3, F1, GRID, etc. And now, Auto Club Revolution.
ACR is a free-to-play game that offers up a few pretty unique features for a FtP game. First off, there is a complete single player component with AI opponents. That’s not typically something you see for free in a FtP racer, where the focus is mostly on multiplayer with the odd time trail thrown in for those who don’t like people. In ACR, races against the AI come standard. That’s pretty awesome, considering the amount of races you can do right off the bat without ever having to spend a penny.
Regardless, you’re going to want to spend some dough, whether it’s of the virtual variety, real money, or both (as is the case with most FtP games). ACR is packed with nothing but licensed cars; everything from a VW Beetle to the Bugatti Veyron. A variety of real world tracks are also used, in addition to a smattering of fictitious ones. Fan faves like Silverstone and Spa make an appearance here.
The first thing you’ll notice right off the bat is the fact that ACR launches in a similar manner to the PC version of Battlefield 3. I know a lot of people don’t like having to be constrained to Steam or Origin when they play a game, and it was an even greater disappointment when BF3 fans had an additional layer to jump through before playing the game; going through the BattleLog website. Why BattleLog was not integrated into Origin is beyond me, but I digress. With ACR, not only must you launch the game through the website (via a launcher), but virtually everything related to your cars and profile are also handled through the site. In essence, everything other than the actual racing is done via the website.
At first glance, that’s pretty off-putting. No one wants to deal with a website. However, if you really think about, the way ACR does things actually saves some time. Think of any FtP racing sim; whether it be SimRaceway or Project CARS. To buy cars or access your profile in those games, what do you need to do? You access an in game portal. What does that portal essentially do? It opens up a browser overlay and takes you to the correct website. All that’s happening here in ACR is that an extra step is being eliminated. Rather than popping in and out of the game via an in-game portal, you take care of everything you need to take care of short of the actual racing all in one place. Then, whenever you’re ready to take it to the track, launch the game.
I won’t say it’s BETTER; but I certainly did not mind as much as I thought I would. This is because the ACR website where everything is located is very well designed. It functions not only as a hub for all your pre/post-race needs, but it also happens to be a thriving social network at the same time. It made me WANT to be there.
I had a chance to sit down with the developers of the game, and was told that one of the key things that ACR wanted to accomplish was the successful melding of a console/PC racer with a social game that you might find on Facebook. Console/PC racers look and play great, but don’t exactly have a thriving social community. Sure you have forums like GT Planet that are insanely popular, but that isn’t handled in game; it’s a completely separate entity. On the flipside, a Facebook browser game has the full power of the social network behind, but calling it a “game” is kind of a stretch. ACR manages to create a nice blend of the two.
Developed by Eutechnyx, ACR is certainly coming from a beefy racing pedigree. Founded in 1987, Eutechnyx is responsible for a variety of racing games; most recently NASCAR the Game: Inside Line, but also titles such as Big Mutha Truckers, Ferrari Challenge, and Test Drive Le Mans. They certainly are no stranger to the racing genre, and it shows in ACR. In fact, having played NASCAR The Game: Inside Line, I noticed more than a few similarities, from the way the cars handle to some HUD elements.
Since the website is the first thing you’ll have to navigate through, we’ll start with that. You’re going to need to jump through the typical hoops; download the Race App and sign up with an account. Pretty basic stuff here. Next, you´re going to notice a variety of tabs along the top with options like Auto Clubs, Race Hangout, My Account, Workshop, Showroom, and Leaderboards. Auto Club is obviously where you sign up for an auto club. Unlike many other racing games where joining an auto club simply nets you a nice looking badge and the chance to be in a club with some buddies, an auto club in ACR actually gets you some pretty nice in-game bonuses. In an auto club there is the concept of a pot, which all members work towards to gain some massive in-game credits. For instance, this week the pot might be earn 35,000 XP (where all members will work towards this goal). If the goal is met, then you get a hefty bonus of 100,000 credits. I love this aspect of the auto club and it will actually give me a good reason to come back and work towards the pot.
My Account is also pretty self-explanatory; this is where you set up your profile and also a variety of in-game settings such as the HUD and assist options. Race Hangout is a multiplayer lobby/matchmaking area. The Workshop is where you do all your visual and performance upgrades for your car. The Showroom is where you buy new cars. And the Leaderboards are…the leaderboards.
The remainder of the homepage (which makes up the bulk of the page), are areas where you can set up single player or multiplayer races, your achievement list, daily challenges, your profile badge, featured cars, and a variety of news and updates. Along the bottom, you have a strip where you have your inbox, friends list, a quick car select tab, and chat. Everything you need is right there on the website, and you’ll be setting up all your preferences so that when you DO start racing, you can stay in the race.
Would I have preferred some of these options in the game itself? Of course; I would love to be able to do some race options tweaking and switch cars in-game, but who knows, perhaps that’s coming in a later patch. As of now, it’s really no skin off my back to return to the website to do all this stuff since I enjoy spending time in the site so much.
