You’re haring around a field in a million-dollar Ferrari LaFerrari, a car with a ground clearance of 104mm. Its 800HP engine generates 516lb-ft of torque on the damp grassland below your rear tyres, churning up earth like an industrial digger. It’s a fantastically impractical way to look for vintage cars in old barns.
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You’re doing this because in 2011, Test Drive Unlimited 2 included a host of ‘wreck locations’ across its open-world map. Seek them out inside a vague circle on your mini-map, and you’d be rewarded with a secret car unavailable for purchase elsewhere.
The mechanic showed up in The Crew too, as Hidden Vehicles. It worked the exact same way, and developers Ivory Tower had every right to implement it so unashamedly because many on the team had previously worked at Eden Games, who made Test Drive Unlimited 2. Now, a few years down the road, Barn Finds in Forza Horizon 3 are just part of the open-world racing game’s blueprint. Sometimes you look for old cars in fields, it’s a fact of life.
Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios have a magpie approach that extends well beyond that particular feature, however. Rewinds? Lifted from Codemasters’ F1 2010. Points streaks for racing into oncoming traffic? Burnout. Drift events? Need For Speed Underground. Online co-op cruising? Yep, Test Drive Unlimited 2 again. Epic race route around the whole world map for a massive pay day? Test Drive Unlimited 1 this time. Microscopically detailed car upgrades like engine air filters? Gran Turismo. And you could go on.
But none of that matters, does it? Because Forza Horizon 3 does it all better.
I suppose that’s true of any genre, that you can pilfer the best features from other games if you improve on them. But nowhere else is the practice more transparent than in racing games. Perhaps it’s because no one plays a racer for its story; instead handling model and activity design take centre stage so there’s much more room to be derivative. In Assassin’s Creed the story and mechanics are interwoven, rationalised and contextualised by each other, so they’d be all the more conspicuous if they showed up elsewhere in isolation.
More than that, you’d play Assassin’s Creed for its story. No one plays Forza Horizon 3 because they’re into the peculiar power fantasy of operating and expanding a motorsports festival across south Australia. You’re here for the feeling of driving a car, so it hardly matters where the excuses to do that driving have come from. It’s about the core experience.
Still, it makes you think differently about the fatally flawed and wildly ambitious Test Drive Unlimited games. Without them, we’d have no formula for the open-world connected racer. Playground Games et al are more than capable of arriving at game concepts like Barn Finds of their own accord, but without the likes of Eden Games sending a canary down the mine years previously they’d be designing them blind, increasing the chances that those fresh individual elements would feel as rough and ready in their final product as they did in – well, Test Drive Unlimited.
But where’s the next brave big-budget racer going to come from? One with a bag of exciting but necessarily half-baked ideas? That’s the worrying bit. Forza Horizon 3 is brave in its own way for pulling together the good bits of racing games as they’ve existed for the last decade or so, but it’s had two prior efforts to refine the formula, and curating good ideas isn’t the same as actually pioneering them.
The output of the genre has changed noticeably in the last few years, but the changes to the industry behind it have been much more profound. As so-called ‘double-A’ titles fell of the map in all genres, racing games lost a tier of titles characterised by Blur, Ridge Racer Unbounded and Split/Second, where good ideas were germinated. If they were really, really good, they might even find their way into the following year’s annual Need For Speed release.
Now it’s 2016, and even Need For Speed seems to be struggling with redundancy after a series reboot that seemed to stall on release. The increasing importance of licensed vehicles – loads of them – and rapidly accelerating cost of triple-A development means that few studios can actually afford to put out racers aimed at the mass market.
But there’s a new path for innovation in the genre. Indie development has never had a particularly burgeoning range of racing titles, but it has its moments: Audiosurf, Beam.NG Drive, Rocket League, Car Mechanic Simulator et al all look at cars and racing differently and deliver a fundamentally new style of gameplay riffing on the same broad theme. It’s harder to track their uptake in triple-A racers, because apart from anything else there are fewer triple-A racers around whose DNA to analyse. But the innovation’s happening, and it’s there for studios like Playground if they want to channel it.
Folding that back to an earlier point, does it matter how transparently ideas are osmosed into Forza Horizon 3 and its kin? Look, after years of being a game critic and still more of being a sarky twat, I’m the first person to pick a fault in something – anything – but I don’t have any problem with the practice of triple-A idea curating. Forza Horizon 3 hoovered up the good bits from older triple-As and those now extinct second-tier titles to great effect – it’s the best PC racer of its type for absolutely ages. What would Horizon 4 be like if it cast its net even wider and looked towards the indie scene for inspiration? Everyone knows wider gene pools are good for the survival of the species, after all.