Racing titles within the Free-to-Play space have never quite had the widespread fame their console counterparts have enjoyed over the years. The keyboard, is no doubt partly to blame, as it does the job for most genres, but often falls flat when it comes to steering anything with realistic physics.
Sure, there have been a few moderately successful attempts at producing big name F2P racing titles like 2010’s Need for Speed World. While standalone race titles have only grown since then, in F2P it has practically stagnated, leading F2P racing enthusiasts into a dark age of sorts.
Enter Slightly Mad Studios, the development studio based in London with a knack for working on race titles. Founded in 2009, the developers at Slightly Mad have many years experience working on games such as GTR, GT Legends, Need For Speed Shift series, and Test Drive. More recently, the studio has drawn quite a buzz with Project CARS, a next-gen sim racer which the studio has been using crowd-source funding to develop alongside their fans without the support of a publisher. To say these guys are passionate about racing would be a gross understatement.
Project CARS is set to break a lot of rules, mainly those that dictate how a race sim should be made, but Slightly Mad isn’t stopping there. The studio recently invited me to preview another upcoming title of theirs, the previously unannounced World of Speed. Unlike the more sim-heavy Project CARS, World of Speed is billed as an AAA action-racing MMO. In practice, this means the gameplay sits somewhere between Need for Speed and Forza. Not quite hardcore racer, but not quite arcade either.
I should preface my experience with World of Speed by saying that while I am a racing fan, I personally am not a fan of race simulators. Growing up I found myself gravitating more towards the Need for Speed’s and arcade racers of old such as Initial D. With World of Speed, Slightly Mad is aiming to appeal to a broader audience. “You don’t have to be good at driving to be good at driving in World of Speed.” Pete Morrish, Lead Producer at Slightly Mad told me. “What’s more, you don’t even have to come in first to win.”
World of Speed diverges from the usual formula whereby racers are simply judged by podium placement and lap times. Of course, the system makes sense from a competitive perspective, as this is how real world races are judged. However, World of Speed is aiming at tackling two challenges that face most racing titles these days.
The first challenge deals with crashing early in the race while the second focuses around only podium placements receiving rewards. In a competitive racer, an early crash usually spells the end of any hope for a podium placement and gives little incentive to continue the race. In WoS, everything a player pulls off during a race contributes to his overall driver score. This driver score then directly contributes to their overall progression no matter their final placement. Some examples of actions that contribute to the driver’s score include mastering an area of the track, overtaking an opponent without crashing into them, or preventing certain teammates from taking any damage the whole race. Yes, I said teammates.
WoS focuses less on a player’s individual skill, and more on his team’s overall cohesion in a team racing environment. While podium placement is still tracked, each player is assigned to one of two teams. During the race, each team will have their own set of objectives which are deemed necessary in order to pull off a successful victory. “It’s not about just coming first, its about working as a team in order to come in first” says Morrish. “It is not just about 8 players getting across the line, it’s about your team working together to achieve another goal in a contest of a race.”
There were three different control schemes setup to use during our play session including the standard keyboard, an Xbox 360 controller, and a full racing wheel. As a PC gamer first and foremost, I found the keyboard controls surprisingly agile in comparison. Cars handle with weight, and turning is an exercise in forethought and planning, almost too much. Cars felt a little like unwieldy bags of bricks in corners, and I (along with other journalists) found ourselves wrestling to remain in control. This was further compounded by the soft handbrake, which didn’t seem to apply enough stopping pressure until it was too much. Because WoS is in Pre-Alpha, I am willing to forgive its stiff controls for now on the basis that the game is still in the early stages of tuning. The balance between realism and arcade certainly falls more towards arcade which is further argued by the inclusion of a boost function.
The hard requirement for teams to complete non-placement objectives, is quite the departure from the usual lone wolf mentality players tend to take in most competitive racers for obvious reasons. Slightly Mad says players should find themselves taking on specific roles like blockers, wingmans, and drifters in order to tackle these objectives. During our 45-minutes with WoS, I didn’t immediately notice these roles taking shape and I didn’t feel team objectives were communicated clearly as they seemed to only show up onscreen occasionally and without clear context. However, due to the pre-alpha nature of the build that feature may not have been fully realized yet. What this ultimately meant though, was that I still felt as though I was competing on my own instead of with my teamates.
Visually, WoS is stunning. Slightly Mad wouldn’t say how much Project CARS and WoS shared tech, only that they did to some extent. WoS possessed little in the way of vehicle destructibility found in other race sims, but the developers did say it had been dialed down somewhat for the demo. The studio’s attention to detail really shines through not only in the cars, but also the track locations. The development team lived in each location for weeks while the y took visual references in order to recreate the area in incredible detail. Tracks are made of real world streets within each city with some early locations listed including London, Monaco, and Moscow.
Outside of the races themselves lies an entire social network structure built to support the game in several MMO-like ways. Players may join “clubs” (the game’s equivalent of clans) which can challenge other clubs for control over specific race tracks. By winning the race, the victorious club gains ownership of that location and access to its club house. Others who race on the track will see the winning clubs name and branding.
Club houses are one of the only areas players will be able to walk around as their actual avatars. It also serves as a social garage where players can show off their cars. For those who prefer to show off inside their cars an airfield is available for players to, as the developers put it, “act like hooligans”. Mentions of additional clan focused gameplay including expanded modes and territory wars are said to be key features come launch.
Speaking of launch, Slightly Mad says WoS will launch in 2014 with an ever expanding -but unannounced- roster of diverse vehicles. The studio intends to offer no paid for competitive advantages because as Morrish put it, “only a maniac would irritate its fanbase like that”. Instead, players should expect everything performance related to be earned with ingame credits, while cosmetic-only items can be purchased with real currency.
My time with World of Speed was short, but it left a lasting impression that has me anxious to see what kind of community the team at Slightly Mad can build around such a socially focused racing title. Between Project CARS and now WoS, Slightly Mad has quite a plate in front of them. From what I can tell so far, they seem to have come prepared, having already shown themselves capable of building a dedicated community, with whom they engage regularly. Slightly Mad isn’t just building a one dimensional racing title, its attempting to build a platform from which it can expand WoS into several directions for years to come.
Slightly Mad is now accepting beta applications for World of Speed on the official site.
By Michael Dunaway