My relationship with racing games has always been a tad toxic. It’s been a love-hate thing for as long as I can remember, and it’s probably the only genre that never stuck with me through adulthood. Maybe there wasn’t enough Dukes of Hazzard in my diet to sustain whatever dwindling passion I had for cars as a kid, but the speedy alternatives to walking stopped tickling my fancy long before the beer-soaked yokels, unending laps and pretentious French accents painted an ugly impression of the sport.
Some years ago, tinkering with the pixely-classics sang a different tune; one yearly entries in countless series’ couldn’t match in tone, pitch or form. For a long while — and even recently as a critic — I blamed my road-fixed idiosyncrasies on overbearing parents who, without any regard for my social standing, insisted that my bicycle don training wheels well into humiliating ages. While I’ve since retracted much of that blame, the result is all the same: an awkward performance across virtual raceways the world over.
Well, it was an awkward performance. World of Speed, a racing MMO developed by Slighty Mad Studios (a fitting name for a company so fervently blending clashing genres) made some waves of my glacial appreciation for asphalt and engines.
My first run in with World of Speed was at GDC earlier this year. Having spent the better part of a lifetime embracing racing’s kinder offerings (the Mario Karts’ and Crash Team Racing’s of the bunch), I was intimidated by World of Speed’s semblance of simulation. It wasn’t long, though, before that cache of bias flushed from my mind, freeing me of preconceived notions and a self-prescribed fear of performing poorly in a race against strangers. That bitterness, the same one I carried for years through handfuls of arcade experiences and multiple console cycles, quickly turned into heart racing excitement. My concerns with embarrassing myself (which I’m sure I did) were instead answered with enthusiastic chuckling (both from me and the Slightly Mad team).
The following E3 showing did much of the same. My test-drive through the games various customization options — which range from kitschy decorations and team logos to body and mechanical enhancements — was the metaphorical baptism that sealed the deal; I was a born-again racing fan.
World of Speed was the first multiplayer racing game in which I didn’t feel useless. Even when trailing behind the group and kissing every wall like a romantic hunk of brick-happy steel, there was always a sense of control in my thumbs. Poorly navigating my metal machine down the turn-hugging streets of San Francisco didn’t result in the humiliating outcome I’d come to expect. I wasn’t winning, but I wasn’t losing. I was playing the game, and my efforts — worthless as they may be on the streets of Need for Speed, Forza and Gran Turismo — mattered.
Through objective completion and creative player cooperation, even a wildly faulty run in any of World of Speed’s modes can help stack enough points to overtake a competing team. Leading is swell and all, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s equally satisfying to watch as points accumulate at the top of the screen. Those achievements, be they small or large, indicate that you, your part in the race, the paint trading, speeding, swerving, crashing and sabotaging all fill an important role; a fundamental role: slicing through objectives like a car-shaped ginsu. Your contribution in World of Speed can be important regardless of your talents as a driver or position on the circuit.
There’s no need to vacillate between winning a race and simply participating in the scheme of its systems. Long-established norms (coming in first, avoiding crashes, etc.) have been replaced by the games fervid emphasis on teamwork, encouraging players to find their best-suited role on the road.
Now, don’t go thinking you can drag in last through every track. Winning is still the goal; well, it’s a goal. After all, World of Speed is a racing game and racing games are about winning races. That statement, though, stupidly obvious as it may seem, dips into nebulous territory as you dig through the various layers curiously constructing the games less-obvious systems.
There’s an MMO within World of Speed’s seams, finely stitched and suited with all the trimmings one would expect from, well, an MMO. Clubhouses, guilds, customization options and, most surprising, a raid-like system that pits competing teams against one another for track-dominance. It’s grand design, the melding of both familiar and unconventional, is greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s where World of Speed escapes the racing game paradigm, evading the genres most caustic tropes by a wide margin, carving bits and pieces of its own niche across a tired model.
You see, fairness isn’t distributed evenly in World of Speed. Pimpin’ your ride, for instance, doesn’t guarantee a win — cash investments considered and everything. Rather, securing a win boils down to your understanding of the course, your position within its program, and the team you’ve joined forces with. The same car can be customized to fit multiple classes, encouraging a group dynamic. For example: defending friendly racers by derailing opponents, speeding into the lead, or nailing every turn are all viable playstyles.
Like the objectives, which range from scraping-sides to reaching Michael Shumacher levels of course mastery, customization isn’t a straightforward matter. Speed not in your repertoire? Armor your vehicle and take a shot at car combat; knock opponents around like tin cans and help your teammates secure the win. There’s no wrong or right way to tackle a race.
Considering the mercurial nature of racing, fans should find World of Speed a real treat in action. Every track is as unpredictable as it is competitive, and where other games fail to accept the weekend-racers and first-time enthusiasts, World of Speed opens its virtual arms to all. Players of every level, class and tentative playstyle can find their calling; be it smashing and sabotaging a path for their fellow teammates, zooming down raceways like a coyoteless roadrunner, or chipping through a catalog of entertaining objectives. And while it’ll no doubt drip-feed accomplishments, cars and improvements to those unwilling to part with some coin, it’s the first racing game I’ve played that truly feels like it’s for everyone — young or old, new or experienced.