So the gameplay….this is really where ACR will live or die. How is it? As of now, it’s fairly well done with a lot of room for improvement and a few interesting quirks that I still need to get used to. First of all, if you are experienced with sim racers at all, turn off the assists. All of them. I left a little bit of traction control on when I use the Xbox 360 PC controller since some of the controls are a bit twitchy (more on that later). If you happen to be using a racing wheel, you might as well turn it all off since you have all that added control.
With assists on, the game becomes too easy. One of my biggest beefs in any racing game is when one of the assists is Assisted Braking. I understand for someone who has NEVER DRIVEN BEFORE where that might be helpful, but if you have that on with traction and stability control you’re going to 1) barely need to control your car since there’s no way you’re ever going to screw up, and 2) understeer EVERYWHERE. This is mostly the fault of Assisted Braking, since you’ll throw yourself into a turn, hoping for a little oversteer and a little slide in the back end, but the assist will brake for you, and you’ll struggle to turn as sharply. Bad bad bad.
There’s also a lot of twitchiness when you try to correct yourself. Let’s say you rip the wheel a bit too far to one side and you feel yourself starting to lose control. If you counter-steer to correct yourself, you‘ll more than likely encounter a very pronounced twitch where your car will basically jerk violently and start spinning in the other direction. Counter-steering is a bit too sensitive because of this, and leads to more race-ending mistakes than I would care for. This is not to say that I’m some sort of racing god; obviously I put the blame on my own skills just as much. But as someone who’s driven on a track in a supercar before and was forced to make quick corrections due to some aggressive oversteer, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here typing right now if the game’s physics were at play in my real-life experiences.
Part of the twitchiness might have something to do with the weight distribution of the car models. I can’t say for certain since I’m not one of the developers of the game, but the cars seem to turn from a center pivot point as opposed to from the wheels. I noticed this in NASCAR The Game, and it seems to have translated over to ACR as well. Whether or not the same game engine was used remains to be seen, but with a center pivot point, that will affect the weight distribution of the individual cars, which in turn will affect handling. As it stands, even though each car handles uniquely, each of the cars feels very “boaty,” almost like they were all built on the classic Cadillac platform. It’s strange to see an Opel Corsa look so boaty. Regardless of assists, you better pray you don’t accidentally nudge the control and send your car into nearly uncontrollable rocking motion form side to side. Regaining control and straightening out is a hell of a task once you’ve started rocking around.
For the most part, however, the game controls quite well. Since Eutechnyx actually worked with car manufacturers in the design of the cars in-game, each car has a very distinct handling style and a very noticeable sense of weight…all weird center pivot issues aside. I like that a VW Golf doesn’t feel the same as a Nissan GT-R. One of the reasons why I suggest turning the assists off is because you’ll notice a difference between FWD, RWD, and AWD cars. FWD cars handle with a degree of understeer, and RWD drive cars will wiggle their back ends if you steer too dramatically. It’s very realistic and should please fans of sim racers. If they can get the twitchiness sorted out, this would be one of the best handling racing sims I’ve seen in quite some time.
While there aren’t as many cars and tracks as, say, something like Gran Turismo 5, ACR does boast a fairly impressive lineup, made even more impressive by the fact that more can be added at any time. There are over 50 cars in the game at this point, every single one of them licensed. A small nitpick I have that I would like to see addressed sometime down the road is adding the model year to each car. As of now, a Chevy Camaro is just a Chevy Camaro. While a gearhead would probably be able to just look at a car and tell you what year it is, not everyone can make those distinctions. In the case of many of these cars, the model year can mean a great deal of difference in power and handling. A 2013 GT500 is leaps and bounds more powerful than, say, a 2008 GT500. There are also 25 tracks (this is including multiple variations of the same track) with a good mixture of real-world and fictional locations. None of the tracks (so far) are locked or need to be purchased, so technically, as long as you have one car handy, you can tear around on any of the tracks.
Graphically, the game is pretty impressive, but it’s clear that this game is still in beta. While the background environments look fine when whizzing by in a car, a lot of pixilation sticks out even with the game on the highest settings. The car models all look decent enough, though somewhat plain. It’s surprisingly difficult to add racing stripes to cars that typically have them, like a Challenger SRT8 or Ford GT, but that’s more of a personal thing than anything. As long as you don’t mind putting some time and effort into the Workshop, you should be able to replicate any design for any of the cars. Sound quality is excellent, as the game is just LOUD. I like that; I like racing games that sound violent. When you’re at the starting line and you hear engines roaring in your speakers, it’s pretty awesome. One thing I really like about ACR is that fact that there isn’t a soundtrack. Nothing annoys me more than playing a sim racer and having “oomph oomph oomph” thumping around in the background. All I hear are engine sounds and the squeal of tires…as it should be.
For an unfinished game, ACR is doing a lot of things right. As an online-always FtP racer, more and more features can be added almost on a non-stop basis. That’s exciting to think about, and we’ll be keeping a very close eye on this game throughout its lifespan. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s young, raw, and hungry. Let’s see what some time does for this game.
auto club revolution