Sunday, January 27, 2013

Racing Game Analysis

In the interests of continuing research, I'd like to take a moment to discuss one of my favorite racing games. It's not a next-gen graphical powerhouse from a major studio, and it's not a timeless arcade classic. It's a five year old browser-based game that was made by one dude. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Need for Madness:

This is the simple brilliance of Need for Madness: you can win the game either by finishing the race first, or by wrecking all of the other cars. This is a system I haven't seen anywhere else. Games like Need for Speed will reward you with points for big crashes, and "battle mode" has been around at least since Super Mario Kart... you even have Twisted Metal, which abandoned racing entirely to focus on killing people while in cars. But Need for Madness is the only game I know of that provides both options for winning at the same time. So let's look at some of the various elements of the game, how they reinforce these disparate win conditions, and how the presence of these two different play-styles enhance each other.

Need for Madness runs the gamut of racing vehicles. If it's got four wheels, you can drive it. Each vehicle is ranked by six different stats that determine its speed, agility and strength. More than in any other game, the type of car you pick matters, because you have different needs depending on whether you're trying to wreck everyone else, or outrun the guys trying to wreck you.

The tracks are laid out much more differently than in your typical racer as well: in Need for Madness, the road itself is more of a suggestion than a strict course. A series of checkpoint gates keep the racers on track, but the battlers are free to move about any which way they like, which gives them a pretty big advantage when hunting down opponents. And of course the astute racer can always get a leg up by cutting corners.

Having a big open space is also important for this game because the physics are absolutely ridiculous. Take a hit from another player or go off of a jump wrong, and you can find yourself careening clear to the other side of the map.

During the game, there's two meters to keep track of in the upper-right hand corner: the Damage meter and the Power meter. Damage is exactly what it sounds like, Power is a little more interesting. It's somewhat akin to fuel, in that it slowly depletes over time and you need it to make your car go, but it's not quite as simple as that. Having more power makes your car go faster, and also makes you more resistant to damage, which means power is a vital commodity whether you're racing or battling.

To keep your power up, you have to perform stunts: whenever you go off a jump, you can use the arrow keys while in midair to make your car pitch and roll in various directions. The more elaborate the stunt, the greater the power boost. But if you mess it up and don't land properly, you get no power and are temporarily incapacitated, which will not only put you behind in the race, but makes you a prime target for any nearby aggressors.

This constant need for players to fuel themselves with stunts has a number of important benefits in terms of gameplay and player interaction. First, it breaks up the play by allowing the player a small reprieve, letting you just enjoy tumbling through the air for a while. Second, it turns the ramps into vital hotspots: they guide racers along the track, and can create a bottleneck effect despite the game space otherwise being a big, flat empty square. For battlers, it provides an important strategic element. A battler can always be sure to find cars near a ramp, and, whether a player successfully lands his jump or not, the moment after a car finishes a jump is the best time to attack.

The other important point of interest is the healing ring. When a player jumps through the ring, their health is completely restored. There's never more than one ring, although on some tracks there isn't one at all, so it's placement makes a big difference. A racer low on health has to consider whether he can last until the track takes him back through the hoop again, or if he has to cut across to heal and then get back to the race. Occasionally the ring is actually off of the track completely, necessitating a racer take a detour if he has to heal. At the same time, a cruel battler can just loiter near the ring waiting for easy prey, so trying to heal yourself can be a dangerous task in its own right.

One thing I haven't really touched on yet is the fact that in trying to win, it's not such an either/or situation. It's totally possible to start out wrecking cars, and then go finish the race once you've eliminated the tough competition. Maybe you were trying to run a clean race, but you just can't break out of second place: take a moment to smash the first place holder, and then glide your way to victory.

Or maybe you just look up and notice that there's only one or two other cars left, so you abandon the track to go smash their faces for a quicker win.

What's so beautiful about this game is the way that the two competing play styles complement each other so elegantly; each becomes more deep and engaging than it is on its own, simply by being juxtaposed with the other. It really is a stroke of genius. Hey, I mentioned this is a free browser-based game, right? You should go play it right now. That is all.