Even better than the real thing

Increasing numbers of racing drivers claim to use PC and Playstation games as a way of learning their way around new circuits. But is it same as, or even a close approximation of, the real thing? Our resident real racer Ben Evans takes the top titles for a spin??????

This is a slightly contentious issue and each driver has their own opinion. Some, like Jacques Villeneuve, are practically married to their consoles (although it is understood that his XBox is looking to replace him if his performances do not improve). Others, like Juan Pablo Montoya enjoy their gaming but acknowledge its limitations.

The two biggest factors that any gamer-cum-racer takes into consideration are circuit modelling and car handling. The latter is fairly easy to deal with as, practically without exception, no game has yet come close to matching the handling of a racing car.

I know that they make very fancy steering wheels these days, but even so they are too remote and nervous. The brute strength required for real racing is replaced by very gentle nudges of the wheel.

As a general criticism, the handling on most games is too sensitive. The slightest touch of the controller will see your pixellated chariot executing an unplanned U-turn. TOCA Race Driver 2 has a Formula Ford mode and having spent a season racing similar cars I can comfortably say that there is no comparison. My PS2 Formula Ford feels nothing like the real one. Obviously this is to be expected to an extent, but to be perfectly honest the handling dynamic was totally different.

According to its creators, Gran Turismo 4 is supposed to represent handling accuracy and, whilst not perfect, the Caterham in the game is not dissimilar to its real life counterpart and nor is the Lotus Elise, both of which have very distinctive characters. For driving realism, GT4 is as good as it gets on the Playstation.

On the PC, Grand Prix 4 isn’t bad, but the best (and most recent) racing simulator has to be GTR – a sports car simulator with a popular online following.

The best application that such games have for real racing drivers are for learning new circuits, which is where circuit modelling is of paramount importance. Again TOCA Race Driver 2 fails in this respect. While some circuits such as Oulton Park and Brands Hatch captures the gradient of the respective circuits fairly well, the electronic Oulton is too wide and not as scary as its real life counterpart, and Paddock Hill bend PS2-style is nowhere near steep enough.

The class leader for geographical accuracy has to be Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 4 – though deficient in other areas, its satellite-map-modelled tracks are breathtakingly real. Monaco is just as fearsome as it should be.

The now-slightly-aged Grand Prix Legends deserves a mention here too, for being the first game to recreate the fearsome Nurburgring Nordschliefe. Utter purists will accept nothing less than Papyrus’ classic 1967 F1 simulator and a massive network of ‘modders’ have procuded additional cars and tracks for download.

Many F1 rookies turn to GP games to learn their way around the tracks. While no computer modelling can ever be totally comprehensive, these games are great for finding out where and when the circuit goes left and right, or up and down.

However, computer games have come in for criticism, with some veteran drivers feeling that the games’ lack of penalties for over-exuberent driving has been translated onto the track. Certainly the damage modelling on these games is often poor. You can happily drive into other cars all afternoon and receive no penalty. Gran Turismo 4 has been rightly criticised for having no damage modelling, to spare the manufacturers’ blushes, while other games allow the player to do stuff you simply cannot do in real life.

Of course if it were as hard to overtake and the penalties as severe for ‘offs’ as they are in reality all games would be too hard. Whilst I agree that there is a ‘Playstation’ attitude amongst some drivers, one must also consider that racing cars today as so comparatively safe that many competitors feel immune to the risks.

Despite these complaints you would have to be a moron not to realise that stunts pulled from the comfort of the armchair cannot be replicated on the track.

Instead what racing games do is bring the excitement of the track to people’s front room and ultimately glamorise the sport. Only with a very few games do you have to (or get to) pound around in testing to check a new aero package or suspension settings – ideal for aome, anathema to others.

Likewise it is rare for a microchip Grand Prix to turn into a 70 lap procession. From a personal point of view, I have used games to learn my way around new circuits and to get a feeling for the gearing for each corner. However, I play games for fun and as quite a distinctive entity from racing and I certainly never try my Playstation moves on the track.

So what conclusion can we draw about racing games? Well, firstly they’re damn good fun and I have yet to find a more enjoyable way to be horribly antisocial. Secondly they are increasingly accurate at replicating the real thing. The circuit modelling on some of the newer games is astounding. But, thirdly they are just games and in no way offer a compelling simulation. I know that there are increasing numbers of expensive simulators that promise to be as good as reality, but trust me, they are not. In short, games are really good fun, but if I had the money in my pocket to either buy a new game or go karting, the latter would win every time.

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